Revolt at VOA

July 23, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Is the Voice of America's mission being compromised by the Bush administration's determination to sell its war in Iraq to VOA's audience in the Middle East?

That's a gnawing question behind a current revolt among about 450 news employees of the government's prime megaphone to trouble spots abroad. They have petitioned Congress to investigate recent shifts in the VOA operation.

So far, the petition appears to have fallen on deaf ears on Capitol Hill, with little evident interest among legislators in a presidential election year to engage in a defense of the protesting VOA staffers.

The nub of their complaint is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the VOA's federally appointed overseer, is shifting the Voice's focus from traditional news reporting to frivolous pop music to appeal to a younger audience in Arabic-language countries.

According to a member of the board speaking on condition of anonymity, there is no significant constituency in Congress for retaining the Cold War focus of the VOA on Central and Eastern Europe, to which programming has been dropped in 10 countries.

Congress, this source says, generally agrees with the board's endorsement of three new creations, Arabic-language Radio Sawa replacing VOA's Arabic-language service, satellite television station al-Hurra and Persian-language Radio Farda, and reducing English-language and other traditional VOA broadcasts.

Mark Helmke, a key aide to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, says it has been a policy of Congress to end U.S.-funded broadcasting into countries such as those in Central and Eastern Europe that have become free. The board, he says, is faced with restructuring VOA to comply with that policy.

In all this, the protesters suggest, the professionalism of the Voice is being eroded by the intrusion of long entertainment segments that conflict with VOA's charter to present the news accurately and fully. The new entities, they say, were not created under that charter.

Board Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson rejects the charge, saying the new programs "are congressionally mandated to have professional standards similar" to those under the charter, and provide numerous news segments.

There also remains concern among some VOA employees that the shifted focus is part of an effort to bolster the Bush administration's political agenda in the Middle East in conflict with the agency's mission. Cited is a 2002 speech by President Bush marking the Voice's 60th anniversary in which he said it "is not neutral between America and America's enemies, between terrorism and those who defend themselves against terror, between freedom and tyranny."

The VOA staffers' petition says the new Middle East broadcast entities created by the board "circumvent a congressional charter ... designed to shield VOA from political interference and to ensure accurate, objective and comprehensive broadcasts. But no such editorial protections apply to the new broadcast entities."

However, the member speaking on condition of anonymity says the board, made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, is a "firewall" that acts effectively against any injecting of politics or propagandizing by the Voice.

Also concerning the petitioners was the reassigning of VOA News Director Andre de Nesnera to the job of chief diplomatic correspondent. The demotion resurrected accounts of how he resisted State Department pressures in 2001 to kill a staffer's interview with Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many protesters see the reassignment as undercutting the VOA's dedication to courageous hard-news reporting.

Mr. de Nesnera has been replaced by Ted Iliff, a former CNN editor and producer, reflecting an increased VOA focus on television. Nevertheless, the change has led Johann P. Fritz, director of the International Press Institute, to express concern that "this is the first step in dismantling the VOA's news structure."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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