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Voice of America staff petition to Congress

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Original petition:

Friends and followers of VOA and other US publicly-funded overseas networks,

U. S international broadcasting is seriously threatened at a time when strong and substantive American voices to other countries are more important than ever. Although broadcast hours have been increased to the Middle East and Islamic world, taxpayer funded, pop-music networks have replaced comprehensive news reporting and analysis there.

Language broadcasts to most of Central Europe have been abolished, and during critical hours, the Voice of America is silent in English. After four years of fighting to maintain VOA's high journalistic standards and comprehensive reporting, the highly respected director of VOA Central News, Andre De Nesnera, was removed from his position this past Thursday.

Since 9/11, actions taken by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the oversight entity for U.S international broadcasting) have limited the scope and effectiveness of the Voice of America and its sister grantee radios. Friends of the Voice of America, mainly former staff and VOA retirees, have attempted to bring attention to the systematic dismantling of this important public diplomacy instrument.

Now, some 450 current VOA employees, in a petition being circulated on Capitol Hill today, are calling on Congress to investigate the actions of the BBG. The BBG assumed sole oversight of U.S. overseas broadcasts in 1999, so a fifth anniversary review of its functions is timely, if not overdue.

Contacts:

Alan Heil, 703-780-6658, alh@erols.com

Myrna Whitworth, 301-606-1825, myrnawhitworth@aol.com

Philomena Jurey, 202-363-8117, pjurey@his.com

Supporting statement from Alan Heil


Radio, if it is to serve and survive, must hold a mirror up to the nation and the world. The mirror must have no curves, and be held with a steady hand."
---Edward R, Murrow

Murrow's statement as warclouds gathered over Europe in the late 1930s might well apply today to the nation's largest overseas network, the Voice of America (VOA). The situation at the Voice is deteriorating quickly, despite steadfast efforts on the part of its professional staff to retain its place as a globally respected source of news and information about Middle East, U.S. and world events.

VOA News Director Andre de Nesnera was transferred from his position to senior diplomatic correspondent of VOA July 1 by VOA Director David Jackson. This was no routine personnel move. De Nesnera is an award-winning journalist who had been a steadfast shield against efforts of the presidentially-appointed director over the past two years to second guess VOA news copy, particularly on Iraq. No VOA chief executive has taken such a hands-on approach to the newscasts in at least half a century.

De Nesnera's removal occurred just four days before 450 employees of the Voice (managers, journalists, producers and engineers---about half its staff) circulated a petition on Capitol Hill calling for an investigation of the Voice's oversight board, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG since 2002 has:

--Closed VOA Arabic and replaced it with Radio Sawa, a 24/7 pop music service aimed at youth, rather than intellectuals, government leaders, educators and movers and shakers in Arab society,

--Reduced VOA's global English service from 24 to 19 hours a day, with more cuts to come next October on the eve of the U.S. presidential election. VOA can barely be heard in the Middle East in English as a result of these cuts and it will get worse: there will be only 14 hours on the air daily next winter.

--Abolished ten VOA language services to central and eastern Europe last February 14: Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian,
Bulgarian, Czech, Slovak and Slovene.

The inevitable consequence of these reductions (some of which were made to reprogram funds for the Board's new Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV services) is to weaken significantly the Voice of America's reach around the world.

In technical as well as programming terms, VOA is being reduced to a shadow of its former self --- especially in the Middle East. Board member Norman J. Pattiz, chairman of its Middle East subcommittee, wasted no time after Sawa went on the air on March 20, 2002 in ordering reallocation of VOA frequencies in the region to enhance his pet project. He directed the powerful 500-kilowatt Kuwait and Rhodes medium wave relay stations to serve only Sawa in Arabic, 24/7. That meant that VOA English, Persian, and Kurdish had to rely solely (at least for nearly a year) on less accessible shortwave transmissions to reach their listeners. This was also the case on the Kuwait facility for RFE/RL's Persian Service and its in-depth Arabic language program, Radio Free Iraq. In 2003, however, a much weaker medium wave transmission (105-kilowatts) was added in Kuwait to broadcast parts of VOA Persian, VOA English and Radio Free Iraq.

The Board, meanwhile, abolished RFE's widely listened to Persian Service (Radio Azadi) on December 1, 2002, and replaced it with a Persian language pop music sibling of Radio Sawa named Radio Farda. Farda also was given a place on the weaker Kuwait medium wave frequency, and has gradually been able to increase its substantive news content. But unlike the old RFE Persian Service, it was given a 24/7 schedule on shortwave which still consists of about two thirds music. (The Board decided, in launching Farda, to retain VOA Persian, but only three hours daily --- strengthened a year ago with daily hour long TV transmissions including call-in programs to Iran.)

Now, the Board is abolishing Radio Free Iraq, the U.S. government's last really substantive radio voice in Arabic to the Arab world. RFI will go off the air on September 30, at a time of great uncertainty in Iraq's transition and three months before the deadline for holding the first elections there.

It is true that VOA Arabic used to be on what Pattiz has called "scratchy shortwave" as well as medium wave facilities before the service was abolished in 2002. The big (and costly) innovation has been in leasing terrestrial FM facilities in the Arab world to get Sawa's signals out there in FM and medium wave --- much more popular among listeners than shortwave. VOA Arabic was on the air 7 hours a day. Sawa is on 24/7. VOA Arabic cost the taxpayer $4 million dollars in its final year; Sawa cost $34 million in its first year. Most surprisingly perhaps, Pattiz insisted on the reallocation of many of those "scratchy shortwave" frequencies to Sawa, which devotes about three quarters of its airtime to pop music. The Board also negotiated a contract for a 500-kilowatt medium wave transmitter in Cyprus, greatly enhancing Sawa's reach during nighttime hours into Egypt. (Egypt, unlike Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Djibouti and many of the Gulf emirates, so far has refused to permit Sawa to broadcast on a local FM frequency.)

In terms of expenditures though, these radio initiatives are dwarfed by Pattiz's investment in U.S.-originated satellite TV in Arabic. The Board launched Alhurra TV last February 14, entering a field of more than 170 mostly indigenous channels in the Arab world. The first year cost of Alhurra (The Free One, in Arabic) exceeds $100 million, including $40 million from a Department of Defense supplemental. Thus, in the current budget year, the Board is spending more than a fourth of its total budget for worldwide broadcasting on Sawa and Alhurra-TV.

The early returns on Alhurra are mixed. Although e-mails and some surveys have been favorable, there also have been criticisms of its professionalism in the region and in the West. As one Lebanese-American editor in Washington noted: "The training wheels came off when Alhurra carried cooking and fashion shows during live coverage by Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and others of violence in Fallujah and during the Israeli assault on Rafah. It's ridiculous," the editor added, "and Alhurra was not being taken seriously during a recent visit I made to the region. There's nothing worse than not being taken seriously when you are a journalist."

Small wonder, then, that the VOA staff has called for a Congressional investigation of the Board and its oversight of the Voice. That seems overdue. In the post 9/11 world, with anti-American sentiment at its peak, the nation has not a moment to lose in getting its international broadcasting to the Arab and Muslim worlds right. It can do so by reinforcing--- rather than destroying---the time honored principles of timely, accurate, objective and comprehensive reportage and programming to reformers in those countries yearning for a brighter day.

Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former VOA deputy director and author of "Voice of America: A History" (Columbia University Press, 2003)'

Reprinted with permission of the author

Statement from Kenneth Y. Tomlinson
Chairman, Broadcasting Board of Governors, 7 July 2004

All news organizations that operate under the Broadcasting Board of Governors are Congressionally mandated to have professional standards similar to those of the 1976 VOA charter. It's in the law--the International Broadcasting Act of 1994. The Act requires that all services supervised by the BBG follow the "highest professional standards of broadcast journalism," and that its news be "consistently reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective and comprehensive." The Voice of America (VOA) petitioners cannot be allowed to distort these facts.

And, contrary to allegations contained in the VOA petition, Radio Sawa's listeners in Iraq and throughout the Arab world learned of Saddam Hussein's capture as soon as listeners to any other media outlet. Indeed, it is difficult to take seriously any document that makes such an erroneous charge.

In fact, Sawa expanded its news coverage on the day of Saddam's capture to include live reports from stringers in Iraq, featuring interviews with ordinary Iraqis and Iraqi officials alike.

Sawa airs 48 newscasts each broadcast day; its millions of listeners are never more than 20 minutes from the next news segment. Alhurra, the Arabic-language satellite television network, broadcasts 10 minutes of news at the top of every hour 18 hours per day; its lineup includes four hours of newscasts, documentaries, talk shows, and a magazine show each day in prime time.

Radio Farda, our round-the-clock radio service for Iran offers its listeners -- over the mullahs' jamming efforts -- eight hours of news and commentary out of each broadcast day.

BBG's achievements go beyond Arabic-language and Persian radio broadcasts: the VOA Persian language daily television news program to Iran established itself with a huge audience within weeks of its debut one year ago this week. VOA's newly inaugurated radio service to Pakistan, Aap ki Dunya, revamped the service and tripled the number of broadcast hours to this key state in the war on terror.

U.S. international broadcasting, far from deserving censure, deserves praise for the successful role it is playing in bringing our ideas -- most important among them, this nation's commitment to balanced, objective media as a pillar of modern liberal democracy -- to a worldwide audience.

Media coverage

U.S. raising new voices to counter Arab media
David Folkenflik

A look at the inner workings of the new official Arabic-Language services and their impact on VOA.

"But as Alhurra and Sawa have blossomed, the older government-sponsored Voice of America Arabic-language radio services have been scrapped. And not everyone is happy with the changes. More than half of the staffers of the Voice of America, the six-decades-old U.S.-sponsored broadcaster, have signed a petition protesting the gutting of its Arab-language services."

Baltimore Sun, 1 August 2004


A Voice of America revamp
Editorial

Voice of America's staff turmoil reflects a more basic struggle over the direction of official U.S. radio.

"VOA's governors argue that the U.S. can't reach enough of its target audience in Middle Eastern countries, where 60 percent of the population is under age 30, with the same style of programming that reached earlier generations. Critics argue that the Middle East's future leaders and thinkers--its budding Nelson Mandelas--are not going to be impressed by a format heavy on rap or rock and light on intellectual substance."

Chicago Tribune, 24 July 2004


Revolt at VOA
Jules Witcover

Some 450 news employees at Voice of America have petitioned to preserve its role as an effective news operation.

"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."

Baltimore Sun, 23 July 2004


VOA Staff Members Say Government Losing Voice

More than a third of the Voice of America's staff has signed a petition accusing the federal government of "dismantling" the international broadcasting agency, while financing a pair of newer, semi-private and separate media operations that the staffers said do not live up to VOA standards.

Brian Faler

Washington Post, 14 July 2004


Voice of America Imperilled
Juan Cole

Prof. Cole posts an extended message from Alan Heil detailing the VOA staff grievances.

"The inevitable consequence of these reductions (some of which were made to reprogram funds for the Board's new Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV services) is to weaken significantly the Voice of America's reach around the world."

Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 14 July 2004


VOA changes prompt staffer protests
Barbara Slavin

A revolt is underway at the venerable Voice of America radio and TV network, which is under a congressional mandate to broadcast news abroad objectively.

"The petition asserts that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S taxpayer-funded broadcast outlets, has been funneling money into new radio and TV stations that are not subject to the same journalistic standards and monitoring as VOA. The new broadcast outlets are directed primarily at the Middle East, where the U.S. image is at a historic low."

USA Today, 12 July 2004


Voice of America Staff Petition to Congress
Juan Cole

A leading U.S. academic observer of Arab politics and culture blasts recent changes at Voice of America's news services.

"This gutting of intelligent US debate and self-presentation to the rest of the world is being spear-headed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and especially by Norman Pattiz. They have already destroyed the Arabic service of the Voice of America, which was among the best radio programming in that language. They have replaced it with Radio Sawwa, which mainly broadcasts Britney Spears and Umm Kulthum to Arab audiences, along with at tiny bit of news and interviews. Most important Arab countries are not even letting it be broadcast (it only is received on FM frequencies)."

Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 10 July 2004


IPI Dismayed by VOA News Director’s Removal
Press release

On 1 July, Andre deNesnera was removed from his position as news director of the Voice of America (VOA) and assigned a reporting job as VOA diplomatic correspondent. The reorganisation to the newsroom was carried out by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) without warning and left many staff feeling concerned.

"Speaking of deNesnera’s removal, IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said, 'I am worried that this is the first step in dismantling the VOA's news structure. As news director, deNesnera stood for the fundamental right of editors and journalists to set the news agenda themselves and his demotion sends the wrong message to both his former staff and any successor.' "

International Press Institute, 7 July 2004


VOA staffers seek Hill probe
Tom Sullivan

Nearly half the staff of the Voice of America (VoA) has signed a petition that will be sent to members of Congress today accusing the Broadcasting Board of Governors of “dismantling the nation’s radio beacon” and calling on Congress to investigate the board.

"The major complaints cited in the petition involve the board’s new services in the Middle East — Radio Sawa, al-Hurra and Radio Farda — which the signatories say provide inadequate news coverage and do not operate under VoA’s charter, which guarantees balanced reporting."

The Hill (Washington, DC), 6 July 2004


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Updated: 8 August 2004.
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