BOSTON — A STRONG push is under way in Congress to expand United States radio broadcasts - widely credited with helping to undermine communism in Eastern Europe - to China, North Korea, and other Asian countries.
But there is strong disagreement over whether the US should set up a new Radio Free China or simply augment existing Voice of America (VOA) programming.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Sept. 15 to consider a report released the day before by an advisory panel on broadcasting to Asia. The 11-member commission, appointed by the congressional leadership and the White House, agreed on the need for more foreign-language broadcasting to aid the forces of democracy in Asia. "The United States should do this because it is right. The United States should do this because it is in its national interest," the report states.
But the commission was sharply split on how to increase American broadcasting. Six members, led by chairman John Hughes, a journalist and professor at Brigham Young University, recommended that the US spend $30 million to set up an autonomous agency beaming short-wave programs to Asia.
Four panel members disagreed. The minority argued that a new broadcasting agency would not only be more expensive, but would unnecessarily antagonize the Chinese leadership.
"Nobody ever came up with a clear picture of why we need a new organization," said commission member Gene Mater, a former senior vice president of CBS News. "Why can't VOA do the job? Why do we need to start a whole new bureaucracy?"
In their report, the six-member majority said a new agency was necessary because Washington-based VOA could not cover "internal developments in China in any detail." They also questioned VOA's ability to provide objective reporting, because VOA is part of the United States Information Agency, which takes policy guidance from the State Department.
"The feeling of the majority was not that we dislike VOA, but that, basically, the lack of a fire wall between broadcasting and the State Department corrodes the ability of such an organization to have a real `home service' ability," said commission member Ben Wattenberg, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Under the majority's proposal, the new US broadcast agency would serve as a "home service," providing information about domestic developments in a "professional and dispassionate" manner to listeners in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, and the People's Republic of China.
Like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the new agency would be run by the Board of International Broadcasting, a presidential commission independent of the US State Department.
The panel majority recommended that the "home service" establish its headquarters in Los Angeles or San Francisco, "where it can draw on pools of Asian broadcasting and journalistic talent." Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware has introduced legislation, with bipartisan support, to establish a Radio Free China along the lines suggested by the commission majority. But, despite the backing of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and other Republicans, the bill is unlikely to get a floor vote until next year, Senate sources say.
President Bush has said he favors increased broadcasting to China, but, for financial reasons, does not support creating a new radio station.