By Dan Robinson | Voice of America
U.S. lawmakers have heard testimony about continuing weaknesses in US government funded television broadcasting to Cuba. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) updated members of Congress on steps taken by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its Office of Cuba Broadcasting on recommendations to deal with management, morale and other problems.
Since its inception in 1990, TV Marti has been the subject of controversy over cost, contracting, internal management and journalistic issues, and the inability of the Miami-based station to reach enough of the population in Cuba to justify the $500 million spent on the operation so far.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting which runs TV and Radio Marti manages a staff of 153, producing 330 hours of Spanish language broadcasts each week to Cuba, costing nearly $37 million annually.
Radio and TV Marti Critics
While TV and Radio Marti have received praised for broadcasting news to people in Cuba, where the government jams foreign signals, TV Marti continues to face internal and external criticism.
Critics continue to question why TV Marti’s audience by most accounts has remained small. The station has been the subject of GAO and State Department investigations into mismanagement and allegations of fraud and abuse.
“I wanted to focus on what seems to me to be a most egregious waste of money. TV Marti does not seem to have an audience. It’s a station that no one watches. So why spend all the money on it?,” said Massachusetts Democrat William Delahunt, who heads the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight Subcommittee.
TV Marti transmits over-the-air signals from an aircraft, the Aero Marti, two satellites, and the Internet to get programming into Cuba.
Limited Audience for TV and Radio Marti
Jess Ford of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said that despite using multiple methods, the station’s audience remains small based on four telephone surveys conducted since 2003. “The four telephone surveys have reported less than one percent of the respondents had watched TV Marti over the past week. Most notably, the most recent surveys in 2006 and 2008 showed no increase in reported TV Marti viewership after the launch of the Aero Marti and Direct Broadcasting,” he said.
GAO mentions one non-random survey showing that 21 percent of recent Cuban émigrés listened to TV Marti within six months before leaving Cuba, but GAO says these results likely do not represent the actual size of TV Martí‘s audience.
A lack of access to Cuba, says GAO, has made it difficult to obtain nationally representative data on audience size, and decision-makers have had limited information to assess the relative success or return on investment for each transmission method.
Mismanagement and Lack of Effectiveness
While critical of mismanagement and other problems uncovered at TV Marti, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher says scrapping the station would be a mistake. “I think instead of focusing on scrapping radio or TV Marti, we should be focused on how to scrap the Communist dictatorship that [has] oppressed the Cuban people for these past 50 years,” he said.
John Nichols, a comparative media expert and Professor of Communications and International Affairs at Penn State University reiterated his longstanding criticisms of TV Marti, saying it has failed to build an audience.
“TV Marti’s response to a succession of failures over a two decade period has been to resort to ever more expensive technological gimmicks, all richly funded by Congress, and none of those gimmicks, such as the airplane have worked or probably can work without the compliance of the Cuban government. In short TV Marti is a highly wasteful and ineffective operation,” he said.
Philip Peters, Vice President of Lexington Institute, a private research orgnization based in Virginia, disagrees with members of Congress who assert that ending TV Marti broadcasts would strengthen the Castro regime in Cuba: “I don’t know how we have gotten ourselves in the position where this particular instrument of public diplomacy is a test of everyone’s manhood with regard to Communism in Cuba. It’s a tactic, it’s not an end in itself, and I think that the only thing TV Marti has challenged is that Congress truly cares about the taxpayer money,” he said.
In its overview, GAO said the Office of Cuba Broadcasting lacks a formal strategic plan to guide decision-making on its funding and operations, including a proposal to reduce TV Martí newscasts from two 30 minute evening programs to five minute news updates every half hour.
It also identified weaknesses in program review processes that broadcast managers use to assess compliance with journalistic standards, including accuracy, balance, and objectivity, and a lack of training for OCB staff.
While not commenting on specifics from Wednesday’s hearing, Broadcasting Board of Governors Public Relations Chief Letitia King said the Broadcasting Board of Governors was in general agreement with GAO recommendations and has worked very closely with management of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and has a series of actions underway to address them.