In the latest U-turn in U.S.-Cuba policy, the Obama administration is making spending cuts and programming changes for Miami-based Radio and TV Marti, the government broadcasting network directed at promoting democracy in Cuba.
A 2010 budget request to Congress made by the broadcast agency that oversees the Marti operation, is proposing to shave $2.4 million off its $34.8 million budget last year, a cut of 7 percent.
That would mean laying off 20 percent of the 160 workers at the stations, officials say, marking the largest cutback since they were created in the 1980s. The taxpayer-funded broadcasts are also being told to switch programming toward more hard news and less commentary.
Radio Marti would go to an all-news format, while TV Marti would lose its nightly half-hour evening news show, in favor of a five-minute news update every half hour.
The new budget appears designed in part to deal with criticism of political bias and propaganda at the stations. It comes in the wake of a damning report in early February by the Government Accountability Office, which found that fewer than 1 percent of people surveyed in Cuba listen to the Marti stations. The report also raised questions about poor standards of journalism at the stations, including editorializing, use of unsubstantiated reports coming from Cuba, and offensive and incendiary language.
Officials describe the new budget as an effort at "streamlining" programming, in an effort to increase the audience in Cuba in response to feedback from audience research.
"This is being receptive to what is in the interest of listeners in Cuba," said Letitia King, a spokesperson for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs a stable of federal broadcast stations worldwide, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
While the cut is not unexpected in a time of severe federal budget trimming, it also represents a strategic downgrading of the Cuba program, compared with other parts of the world.
The overall global broadcasting budget proposal was $745.5 million, up about 4 percent from 2009. The proposal adds money for Voice of America's broadcasts to Afghanistan and Pakistan, establishes a Russian language Internet site for Central Asia and pays for a television and radio equipment replacement program for Middle East broadcasts.
The changes leave both supporters and critics of the Marti stations scratching their heads. Advocates of the stations wonder how the government expects them to fill the programming slots once the commentary is removed. Some exceptions to the all-news format will be allowed, said King.
"We won't be dispensing with sports. They will continue to broadcast Major League Baseball for example."
The budget must still be approved by Congress later this summer, where it will face a challenge from some members who want TV Marti scrapped altogether.
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