No Strings Attached?

How U.S. funding of the world press corps may be buying influence

Jeremy Bigwood

Lebanese men in Beruit watch Alhurra, a U.S.-funded Arabic-language television network. The name of the satelite channel means 'the free one' in Arabic.

Domes­tic pro­pa­gan­da cam­paigns like the Pen­ta­gon Pun­dits” fias­co have been exposed and decried. Main­stream media out­lets hired high-rank­ing mil­i­tary offi­cers to pro­vide analy­sis” about the war in Iraq. Turns out they had ties to mil­i­tary con­trac­tors with a vest­ed inter­est in con­tin­u­ing the war.

Below the radar, anoth­er jour­nal­ism scan­dal is brew­ing: the U.S. gov­ern­ment is secret­ly fund­ing for­eign news out­lets and jour­nal­ists. Gov­ern­ment bod­ies – includ­ing the State Depart­ment, the Depart­ment of Defense, the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment (USAID), the Nation­al Endow­ment for Democ­ra­cy (NED), the Broad­cast­ing Board of Gov­er­nors (BBG) and the U.S. Insti­tute for Peace (USIP) – sup­port media devel­op­ment” in more than 70 coun­tries. In These Times has found that these pro­grams include fund­ing hun­dreds of for­eign non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions (NGOs), jour­nal­ists, pol­i­cy-mak­ers, jour­nal­ist asso­ci­a­tions, media out­lets, train­ing insti­tutes and aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal­ism fac­ul­ties. Grant sizes can range from a few thou­sand to mil­lions of dollars. 

The bot­tom line is that we are teach­ing the mechan­ics of jour­nal­ism, whether it be print, tele­vi­sion or radio,” USAID spokesman Paul Koscak says. How to do a sto­ry, how to write with bal­ance … all of those types of things that you would expect in a pro­fes­sion­al piece that is published.”

But some peo­ple, espe­cial­ly those out­side the Unit­ed States, see it differently. 

We think that the real issues here are the for­eign pol­i­cy objec­tives behind these media devel­op­ment pro­grams,” says a high-lev­el Venezue­lan diplo­mat who asked not to be iden­ti­fied. When the objec­tive is régime change, these pro­grams have proven to be instru­ments for the desta­bi­liza­tion of demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed gov­ern­ments that the Unit­ed States doesn’t support.”

Isabel Mac­Don­ald, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor at Fair­ness and Accu­ra­cy in Report­ing (FAIR), a New York-based media watch­dog non­prof­it, is also crit­i­cal. This is a sys­tem that, despite its pro­fessed adher­ence to norms of objec­tiv­i­ty, has often worked against real democ­ra­cy,” she says, by sti­fling dis­sent and help­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment spread mis­in­for­ma­tion ser­vice­able to U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy goals.” 

Show me the agency

Mea­sur­ing the size and scope of inde­pen­dent media devel­op­ment is dif­fi­cult because sim­i­lar pro­grams exist under dif­fer­ent rubrics. Some agen­cies con­sid­er media devel­op­ment” to be its own field, while oth­er agen­cies cat­e­go­rize it under pub­lic diplo­ma­cy” or psy­cho­log­i­cal oper­a­tions.” That makes it hard to fig­ure out how much mon­ey goes into these programs.

In Decem­ber 2007, the Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Media Assis­tance (CIMA) – a State Depart­ment-fund­ed office at the Nation­al Endow­ment for Democ­ra­cy (NED) – report­ed that in 2006, USAID doled out almost $53 mil­lion for for­eign media devel­op­ment activ­i­ties. Accord­ing to the CIMA study, the State Depart­ment spent an esti­mat­ed $15 mil­lion on such pro­grams. NED’s bud­get for media projects was an addi­tion­al $11 mil­lion. And the small Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based U.S. Insti­tute for Peace may have con­tributed up to $1.4 mil­lion more, accord­ing to the report, which did not exam­ine Defense Depart­ment or CIA media funding.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment is by far the largest fun­der of media devel­op­ment in the world, giv­ing more than $82 mil­lion in 2006 – not count­ing mon­ey from the Pen­ta­gon, the CIA or U.S. embassies in recip­i­ent coun­tries. To com­pli­cate mat­ters, many for­eign NGOs and jour­nal­ists receive media devel­op­ment fund­ing from more than one U.S. gov­ern­ment source. Some receive fund­ing from var­i­ous U.S. sub­con­trac­tors and inde­pen­dent inter­na­tion­al non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions,” while oth­ers receive mon­ey direct­ly from the U.S. embassy in their country. 

Three for­eign jour­nal­ists who receive U.S. media devel­op­ment fund­ing told In These Times that such gifts do not affect their behav­ior or alter their report­ing. And they deny that they prac­tice self-cen­sor­ship. None, how­ev­er, would say this on the record.

Gus­ta­vo Guzmán, a for­mer jour­nal­ist and now Boli­vian ambas­sador to the Unit­ed States, says, A jour­nal­ist who receives such gifts is no longer a jour­nal­ist, but becomes a mercenary.”

A twist­ed history

The U.S. government’s fund­ing of for­eign media has a long his­to­ry. Dur­ing the mid-’70s, in the after­math of Water­gate, two con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tions – the Church and Pike com­mit­tees, after Sen. Frank Church (D‑Idaho) and Rep. Otis Pike (D‑N.Y.) – delved into covert U.S. gov­ern­ment activ­i­ties in oth­er coun­tries. They con­firmed that, apart from CIA-fund­ed jour­nal­ists (both for­eign and Amer­i­can), the U.S. gov­ern­ment also sub­si­dized for­eign print media, radio and tele­vi­sion out­lets – some­thing the Sovi­ets were also doing. For instance, Encounter, an anti-com­mu­nist lit­er­ary mag­a­zine pub­lished in Eng­land from 1953 to 1990, was revealed to be a CIA oper­a­tion in 1967. And, as is the case today, benign-sound­ing orga­ni­za­tions, such as the Con­gress for Cul­tur­al Free­dom, have also been CIA fronts.

Con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tions found that clan­des­tine U.S. fund­ing of for­eign media often played a deci­sive role abroad, but nowhere more so than in Chile in the ear­ly 70s.

The CIA’s major pro­pa­gan­da oper­a­tion, through the oppo­si­tion news­pa­per El Mer­cu­rio, prob­a­bly con­tributed most direct­ly to the bloody over­throw of the Allende gov­ern­ment and Chile’s democ­ra­cy,” says Peter Korn­bluh, senior ana­lyst at the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Archive, an inde­pen­dent non­govern­men­tal research institute.

In These Times asked the agency if it still funds for­eign jour­nal­ists. CIA Spokesman Paul Gimigliano respond­ed, The CIA does not, as a mat­ter of course, pub­licly deny or con­firm these kinds of allegations.”

Ene­mies of the State Department?

On Aug. 19, 2002, the U.S. Embassy in Cara­cas, Venezuela, sent a cable to Wash­ing­ton. It read: 

We expect Mr. Lacayo’s par­tic­i­pa­tion as an IV grantee to be direct­ly reflect­ed in his report­ing on polit­i­cal and inter­na­tion­al top­ics. As he moves upward in his career, our improved ties with him would mean a poten­tial­ly impor­tant friend in posi­tions of edi­to­r­i­al influ­ence.” [Editor’s Note: Mr. Lacayo’s name has been changed to pro­tect his iden­ti­ty.]

The State Depart­ment had cho­sen the Venezue­lan jour­nal­ist to vis­it the U.S. under what is known as an IV grant – a cul­tur­al exchange pro­gram start­ed in 1961. Last year, the depart­ment brought some 467 jour­nal­ists to the Unit­ed States at a cost of about $10 mil­lion, accord­ing to a State Depart­ment offi­cial who request­ed anonymity.

FAIR’s Mac­Don­ald says that the vis­its serve to build ties between the vis­it­ing for­eign jour­nal­ists and insti­tu­tions that … are extreme­ly uncrit­i­cal of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy and the cor­po­rate inter­ests it serves.”

The State Depart­ment funds media devel­op­ment through sev­er­al of its bureaus, includ­ing the Bureau of Edu­ca­tion­al and Cul­tur­al Affairs, Bureau of Intel­li­gence and Research (INR), and the Bureau of Democ­ra­cy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), as well as through its region­al bureaus and embassies world­wide. It also funds for­eign jour­nal­ists through anoth­er sec­tion called the Office of Pub­lic Diplo­ma­cy and Pub­lic Affairs. Most impor­tant­ly, the State Depart­ment usu­al­ly decides where oth­er agen­cies, such as USAID and NED, should invest their media devel­op­ment funds. 

(The State Depart­ment did not respond to In These Times’ requests for infor­ma­tion about its media devel­op­ment bud­get, but the 2007 CIMA study shows that in 2006, DRL, for instance, received almost $12 mil­lion for media devel­op­ment alone.) 

The case of Bolivia is a reveal­ing exam­ple of a coun­try in which the Unit­ed States has been fund­ing media devel­op­ment. Accord­ing to DRL’s web­site, the bureau spon­sored 15 work­shops in Bolivia on free­dom of the press and expres­sion in 2006. The country’s jour­nal­ists and jour­nal­ism stu­dents dis­cussed pro­fes­sion­al ethics, good report­ing prac­tices and the media’s role in a democ­ra­cy,” the site says. These pro­grams were sent out to 200 radio sta­tions in remote areas through­out the country.”

In 2006, Bolivia elect­ed Evo Morales, its first indige­nous pres­i­dent, whose rise to pow­er the U.S. gov­ern­ment and Bolivia’s main­stream press has repeat­ed­ly tried to impede. Morales and his sup­port­ers allege that the U.S. gov­ern­ment is back­ing a sep­a­ratist move­ment in Bolivia’s gas-rich east­ern states, and they allege that part of that back­ing involves media devel­op­ment meet­ings, accord­ing to jour­nal­ist and for­mer pres­i­den­tial spokesper­son Alex Con­tr­eras. USAID’s Koscak denies the charge.

This is the BBG

The Broad­cast­ing Board of Gov­er­nors (BBG), is most famous as the fun­der of the Voice of Amer­i­ca. Accord­ing to its web­site, BBG is respon­si­ble for all U.S. gov­ern­ment and gov­ern­ment-spon­sored, non-mil­i­tary, inter­na­tion­al broad­cast­ing” that brings news and infor­ma­tion to peo­ple around the world in 60 languages.” 

In 1999, BBG became an inde­pen­dent fed­er­al agency. By 2006 it received a $650 mil­lion bud­get, accord­ing to CIMA esti­mates, with about $1.5 mil­lion ear­marked for media devel­op­ment to train jour­nal­ists in Argenti­na, Bolivia, Kenya, Mozam­bique, Nige­ria and Pakistan.

Besides Voice of Amer­i­ca, BBG also runs sev­er­al oth­er radio and TV sta­tions. Alhur­ra tele­vi­sion, based in Spring­field, Va., is a com­mer­cial-free Ara­bic-lan­guage satel­lite tele­vi­sion net­work for the Mid­dle East, devot­ed pri­mar­i­ly to news and infor­ma­tion,” accord­ing to its web­site. Alhur­ra, which is Ara­bic for the free one,” has been described by the Wash­ing­ton Post as the U.S. government’s largest and most expen­sive effort to sway for­eign opin­ion over the air­waves since the cre­ation of Voice of Amer­i­ca in 1942.” 

BBG also funds Radio Sawa (for Arab youth, with stream­ing to Egypt, the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon, the Lev­ant, Moroc­co and Sudan), Radio Far­da (to Iran) and Radio Free Asia (region­al pro­gram­ming in Asia). BBG also sup­ports broad­casts to Cuba through Radio and TV Mart’, which will amount to almost $39 mil­lion this year, accord­ing to the For­eign Oper­a­tions Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for fis­cal year 2008.

Pen­ta­gon PR

The Depart­ment of Defense (DOD) refused to speak to In These Times about its media devel­op­ment pro­grams. Accord­ing to a Dec. 11, 2005, New York Times arti­cle by Jeff Gerth, the mil­i­tary oper­ates radio sta­tions and news­pa­pers [in Iraq and Afghanistan] but does not dis­close their Amer­i­can ties.” 

The task of media devel­op­ment in Iraq was giv­en to the U.S. Depart­ment of Defense, whose major con­trac­tors had lit­tle or no rel­e­vant expe­ri­ence,” states an Octo­ber 2007 report by the U.S. Insti­tute for Peace (USIP).

A 2007 study by the Cen­ter for Glob­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania’s Annen­berg School for Com­mu­ni­ca­tion found that Sci­ence Appli­ca­tions Inter­na­tion­al Corp. (SAIC), a long­time DOD con­trac­tor, was award­ed an ini­tial con­tract of $80 mil­lion for a year to trans­form an entire state-run media sys­tem into an inde­pen­dent, BBC-style nation­al news ser­vice – in part to coun­ter­act the effect Al Jazeera was hav­ing in the region. 

Super­vis­ing SAIC was a DOD office spe­cial­iz­ing in psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare oper­a­tions, which many believe con­tributed to the per­cep­tion among Iraqis that the Iraq Media Net­work (IMN) was mere­ly a mouth­piece for the Coali­tion Pro­vi­sion­al Author­i­ty,” the USIP report says. SAIC’s per­for­mance in Iraq was con­sid­ered cost­ly, unpro­fes­sion­al and a fail­ure in terms of estab­lish­ing the objec­tiv­i­ty and inde­pen­dence of the IMN.” SAIC even­tu­al­ly lost the con­tract to anoth­er com­pa­ny – Har­ris Corp. 

SAIC wasn’t the only Pen­ta­gon media sub­con­trac­tor that mas­sive­ly failed. In an April 30 USA Today arti­cle by Peter Eisler, the Iraqi news web­site Maw​tani​.com was exposed as a Pen­ta­gon-fund­ed infor­ma­tion outlet.

USAID: From the Amer­i­can people’

Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy cre­at­ed the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment (USAID) in Novem­ber 1961 to admin­is­ter human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment world­wide. But while USAID prides itself on pro­mot­ing trans­paren­cy in the affairs of oth­er nations, it is itself hard­ly trans­par­ent. This is espe­cial­ly true of its media devel­op­ment programs.

In a num­ber of coun­tries, includ­ing Venezuela and Bolivia, USAID is act­ing more as an agency involved in covert action, like the CIA, than as an aid or devel­op­ment agency,” says Mark Weis­brot, an econ­o­mist with the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based think tank. 

Indeed, while inves­ti­ga­tors have been able to obtain gen­er­al bud­gets for USAID’s glob­al pro­grams through the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act, as well as names of coun­tries or geo­graph­ic regions where mon­ey has been spent, the names of spe­cif­ic for­eign orga­ni­za­tions receiv­ing this mon­ey are state secrets, just as in the case of the CIA. And in cas­es where the recip­i­ent orga­ni­za­tions’ names are known, and infor­ma­tion is request­ed about them, USAID responds that it is unable to con­firm or deny the exis­tence of records” about them, using the same lan­guage as the CIA. (Dis­clo­sure: In 2006, I filed an unsuc­cess­ful law­suit against USAID in an attempt to iden­ti­fy which orga­ni­za­tions it funds abroad.)

USAID funds three major media devel­op­ment oper­a­tions: the Inter­na­tion­al Research & Exchanges Board (more com­mon­ly known as IREX), the Internews Net­work and the large­ly pri­vate­ly fund­ed Search for Com­mon Ground. To com­pli­cate mat­ters, all three have also received fund­ing from the State Depart­ment, the Mid­dle East Part­ner­ship Ini­tia­tive (MEPI), the Bureau of Intel­li­gence and Research and the Bureau of Democ­ra­cy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Accord­ing to its brochures, IREX is an inter­na­tion­al non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that works with local part­ners to advance the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and long-term eco­nom­ic sus­tain­abil­i­ty of news­pa­pers, radio, tele­vi­sion and Inter­net media.” IREX’s 2006 990” tax form states that its media activ­i­ties include small-grant sup­port for more than 100 jour­nal­ists and media orga­ni­za­tions; train­ing for hun­dreds of jour­nal­ists and media out­lets” and has a staff of more than 400 that deliv­ers pro­grams and con­sul­ta­tion to more than 50 countries.

The Internews Net­work, more com­mon­ly known as Internews,” receives only about half of IREX’s bud­get but is bet­ter known. Found­ed in 1982, most of Internews’ fund­ing comes through USAID, although it also receives fund­ing from NED and the State Depart­ment. Internews is one of the largest oper­a­tions in the inde­pen­dent media devel­op­ment busi­ness, fund­ing dozens of NGOs, jour­nal­ists, jour­nal­ist asso­ci­a­tions, train­ing insti­tutes and aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal­ism fac­ul­ties in dozens of coun­tries through­out the world.

Internews’ oper­a­tions have been shut down in coun­tries such as Belarus, Rus­sia and Uzbek­istan, where they have been viewed as under­min­ing local gov­ern­ments and push­ing U.S. agen­das. In a May 2003 speech in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Andrew Nat­sios, USAID’s for­mer admin­is­tra­tor, described USAID-fund­ed pri­vate con­trac­tors as an arm of the U.S. government.” 

The oth­er major USAID media devel­op­ment recip­i­ent, Search for Com­mon Ground, receives more mon­ey from the pri­vate sec­tor than it does from the U.S. gov­ern­ment, most of which goes into con­flict res­o­lu­tion,” accord­ing to the CIMA report.

Two major tar­gets for USAID’s media devel­op­ment and assis­tance are Cuba and Iran. USAID’s bud­get for Media Free­dom and Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion” – to tran­si­tion” Cuba under the Com­mis­sion for Assis­tance to a Free Cuba II (CAFC II) – totals $14 mil­lion. This rep­re­sents a $10.5 mil­lion increase from the amount allo­cat­ed in 2006. In Iran, USAID has bud­get­ed some $25 mil­lion for media devel­op­ment for fis­cal year 2008. It is part of a $75 mil­lion pack­age for what USAID calls trans­for­ma­tion­al diplo­ma­cy” in that country. 

Fund­ing U.S.-style democ­ra­cy’

A lot of what we do today was done covert­ly 25 years ago by the CIA.” said Allen Wein­stein, one of Nation­al Endow­ment for Democracy’s founders, in a 1991 Wash­ing­ton Post article. 

Formed in the ear­ly 80s, NED is gov­erned by an inde­pen­dent, non­par­ti­san board of direc­tors.” Its pur­port­ed aim is to sup­port pro-democ­ra­cy orga­ni­za­tions around the world. His­tor­i­cal­ly, how­ev­er, the for­eign pol­i­cy objec­tives of Wash­ing­ton have defined its agenda. 

When the rhetoric of democ­ra­cy is put aside, NED is a spe­cial­ized tool for pen­e­trat­ing civ­il soci­ety in oth­er coun­tries down to the grass­roots lev­el” to achieve U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy goals, writes Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-San­ta Bar­bara pro­fes­sor William Robin­son in his book, A Faus­t­ian Bar­gain. Robin­son was in Nicaragua dur­ing the late 80s and watched NED work with the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan oppo­si­tion to remove the left­ist San­din­istas from pow­er dur­ing the 1990 elections.

NED also came under major pub­lic scruti­ny in Venezuela, where it was exposed for fund­ing the anti-Chávez move­ment. In her book The Chávez Code, Venezue­lan-Amer­i­can attor­ney Eva Golinger writes that NED (and USAID) grantees were involved in the 2002 coup attempt against Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez, as well as in the man­age­ment-dri­ven labor strikes” aimed at shut­ting down the country’s petro­le­um indus­try. Golinger also notes that NED fund­ed Súmate – a Venezue­lan NGO whose stat­ed goal is to pro­mote the free exer­cise of cit­i­zens’ polit­i­cal rights – which orches­trat­ed the failed recall ref­er­en­dum against Chávez in 2004

Depen­den­cy and obligation

The con­cept of sep­a­ra­tion of the pow­ers of the press from the gov­ern­ment is a basic tenet of not only the U.S. polit­i­cal sys­tem, but also Arti­cle 19 of the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights. U.S. gov­ern­ment fund­ing of any press risks estab­lish­ing client-donor rela­tion­ships that can­not be con­sid­ered inde­pen­dent media. 

Even the dona­tion of equip­ment, such as com­put­ers and recorders by the U.S. gov­ern­ment, affects the work of jour­nal­ists and jour­nal­ist orga­ni­za­tions,” says Con­tr­eras, the Boli­vian jour­nal­ist, because it brings about depen­den­cy and an oblig­a­tion to the hid­den agen­das of U.S. institutions.”

Jere­my Big­wood is an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and pho­to­jour­nal­ist with a back­ground in sci­ence. He has writ­ten for the Amer­i­can Jour­nal­ism Review, the Vil­lage Voice and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. As a pho­to­jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing the Cen­tral Amer­i­ca civ­il wars from 1984 – 1994, his images were pub­lished worldwide.
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