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Silencing the Voice of America

This is infuriating: a move that reflects shifts in U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors has decided that VOA's [the Voice of America] seven-hour Hindi-language radio service will end this month, after 53 years. VOA will also eliminate radio broadcasts in three Eastern European languages. Radio broadcasts in Russian went off the air in July.

The Board of Governors has decided that the Internet and television are better places to spend their limited funds, which is probably right. The real travesty here, though, is the size of their funds: $2 million, for all Hindi language programming.

India is a rapidly growing democracy that is home to over 1 billion people. It is one of the most geopolitically important countries on the planet, which is why the US government is bending over backwards to establish a partnership with the country on nuclear power and other matters.

As the article makes clear, the VOA service is marginal, at best: it gets an audience of roughly 8 million people. But those 8 million are without any other news source. And they can be relied on to spread what they hear on the radio throughout their communities and networks, providing an invaluable check on the state radio monopoly. (India is a democracy, but it's not always a nice one, and communal riots and massacres often go unreported on state airwaves.)

Preserving a cheap, well-regarded way to broadcast information and earn popular goodwill would seemingly be a no-brainer. But evidently it's not.

The decision isn't the fault of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent, government-sponsored institution that overseas VOA. Given only $2 million, they probably made the right call - television and the Internet are more important these days. But it's ridiculous that the funding was cut so low that the Board had to make the choice.

Hindi isn't the only service to have been cut. Russian, Serbian, and Ukrainian language broadcasts also got the axe. Funding is being diverted to Arabic language news and radio - a very good tool, certainly, but it's not much money relative to the benefits. It would cost a few extra million to safeguard radio broadcasts in all of these languages.

The thinking evidently is that, with the explosion in other media outlets and the end of the Cold War, a government subsidized news service delivered by short wave radio is no longer necessary.

Ask the Georgians how they feel about that: as luck would have it, Russian-language broadcasts by VOA went out just days before the Russians invaded. When Russia cut off TV and Internet service, a good chunk of the population lost all access to external news sources.

Russians themselves, of course, are now also without access to VOA broadcasts, leaving the airwaves to a domestic Russian media almost entirely controlled by Prime Minister Putin and his ex-KGB allies.

Short-wave radio broadcasts are an amazingly inexpensive way to disseminate news and commentary. There isn't any money in broadcasting news to people on the other side of the world too poor to own a TV, so the private sector won't do it - so there is an important role for government funding here. VOA, meanwhile, does very good work on a very short budget. It not only presents hard news, but also allows call-in commentary that, while a staple here in the West, is a relatively rare opportunity to speak to a wide audience in many other countries, even other democracies.

One of the biggest problems facing our country is our utter lack of credibility or respect from others abroad, and yet the US is unilaterally laying down an effective tool for building up just those qualities. One of the most important ongoing trends worldwide is still the fitful spread of the franchise and freedom of the press, and yet the US is missing an opportunity to ensure that newly empowered and future voters have access to information about the world.

Sometimes, it seems as if the US government is actually trying to make things more difficult. It really is amazing.