Correction to This Article
A graphic with a Feb. 23 article about planned cutbacks at international broadcasters listed the Tibetan services to be reduced as part of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. They are part of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

VOA Says Goodbye to Uzbek, Other Tongues

By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

Back home on a farm in Uzbekistan, Navbahor Imamova's mother and siblings crowd around their cranky, Soviet-made radio and tune in daily to Voice of America broadcasts in Uzbek. Though frequently scrambled by Chinese martial music, the VOA journalist said, the broadcast is her family's chief source of credible, uncensored foreign news in the authoritarian Central Asian country.

But that source is due to be silenced. For the second year running, the board overseeing the government-funded VOA has plans to wipe out news in several languages, including its flagship English-language "News Now" programming.

"This is big," said Imamova, one of seven people who put together the Uzbek service from Washington. "It's not a secret that Uzbekistan is one of the most politically oppressed countries. There's not a single outlet that can call itself independent there."

The Broadcast Board of Governors, which oversees VOA and six other government-funded international broadcasters, said this month that the cutbacks are being made in an effort to shift resources to new technology and "critical audiences" in the Middle East, North Korea, Somalia and Cuba.

"The current budget climate requires that we utilize our funds to effectively adapt to changing viewing habits and new technology, and respond to the nation's most immediate and vital national security challenges," the board said in a statement.

The board's $668.2 million budget request calls for a 3.8 percent increase from its anticipated fiscal 2007 level. The increase would fund the expansion of programming to North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as to the Arab-language satellite network Alhurra TV and its pop music and news counterpart, Radio Sawa.

Board spokesman Larry Hart said the decision to scrap the services largely reflects their diminishing audiences. "The world has changed, and our independent surveys show year after year that fewer and fewer people use shortwave radio," Hart said. "Now, that differs dramatically in different parts of the world. But satellite TV, FM radio and the Internet are the way of the future."

VOA employees and advocates counter that their programming is a model of open media and a crucial source of trustworthy news and information for decision makers and influential figures worldwide, a demographic that is difficult to quantify.

Since VOA's inaugural radio broadcast into Nazi Germany 65 years ago, the network has expanded into television and across the globe, and in its heyday, it carried programming in more than 50 languages. In the past few years, services were cut in 10 former Soviet bloc countries that have since joined the European Union. Other services have come and gone only to appear again.

VOA advocates and employees said that among the more dire changes being planned is elimination of "News Now," which feeds the broadcaster's 45 language services and includes reports from Washington and around the world. VOA would continue to offer Web-based English-language content, as well as English to sub-Saharan Africa and news for listeners with a limited English vocabulary.

"This is the VOA. Everything else is patterned on it. This has been our identity since 1942," said Neil Currie, a senior anchor with "News Now" and 23-year veteran of the agency. The English-language program has already suffered the effects of drastic cuts, he said, with staff whittled down in the past two years from more than 50 people to 14. Broadcasts have been reduced dramatically. On Sundays, Currie said, he is alone in the VOA newsroom putting together hours' worth of news.

"It is very hard to think of a parallel to killing the English-language services of VOA America. I can't think of an analogy absurd enough," said Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College in Maryland and VOA's director from 1999 to 2001. "Would Radio Moscow stop broadcasting in Russian? Would Radio Beijing stop broadcasting in Chinese? Radio France in French? The BBC in English?"

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