Agency takes new strategy toward Cuba
SUNDAY, MARCH 31, 2013
Agency takes new strategy toward Cuba
Its name is unwieldy and bureaucratic, but its mission is lofty: to become
the world's leading international news agency.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors <http://www.bbg.gov/> runs civilian
international broadcasting for the U.S. government. It has 50 news bureaus
and offices worldwide and employs 3,696 people, rivaling CNN. And its
audience is immense: More than 187 million people in 100 nations.
Cuba watchers know the agency for its Miami-based Radio and TV Mart�
operations. But the BBG has redesigned its strategy over the past two
years, boosting efforts to promote Internet freedom and reach Cubans on
mobile phones and social networking sites.
The Obama administration began shifting millions of dollars in Internet
freedom programs from the State Department to the BBG in 2011.
LugarFormer Sen. Richard Lugar and others had criticized the State
Department's effectiveness because:
- It had been slow to spend $50 million in Internet freedom funds set
aside since 2008, and
- It seemed worried about "offending China," diplomatic baggage that
wouldn't burden the BBG. For more on Lugar's complaints, see the
"China and America: Public Diplomacy in the Age of the Internet."
The shift in resources allowed the BBG to expand its Internet
Anti-Censorship Division, or IAC, which has a budget of $11.6 million for
The division promotes Internet freedom in a dozen so-called "censored
countries," including Cuba.
As part of the Cuba effort, the BBG has paid Washington Software
of Germantown, Md., nearly $2 million since 2011. Payments have included:
- $531,576 to expand Internet proxy servers.
- $500,987 to develop a Short Message Service, or SMS, social network.
- $451,796 to prevent Cuban government jamming of its electronic
- $173,074 to send text messages to Cuba via SMS.
- $96,028 to program computers.
- $84,000 to design and operate an SMS system.
- $83,050 to finance an unspecified task order listed under "IT strategy
- $60,275 to send email blasts.
- $2,580 to pay costs related to Internet gateways.
Total: $1,983,366 (see
$2 million texting, social networking, anti-jamming projectThe documents
don't show how many text messages have been sent to Cuba under the program.
One record shows that the BBG paid Washington Software $14,474 for 361,873
text messages sent during October 2011.
Poll�nThat was a busy news month: Ladies in White founder Laura Poll�n died
on Oct. 14, and Hugo Ch�vez went to Cuba for cancer treatment two days
But federal records don't show if 361,873 messages - some 11,673 per day -
was an unusual amount.
In any case, it works out to 4 cents per message. And if that rate were
applied to the entire $173,073, it's conceivable that Washington Software
sent 4,326,825 text messages to Cuba in less than a year.
Social media and mobile technology have clearly become key methods for
reaching such target countries as Cuba.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting <http://www.bbg.gov/broadcasters/ocb/> operates
Radio and TV Mart� and requested a budget of $23.5 million for fiscal 2013.
The BBG's budget
OCB�s website, Martinoticias.com <http://martinoticias.com/>, now includes
live streaming audio and video of Radio/TV Marti. The workflow of the site,
newly migrated to the Clickability platform used by VOA, is able to respond
immediately to breaking news.
In the past year, the site added up-to-the-minute information on the
repression of bloggers in Cuba. Martinoticias.com has also launched
its own YouTube
Channel <http://www.youtube.com/user/TVMartiNoticias?feature=watch>, Facebook
page <https://www.facebook.com/martinoticas>, and Twitter
Work is under way to expand the number of Internet domain extensions for
Martinoticias.com to make it more difficult for the Cuban government to
block access to the website.
In addition to multiple web domains, OCB uses anti-censorship tools such as
web-based proxies to reach Internet users in Cuba. These proxy sites enable
unobstructed delivery of e-mails containing news, information, and
instructions for circumventing government Internet filters.
SMS messaging is a promising new solution for communicating with audiences
in Cuba, as the medium allows OCB to easily �push� information to most
mobile phone users in a manner that is difficult to filter. OCB is also
exploring the use of virtual chat rooms tied into SMS messaging efforts.
of Cuba Broadcasting budget request: $23.5 millionIt's difficult to argue
with efforts to expand access to information in Cuba. But some critics may
raise some questions about the BBG's operations. Among them:
- Should American taxpayers finance what may become the world's largest
international news agency?
- How does the BBG provide balanced and independent coverage while
carrying out its stated intent of promoting U.S. foreign policy goals?
- Should private NGOs and civic organizations - and not the U.S.
government - take the lead role in helping Cubans break through the
information blockade in their country?
- In case of civil unrest in Cuba, what role will the BBG play? Will it
inform? Or will it incite? Will it play an operational role in helping to
organize a U.S.-backed opposition?
- Is it possible that the BBG might use material collected - email
addresses, mobile phone numbers and social networking data - to organize
political activities or protests in a foreign country?
- Does the agency make effective use of its budget, which was $751
million in fiscal 2012?
- Could publicly available software, social networking platforms or
Internet tools accomplish any of the BBG's goals more cheaply and more
- How many Cubans have access to BBG broadcasts?
No doubt, the infusion of Internet freedom funds has boosted the BBG's
technological capabilities. The agency now claims to operate "one of the
most advanced Information Technology infrastructures in the entire Federal
The BBG works with a number of organizations, including:
- The U.S. Agency for International Development <http://www.usaid.gov/>
- Radio Free Asia's Open Technology Fund <https://www.opentechfund.org/>
- The State Department
- The SAFER Warfighter Communications
which is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known
as DARPA <http://www.darpa.mil/>.
A BBG fact sheet<https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B6Mo1c2bIFLWaXYweThhenIyUjQ/edit?usp=sharing>
its Internet anti-censorship team:
Is also reaching out to other groups interested in Internet freedom such as
Google,Freedom House <http://www.freedomhouse.org/> and the National
Endowment for Democracy�s Center for International Media
The BBG calls its anti-censorship program "an extraordinary success story
for global Internet freedom." The agency states:
There have been increases in the number of web users in censored countries
who now have nearly unrestricted access to content, and the BBG has
expanded the range of useful tools with which to access our content. The
main beneficiaries of the program are not only the citizens of China and
Iran, but a dozen countries around the world, including Vietnam, Burma,
Uzbekistan, Cuba and Somalia. Various country-specific tools are used that
take into account the technical sophistication of the regimes� filtering
mechanisms with the browsing habits of the citizens.
For more details on the agency's IT efforts, see "Driving Transformation:
2012 Technology, Services & Innovation Annual Performance
The BBG has requested $720 million for fiscal 2013 for its programs around
the globe. Its goals include becoming "the world�s leading international
news agency by 2016" and reaching "key audiences in support of free, open,
The sprawling agency has nearly 3,700 employees, including some 1,500
journalists around the world. That is more than either the Fox News Channel
or MSNBC. (See Pew Research Center's 2013 "State of the News
report for statistics).
CNN has said it has about 4,000 employees, slightly higher than the BBG's
As part of its mission, the BBG says it promotes "U.S. foreign policy
priorities" while remaining "fully independent editorially."
A January 2013 Inspector General's
BBG staffers, saying they carry out "journalism of the highest caliber" and
have "a widespread devotion to supporting democracy and freedom."
The report was mostly negative, however, and described the BBG board as
"dysfunctional." It stated:
The Board�s dysfunction stems from a flawed legislative structure and acute
internal dissension. Board meetings are dominated by one member whose
tactics and personal attacks on colleagues and staff have created an
unprofessional and unproductive atmosphere.
Inspector General's report is marked
H. AsheThe report was marked "sensitive but unclassified." It blamed the
board's "current paralysis" on a single member and said "the reputations of
other Board members should not be damaged because of his tactics."
The report said the member had an "insulting and intimidating manner,"
which created needless tension and "hampers productive exchange."
Inspectors didn't name the offending member, only describing him as a
former mayor. The only ex-mayor on the board is Victor H.
former mayor of Knoxville. He
Washington Post that the report was �unwarranted, unfair and factually
The American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812defended
called the Inspector General's report a "hatchet job," and asked lawmakers
to investigate why it was done.
Note: This article was shared with the Center for Democracy in the Americas
as part of a six-month collaborative project with non-profit group. See
more about our collaboration
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