Internet diplomacy faces challenge at home

By William Matthews

February 15, 2011

Internet broadcasts and social networking services funded by the U.S. government might have helped topple autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, but now they're facing a determined adversary here at home. House Republicans' plans to cut more than $100 billion from the federal budget would lop nearly 10 percent from the $745 million budget of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. If the cut is approved, then spending by the agency that runs Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and other U.S. communications efforts aimed at promoting democracy would fall "below what you had last year," warned Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. Rep. Harold Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, hailed the cuts proposed Feb. 11 as "the largest reduction in nonsecurity discretionary spending in the history of the nation." The cuts would be to the continuing resolution that has been funding the federal government at 2010 levels since October 2010. The budget for 2011 stalled in Congress. The proposed cuts are "a massive down payment on the new Republican majority's commitment to drastically decrease discretionary funding," Rogers said. But in remarks before a BBG seminar on its role in new media and revolution, Berman said he will oppose cutting the agency's budget. "If you exempt national security from the cuts but you don't include public diplomacy in that, that's something to fight and resist," he said. The Appropriations Committee published a chart of proposed cuts listing the Broadcasting Board of Governors' share as $50 million from its current spending level of $745 million. A cut that large "would have very serious consequences for us in international broadcasting," said BBG spokeswoman Letitia King. "It is difficult to say how we would implement it." The agency already is struggling to absorb rising costs -- from rent on buildings to health insurance costs to vendors' fees -- with its budget frozen at the 2010 level, she said. The proposed cuts loom even as BBG boasts of its role in Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution and Egypt's popular uprising. BBG-sponsored Alhurra Television provided Tunisians with coverage of the public demonstrations that drove presidents from office in Tunisia and Egypt. And Alhurra was the first network to announce the imminent departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. During the turmoil, Alhurra's reputation changed, said Mohamed Al-Yahyai, host of the network's Eye on Democracy program. It went from being considered an American-run Arabic-language TV network to being "considered like any other TV network -- not American," he said. BBG beams television, radio and Internet broadcasts to 165 million people in more than 100 countries around the world, including Iran, North Korea and Cuba. It develops technology and techniques for circumventing national internet firewalls, and employs a variety of new media such as social networking, interactive websites and video and audio podcasts to reach audiences in China. The agency also provides texting services to countries where they do not otherwise exist.

By William Matthews

February 15, 2011

http://www.govexec.com/federal-news/2011/02/internet-diplomacy-faces-challenge-at-home/33331/