Critics ask: What Role Should TV, Radio Marti Play?

MIAMI

Two decades after Congress established the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting, lawmakers and experts still cannot seem to agree on the program’s mission.

Should its TV and Radio Marti networks send the communist Caribbean island unbiased news about Cuba and the outside world? Or should their stories only support the U.S. government’s policy toward Cuba, as they mostly do now?

The dispute is part of a larger debate over the U.S. government’s foreign broadcasts, but nowhere is it more noticeable than with the Martis. The taxpayer-funded Cuba broadcasts, which receive US $34 million annually, belong to a network that includes the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Alhurra, among others. Most are run by veterans of top media outlets who are quick to defend their journalistic principles.

Still, the Martis’ congressional charter states that the broadcasts must be operated “in a manner not inconsistent with the broad foreign policy of the United States.” The other broadcasts have similar mandates.

U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat, a longtime critic of the Martis and of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, recently called for an investigation into management of the broadcasts. He believes the Martis fail to show the diverse viewpoints within the U.S.

“I think you need to put that out for the Cuban people to understand,” Delahunt said.

Jeff Trimble, executive director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the broadcasts, says the charter calls for promoting democracy, “through the journalistic mission. You have open information. … It’s not to do the short-term policy issues of any particular administration.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican and Marti supporter, says the broadcasts should back the American president’s positions.

“It is not a ‘Let’s have all this diversity of thought,'” said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American. “If we were to have a change in Cuba policy come November, you will see that reflected in the transmissions. The mission is clear: It’s to advance our U.S.-Cuba policy.”

Nicholas Cull, author of an upcoming book on the foreign broadcasts and a University of Southern California professor, believes they are essential, providing news that commercial broadcasters might ignore for fear of offending advertisers. He said the tension has existed since VOA’s creation in 1942.

“It’s in the nature of a government to expect that if it’s paying for a radio station, it will reflect its policy needs,” Cull said. “And it’s in the nature of a journalist to demand editorial independence.”

Yet there are clear differences between the Miami-based Martis and the other broadcasts. Except for VOA, which is charged with explaining U.S. government policies and culture, the foreign broadcasts are supposed to act as surrogates for local media in countries where a free press does not exist. For example, the English-language Web sites of Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia focus on their target countries and related world news, with few references to the U.S. The Marti Web site contains numerous stories dedicated to U.S. pronouncements on Cuba, a link to the White House Web page and a section on the war on terror.

Alberto Mascaro, the Marti chief of staff, said Cuba is one of the most difficult countries from which to glean local news because of strict censorship. Internet access is nonexistent for most Cubans.The goal is to bring in a free exchange of ideas, he said.

The differences between the Martis and the other surrogates are also reflected in their structures.The Martis are the only surrogates that are part of the U.S. government. The other networks are independent nonprofit organizations funded by the U.S. That arm’s length approach helps their credibility, said Radio Free Europe President Jeffrey Gedman.

Cull and other Marti critics argue the Cuba broadcasts are part of a domestic policy more focused on retaining the votes of powerful hard-liners in the Cuban-American community than on strategic foreign policy. They point to the large funding for such a small audience. Cull’s book is The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge Studies in the History of Mass Communication), being published by Cambridge University Press in June 2008.

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