Attempt to muzzle VOA reveals ignorance of media's role

September 28, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Civil liberties groups are concerned about the Justice Department's request to Congress for greatly expanded powers to fight terrorism. While they're at it, they would do well to consider as part of the same fight the State Department's recent attempted muzzling of the Voice of America.

At issue was an exclusive VOA interview with Mullah Mohammad Omar, head of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In it, Omar repeated that the Taliban would not turn over suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and asserted that "America has created the evil that is attacking it."

Before the interview could be aired, State Department officials got members of the VOA's board of governors to kill it. Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it wasn't "appropriate" for the Voice, federally financed but supposedly independent of the department, "to be broadcasting the voice of the Taliban into Afghanistan," and not "consistent with their charter."

FOR THE RECORD - A quotation in a Sept. 28 column by Jules Witcover, "Attempt to muzzle VOA reveals ignorance of media's role," should have been attributed to Voice of America newsroom director Andre DeNesnera. The Sun regrets the error.

Only a brief voice clip of the interview was used along with parts of another with an anti-Taliban spokesman. It subsequently was leaked to CNN and newspapers, and more than 150 VOA staff members, expressing outrage, signed a petition sent to the board charging censorship.

VOA, over the State Department's objection, finally did air the report, including parts of the Omar interview. Mr. Boucher said State "regrets" the action as not "in the tradition" of the VOA and will "look into" the defiance.

At one point earlier, a mass resignation of VOA reporters and editors was threatened. One senior editor told me: "We're taking this one step at a time. We've made our point. We hope they [the board of governors] have learned a lesson."

The VOA, once under the jurisdiction of the State Department, got its own charter from Congress in 1976. It was moved from the department in 1999, and an overseeing board of governors was appointed with State Department representation. The charter stipulates that VOA be a "reliable and authoritative source of news" that is "accurate, objective and comprehensive."

In a staff memo, VOA's news chief, Andrew deNesera, called State's action "a systematic attack on the VOA" and its charter. He praised the staff for landing "a worldwide scoop. ... Networks, newspapers and wire services can only dream of such an interview," he wrote. "We got it."

But instead of praising VOA, he went on, State "quashed the interview, using the dubious reasoning that `you don't give a platform to terrorists.' " He called the action a "totally unacceptable assault on our editorial independence, a frontal attack on our credibility" and "a dark, dark day for those of us who have, for years, fought to uphold journalistic ethics, balance, accuracy and fairness."

VOA's acting director, Myrna Whitworth, also wrote to the staff, urging its members "NOT to fall under the spell of `self-censorship.' If you do, `they' have won." She called on them to "continue to interview ANYONE, ANYWHERE."

The initial muzzling came after a New York Times column by William Safire headlined "Equal Time for Hitler?" in which he castigated VOA for airing another interview with another Islamic leader he said had ties with a terrorist group.

"VOA is the wrong voice in this area in wartime," he wrote. He called for a greater role toward Afghanistan for Radio Free Europe, another federally supported news agency with a more specific mission of disseminating American political perspectives abroad.

Criticizing VOA for being "even-handed" when "the nation is on a kind of war footing," Mr. Safire observed that "even in peacetime, news credibility does not flow from splitting the moral difference between good and evil. In the climate of today's undeclared war, private media in democracies are free to take either or neither side, but U.S. taxpayer-supported broadcasting is supposed to be on our side."

But the responsibility of any credible news organization is to gather information wherever it can be found and report it rather than propagandize on behalf of "our side." As a one-time publicist and speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, Mr. Safire can be forgiven for not appreciating the difference, even now as he adopts the journalist's cloak.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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