Thursday, June 18, 2009

TV Marti Under the Microscope

Yesterday, the U.S. House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight heard important testimony concerning the effectiveness of TV Marti, the U.S.-funded television broadcast aimed at Cuba. (In 2006, TV Marti began transmitting from AeroMarti [photo] costing Americans at least $5 million annually.)

In sum, TV Marti is not reaching a significant or discernible audience inside Cuba, and its transmission should be terminated due to its weak signal. Instead, other options to reach a broader Cuban audience should be considered (such as satellite or internet), and an assessment of a reformed Radio and TV Marti (operating with a smaller budget) should be scheduled.

Jess T. Ford, one of the directors of the International Affairs and Trade department of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), submitted before the Subcommittee a report [PDF] stating that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which operates Radio and TV Marti, has trouble finding a good measure of their audience in Cuba, but telephone surveys nonetheless report a very small audience (less than 1% of the population).

"Due to the U.S. government’s lack of access to Cuba, OCB has difficulty obtaining nationally representative data on its audience size. In addition, decision-makers have limited information to help assess the relative success or return on investment from each of OCB’s various transmission methods... Specifically, less than 1 percent of respondents to [International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)] telephone surveys since 2003 reported that they had watched TV Marti during the past week. Notably, results from the 2006 and 2008 telephone surveys show no increase in reported TV Marti viewership following the launch of AeroMarti and DirecTV broadcasting in 2006."

Tim Shamble [PDF of testimony], President of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812, representing membership employees at the OCB, agreed that TV Marti transmission is the main problem and held reservations for changing the programming at OCB:

"Regular terrestrial television transmission was never a very good option for TV Marti... A better option would be to keep the long form news and information programming, eliminate terrestrial television broadcasting and use the savings to invest in newer technologies to deliver the video produced."

(Only recently, since late last year, has Radio and TV Marti started uploading video on YouTube for example.)

Philip Peters, Vice President of the Lexington Institute and blogger at the Cuban Triangle, added anecdotal evidence in support of TV Marti's non-existent audience inside Cuba [PDF of testimony]:

"I cannot recall how many times I have asked Cubans in Cuba, all across Cuba, about TV Marti and have received the same answer: 'No se ve' ('It's not seen'). For years, I have asked diplomats and clergy and journalists who travel regularly around the island, and get the same answer."

Peters also provided excellent alternatives to expensive broadcasts towards Cuba:

"... the flow of information and ideas on the part of individual travelers and our nation’s vibrant civil society – universities, professional associations, humanitarian and religious groups, cultural and sports organizations – would far outweigh the impact of two decades of funds spent on TV Marti."

One specific (and excellent) alternative Peters provides involves Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop per Child Program:

"The program developed its own laptop, the XO, which costs about $200 and allows users to communicate with each other through a wireless mesh network, so that all users in a local area are interconnected. TV Marti’s 19-year budget would have paid for 950,000 XO laptops for Cuban children."


"It is more likely that the Congress can do far more to increase communication with Cuba by taking away restrictions on American liberties than by taking our tax dollars to spend on government programs."

Finally (saving the best for last), John S. Nichols also testified yesterday. Nichols [bio], in addition to being recognized as an outstanding university professor, has been doing research on Radio and TV Marti since their first transmissions, and has written about them extensively over the years. Most imporantly, he provided yesterday the most convincing testimony on TV Marti's weak signal towards Cuba based on his research from the island:

"The broadcast version of TV Marti is not seen in populated areas of Cuba and, almost without exception, has not been seen since the station went on the air in 1990... The TV Marti signal is very weak after it traverses the Strait of Florida and reaches the Cuban coastline. All the Cuban government needs to do is fill the same channel with its own, low-power signal and the TV Marti signal is disrupted and cannot be seen in the surrounding area."

And concerning, TV Marti's satellite broadcast:

"Surveys by both the U.S. and Cuban governments, in-country reporting by foreign journalists, and anecdotal evidence all indicate that the overwhelming majority of Cubans with access to satellite dish television strongly prefer other programming."

And, about AeroMarti:

"Virtually no one can see the broadcasts from AeroMarti, and Congress' continued investment in that technology is a complete and total waste of taxpayer dollars."

The Marti News website, along with the Voice of America, has already reported on yesterday's Subcommittee hearing. Both news outlets operate under the International Broadcasting Bureau of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. El Nuevo Herald also has the story, but with a very strange headline: "Congressman Launches Attack on TV Marti." Outside of Miami, the same story by Nestor Ikeda has a different (accurate and less hostile) headline. (What's with the editors at El Nuevo Herald?)

Anway, TV Marti seemed doomed from the start, but has been predictably exploited politically in Miami. An excellent book called "Psywar on Cuba" highlights some declassified documents showing how OCB management (Rolando Bonachea) tried to hide the poor numbers found in audience surveys of TV Marti in its first few years of broadcast [Page 296]. Instead, they preferred the use of flawed methodology to produce false audience numbers.

For Miami's Cuban-American political leadership, Radio and TV Marti represents something more than audience numbers, it is a moral obligation, and therefore an exploitable political position. Last year, when local journalist Kirk Nielsen questioned Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart over the effectiveness of Radio and TV Marti, he received ridiculous denials from the Congressman. "The reports aren't what you're saying, though!... They’re actually pretty good!" said Rep. Diaz-Balart to Nielsen. Nielsen then exposes the lie in his article.

Of course, the audience numbers of Radio and TV Marti have to be concealed from the public. Why? Because that's how the Broadcasting Board of Governors judges the effectiveness of its broadcast organizations, including Radio and TV Marti. Then, you must be wondering: how the heck did TV Marti get the extra budget in 2006 for AeroMarti?!

Easy, Pres. George W. Bush promised it to Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

[Photo by AP]

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