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Voice of America Under Pressure to Toe U.S. Line

October 8, 2001

Voice of America Under Pressure to Toe U.S. Line


The Voice of America, born during World War II, nurtured in cold war propaganda and remade in the 1990's as a source of objective information for a global audience, is under renewed pressure to be a salesman for government policy in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Suddenly, as attacks on Afghanistan begin, people all over Washington have opinions on the mission and quality of an agency often ignored as a bureaucratic backwater. That is because in countries whose people have limited access to objective news, radio services like the BBC and the Voice of America attract substantial audiences.

But as the V.O.A. reaches out to distant countries, the hatreds fed by those countries' wars reach back into the V.O.A.'s studios. Its Pashto-language broadcasts are under constant attack by anti-Taliban ´migr´s, who call the service the Voice of the Taliban. The State Department, sympathetic to the critics, tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the V.O.A. from broadcasting any of its recent interview with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader.

After that quarrel, the Bush administration replaced the agency's acting director last week with another Voice of America official with strong conservative credentials. Its governing board awaits the appointment of three new members.

Congress is also considering legislation creating a new service, Radio Free Afghanistan. Its need for experienced Pashto- and Dari-speaking broadcasters could drain resources from the V.O.A. In the midst of these developments, a core question is being asked: what role should the agency, with its credo of dispassionate reporting, play now, when the Bush administration is passionate about fighting terrorism with every available weapon? It is a question likely to frame a hearing on Wednesday of the House Committee on International Relations.

The Voice of America's core work for the last six decades has been broadcasting news, sports, entertainment and official government opinions around the world via shortwave radio. Some V.O.A. broadcasts are in English, but most of its 800 journalists work for the services that broadcast to tens of millions of people in 53 languages.

The agency's corner of the diplomatic bureaucracy has undergone two major changes the last six years. In 1995, its governing board was reconstituted as a firewall between the agency and the administration. In 1999, the Voice of America was spun off from its parent, the United States Information Agency.

The broadcast group's 1,200 employees are used to having international and bureaucratic controversies seep into their daily lives. But there is a new intensity to today's debate. In a recent e-mail message to his staff — before his boss was replaced last week — the V.O.A.'s news director, Andre deNesnera, wrote, "During the past few days, there has been a systematic attack on the Voice of America — more specifically, an attack on Article One of our charter, which states that we should be a Āreliable and authoritative source of news' and that our news should be Āaccurate, objective and comprehensive.' "

Mr. deNesnera's probable new boss, Robert R. Reilly, seemed to echo these sentiments last week.

Mr. Reilly, a conservative in the information agency's policy division — essentially, the government's editorial page — was named last week to replace the acting director, Myrna R. Whitworth. (His appointment is expected to win quick approval by the board of broadcasting governors.)

In staff meetings and a later interview, he said, "I would not allow the integrity of our news operation to be compromised." To do so, he said, "would be a devastating blow to the public diplomacy of the United States and a squandering of the fund of trust that has been developed over the decades in our overseas audiences, who turn to V.O.A. for accurate and objective news."

The words, which Mr. Reilly used at a staff meeting and repeated in the interview, were welcomed by the journalists. But some expressed concern about a 20-year-old memo reflecting Mr. Reilly's onetime view of V.O.A. The memo, written to Charles Z. Wick, the Reagan-era head of the United States Information Agency, concluded, "It is time we recaptured the words Ābalance' and Āobjectivity' from the rhetorical excesses of the left and re-established them to stand for the full truth about this country — the last and best hope of freedom in the world."

Asked about the memo last week, Mr. Reilly said: "It's a wonderful document of the cold war era. This is a different war and a different era."

But some are still willing to make the same case. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who is chairwoman of the subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, said of V.O.A. broadcasts, "If we turn this into a PBS documentary — seesawing on every side and being balanced — that's not promoting democracy."

One of the most visible critics of the agency has been the New York Times columnist William Safire, who has urged the creation of a Radio Free Afghanistan.

Questions of objectivity have always dogged the Voice of America because it is a government agency and because its foreign-language services have always had to deal with echoes of homeland conflicts when they recruited broadcasters multiethnic states.

For years, broadcasts in Pashto, the language of Afghanistan's central region, from which the Taliban emerged, have been attacked as pro- Taliban by followers of the Northern Alliance. The rebel coalition is dominated by ethnic Tajiks, for whom the V.O.A. broadcasts in Dari.

In 1999, a Pashto reporter fanned claims of bias when he disrupted a news conference, yelling at young women who had recently left Afghanistan and were discussing their physical and psychological oppression by the Taliban. The reporter, who loudly accused the women of lying, was disciplined by V.O.A. officials.

Both Mr. deNesnera and the agency's former director, Sanford J. Ungar, now president of Goucher College in Maryland, praised the overall work of the Pashto service. "It does a good job under very difficult circumstances," Mr. Ungar said.

The service's contacts with the Taliban government gained it the interview with the Taliban leader. Its critics within the V.O.A. quickly let the State Department know. Within two hours, members of the board of broadcasting governors were hearing the State Department arguments that the mullah's words should not be aired. Divided, the board did nothing.

Four days later, the V.O.A. defied the diplomats and broadcast parts of the interview. Asked Friday if the service should be free to interview anyone, its prospective director, Mr. Reilly, said: "Of course. That's part of a journalist's job." But, he added, "Andre and I will insist equally that those interviews be placed in a broader context."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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