Freedom is Off the Air


The United States’ rudderless public diplomacy has allowed authoritarian regimes to operate unchecked internationally and at home, putting free societies at risk and human rights in peril.

In March, a report in Foreign Policy highlighted a number of abductions ostensibly ordered by Beijing in order to repatriate Chinese citizens who were accused of questionable crimes at home.

These abductions are alleged to have occurred in Australia and potentially in other Western nations. Some have even targeted dual citizens who were also nationals of the countries from which they were abducted. That China would take such a risk as to do this indicates that its leaders know they will face no consequences.

The Voice of America and its sister networks under the Broadcasting Board of Governors can be some of the most prophylactic tools that America has to inhibit these sorts of actions by authoritarian regimes. They can help strengthen foreign opposition, give a voice to the silenced, and promote the rules-based international order. But these networks suffer from chronic underfunding, untimely cuts in services, institutional malaise, and a lack of will to consistently defend its most intrepid rank-and-file reporters and their families from harassment. The later problem is only just now being addressed head-on by the Department of State.

To use China as an increasingly egregious example of uninhibited abuse, there is already ample evidence for the world to question its development and political motives, but few are willing to amplify these stories and present an alternative way forward. Overseas, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” often brings with it political destabilization in its host countries while also placing these nations in debt to the point at which they may cede control of projects – typically critical pieces of infrastructure – to China.

Within its own borders, and free of critical press, China has accelerated its campaign of harassment, monitoring, and extrajudicial detention of Uighurs, human rights lawyers, reporters, and others based on specious threats, including the continued house arrest since 2010 of Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. China’s social credit system prejudices millions from travel and services without due process.

For those on China’s periphery or who flirt with this authoritarianism, the apparent silence of America on these subjects is tantamount to tacit assent. If the U.S., free, rich and powerful, doesn’t care to make an argument, why should it expect people in a far more tenuous predicament to do so?

And for those living within China’s borders, they deserve to hear a voice that presents the facts and also puts forth an alternative ideology that values individual human rights and the rule of law. America’s international media takes a passive approach to its mission; however, the original VOA charter provides that it shall “present a balanced and comprehensive projection [emphasis added] of significant American thought and institutions.”

Even if the propagation of moral relativism throughout the West makes it an uncomfortable proposition for some to take a stand for these ideals, it is not xenophobic to argue against an oppressor-state on behalf of the oppressed.

Maintaining and increasing VOA service in key languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Uighur, and Tibetan is essential to making these arguments. Digital services need to be modernized, including the origination of new technologies to help traverse firewalls and reach today’s digital information consumers. Traditional shortwave radio broadcasts should be maintained and expanded, as this most simplistic form of reception is easy to receive, and the receivers are easy to conceal.

The VOA should also consider third-party partnerships with satellite firms that can provide an end-run around government censorship from miles above. Finally, it is time for President Trump to nominate for Senate approval a new CEO to lead the BBG – one who understands that freedom is not the natural order of things, and that it must be aggressively maintained.

Let us all stand for the proposition that if a nation firewalls its citizens, it loses the moral authority to dictate what happens outside of its borders. And if that firewall is used to further internal human rights abuses, then that government has lost all moral authority within its borders as well. As time passes, America’s indifference to this creeping authoritarianism will cost money, alliances, and lives. It’s time to do what is necessary to inform, educate, and inspire the world’s most susceptible populations.

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