Professor gives Congressional testimony on TV Marti

TV MARTI HAS VIRTUALLY NO AUDIENCE, VIOLATES INTERNATIONAL LAW AND SHOULD BE CLOSED

PREPARED STATEMENT OF JOHN S. NICHOLS
Professor of Communications and International Affairs
College of Communications
The Pennsylvania State University

Before the Subcommittee on International Organizations,
Human Rights and Oversight
Committee on Foreign Affairs
U.S. House of Representatives

Hearings on “TV Marti: A Station in Search of an Audience?”

June 17, 2009

 

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify.

Television Marti has virtually no audience in Cuba and has little relevance in the Cuban domestic dialogue about the historic political transition currently taking place there. Although estimates vary, the total expenditures -- including both direct federal appropriations and the substantial indirect costs -- to operate TV Marti since it went on the air in 1990 probably exceed a half-billion dollars of taxpayer money. Further, TV Marti has huge non-financial costs to the United States. The station currently is operating in violation of our international treaty obligations and is seriously undermining our foreign policy interests.

Therefore, in a time of financial hardship and sagging international reputation for the United States, to continue spending tens of millions of dollars per year on broadcasts that are ineffective, wasteful and tarnish the U.S. image abroad is throwing good money after bad. Congress and the new administration should close TV Marti at the earliest opportunity.

My conclusions are based on more than 30 years of research on Cuban communications issues, during which I was active in the longstanding Congressional debate about TV Marti. I have taken the liberty of attaching my 1988 testimony to another subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee, in which I argued against the authorization of TV Marti because it probably would not be seen on the island, would operate outside the bounds of international broadcast regulations, would compromise U.S. national self-interest, and would accomplish nothing that could not be achieved more cheaply through other, less-confrontational means. Those predictions hold up pretty well in 2009.

In the summer of 2007, after the airborne version of TV Marti (dubbed AeroMarti) became operational, I had the opportunity to conduct extensive follow-up research in Cuba regarding the effectiveness of the plane and the whole range of communications issues related to Radio and TV Marti. The trip was arranged and funded by the Cuba Program of the Center of International Policy, and I was joined by the program’s director, Dr. Wayne S. Smith, a leading expert on Cuba who formerly was director of Cuba Affairs in the Department of State and chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and his assistant, Jennifer Schuett.

I was given wide access to top Cuban officials and leading communications experts, including Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly; Josefina Vidal, director of the North American section of the Ministry of Foreign Relations; Carlos Martinez Albuerne, director general, Control and Supervision Agency, Ministry of Informatics and Communications; Luis Acosta Echeverria, first vice president of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT); Fabio Fernandez, director of social research for ICRT; and Arnaldo Coro Antich, academic, journalist and leading Cuban expert on electronic communications. And the Cuban officials supplied me with substantial documentary evidence in support of their positions on these questions.

Audience of TV Marti

To answer the central question of the subcommittee (Does TV Marti have an audience on the island?), it is probably best to first tackle two sub-questions: Can TV Marti be seen in Cuba? And, to the extent that it can be seen, do people in Cuba choose to watch it?

The answer to the first sub-question is: 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. Despite the many expensive technological gimmicks funded by Congress, such as moving from VHF to UHF broadcasts and changing the transmitter platform from an aerostat to an airplane, the basic physical properties of television broadcasting prevent TV Marti from delivering a signal to the island that is sufficiently strong to compete with Cuban counter-broadcasts and that can be seen by any significant number of people there.

The reason is that television is a short-distance, line-of-sight form of broadcasting. While putting the transmitter in an aerostat or airplane extends the potential distance that a TV signal can cover, the transmitter must have considerable power to push its complex and data-heavy signal over even short distances under ideal circumstances. The typical coverage area for a broadcast television station is roughly 50 miles, but the distance between the TV Marti transmitter and potential audiences in Cuba is double or triple that. Every time the distance that a TV signal must travel doubles, the transmitter power must be quadrupled. But AeroMarti -- TV Marti’s airborne transmitter -- carries a relatively small payload and, therefore, presumably has a transmitter that produces only a fraction of the power of a regular terrestrial TV transmitter.

Consequently, 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 -- which it has the legal right to do under international law -- and the TV Marti signal is disrupted and cannot be seen in the surrounding area. As a rule of thumb, the TV Marti must be hundreds of times stronger at the point of reception than the Cuban counter-broadcasts simply to be seen. Given the power needs and distance limits, that is a level that TV Marti is incapable of reaching.

Therefore, unless TV Marti figures out a way to overcome the laws of physics (which I seriously doubt), its broadcasts cannot be seen on the island without the compliance of the Cuban government -- no matter how many more expensive technologies the U.S. government invests in.

In sharp contrast, the transmissions of the two satellite services that simultaneously carry TV Marti programming can be seen in Cuba. The coverage area of the Hispasat satellite blankets the entire island, and Direct TV local spot beam reaches the North Central portion of the country with a high-grade signal. In addition, there are an unknown -- but probably significant -- number of satellite dishes in use in Cuba. As a result, TV Marti -- along with scores of other television programming options -- is easily available to those who are connected to these bootleg satellite reception networks. Although it is much easier to jam a satellite circuit than an over-the-air broadcast signal, to do the former would be a serious violation of international telecommunication regulations and, as a result, Cuba has not hindered the satellite transmission of TV Marti.

That leads to the second sub-question: Of those Cubans who can view U.S. programming via an illegal satellite dish connection, how many choose TV Marti over the wealth of programming options, including Spanish-language content from Miami commercial stations and other countries in the region? While it is nearly impossible to precisely quantify the number, the answer to the question is that the audience of the satellite version of TV Marti is very small. 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 -- primarily entertainment -- programming. My Cuban friends, for example, regularly watch "House" and "CSI-Miami." While most of them are intellectuals and clearly not representative of the larger Cuban population -- and regardless of their private opinions about the Cuban government -- they insist that TV Marti simply is not part of the larger political discourse and, consequently, is not relevant to the future of their country.

Therefore, the answer to the subcommittee’s central question in this hearing is that the audience for TV Marti in Cuba is extremely small. 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 satellite transmissions of TV Marti, which cost only a small fraction of the roughly $6 million per year to broadcast from AeroMarti, are marginally more cost efficient but still garner only tiny audiences. By any reasonably cost-benefit analysis, TV Marti is extremely wasteful and should be closed.

International Telecommunication Regulations

The U.S. government is in knowing and willful violation of its international treaty obligations by continuing to broadcast via AeroMarti, the airborne transmitter of TV Marti. Shortly after TV Marti went on the air in 1990, the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations body responsible for implementing international broadcasting treaties and coordinating the use of the airwaves, notified the United States that TV Marti was not in compliance with provisions of the International Telecommunication Convention -- to which both Cuba and the United States are signatories -- and directed the United States to take corrective action. The United States obviously has not complied, and in the intervening years, the ITU has frequently repeated its determination to no avail.

The regulatory basis for the ITU’s decision is detailed in my attached 1988 testimony and will not be repeated here; however, it is important to underline that the international telecommunication regulations in question -- while arcane -- are extremely important to U.S. interests. The very provisions that TV Marti flouts were adopted as international law in the late 1940s at the insistence of the United States -- and over the stiff opposition of the Soviet Union -- because they not only ensure the most efficient use of the international airwaves for the benefit of all countries but also are critical in protecting the U.S. domestic broadcast system from external interference. To violate such regulations is obviously counterproductive.

The responses of the U.S. government to the ITU’s determination regarding TV Marti have ranged from silence to hostile rebukes of the U.N. agency. This is particularly unfortunate because the United States was the primary architect of the international framework that we rely on to tackle the many grave problems (such as human rights violations, nuclear proliferation, climate change and -- in this case -- misuse and degradation of the broadcast spectrum) that span borders and cannot be resolved by individual nations. The United States advocated an international legal system because it was the right thing to do and, at the same time, was in our national best interests. But, in recent years, Washington has grown contemptuous of this multilateral approach to solving collective problems and too often has selectively complied with only those treaty obligations that satisfy its short-term political needs.

President Obama campaigned on the promise that his administration would re-engage the United States in the world community and rebuild respect for the rule of law and international organizations. While TV Marti’s disregard for international telecommunication regulations is nothing on the order of violations of -- for example -- the Geneva Conventions against torture, it is symptomatic of the same double standard by which the United States sets rules for the rest of the world and then breaks them. Such actions have serious long-term consequences. If the United States wants others -- such as the government of Cuba -- to obey international law, it must do so itself. (See Jorge I. Dominguez, “Unrepentant Power,” Foreign Policy, January/February 2008, pp. 71-72, for an excellent explication of this point. Dominguez, vice provost for international affairs at Harvard University, is a distinguished scholar of Cuban affairs.)

Furthermore, it is at least ironic that, while TV Marti is supposedly about freedom of information for the Cuban people, the U.S. government has not been forthcoming in releasing information to the U.S. public about its operation of the station. I have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for relevant unclassified documents, but almost all of those requests have been ignored or inappropriately denied. It is equally ironic that most of the three-way correspondence among the United States, Cuba and the International Telecommunication Union was supplied to me by Cuban officials. (I wish to acknowledge in particular the cooperation of Carlos Martinez Albuerne, the director of the Cuban counterpart to the Federal Communications Commission, for releasing considerable documentary evidence to me. I also wish to thank Erika Polson, a soon-to-be graduate of Penn State’s mass communications Ph.D. program, who assisted me in my most-recent wave of failed FOIA requests to various federal agencies.) Dr. Benjamin Cramer, a recent Penn State Ph.D. specializing in communications law, and I currently are culling the documents released by the Cubans and using them to update my 1988 testimony. We would be pleased to share that more detailed legal analysis with the subcommittee when it is completed.

Conversely, I would like to applaud the Chairman for requesting the GAO report that is the focus of today’s hearing. In my opinion, it is the best and most complete government study on TV Marti to be released to the public, and it has added greatly to the public dialogue on the topic.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that everything TV Marti claims to accomplish (or would if it was viewed in Cuba) can be easily achieved by other means that cost far less -- in many cases, nothing -- to the U.S. taxpayer; do not violate international law; and do not unnecessarily complicate U.S. foreign policy interests. For example, if Congress is serious about improving communication with Cuba, it would pass HR 874 (Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act) and restore the right of U.S. citizens to travel freely to the island and engage a meaningful and productive dialogue with the Cuban people. In addition, the recent announcement by the White House that it intends to authorize U.S. companies to expand modern telecommunication links with Cuba -- seriously impeded by the U.S. embargo -- is an important step in the right direction.

In other words, there is nothing to lose by closing TV Marti and much to gain. The station is not needed -- indeed, it is counterproductive -- to expanding communication with and fostering democracy for the Cuban people.

Mr. Chairman, TV Marti is an embarrassing and expensive failure that undermines important domestic and international interests of the United States. Consequently, Congress should pull the plug on the station as soon as possible and open up real opportunities for effective communication with the Cuban people. Thank you.

Last Updated June 18, 2009