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Voice of America staffers seek congressional inquiry

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting    

Voice of America staffers seek congressional inquiry

  • About 460 staffers of Voice of America, a government-funded broadcasting service, called on Congress to launch an inquiry into programming changes and cutbacks imposed by its politically appointed Board of Governors.

July 8, 2004 — Nearly half of Voice of America’s workforce called on Congress yesterday to launch an inquiry into questionable programming cutbacks at the government-funded broadcasting service.

According to a story in The Hill , a daily newspaper that covers Congress, approximately 460 VOA staffers signed a petition that accuses the service’s Broadcasting Board of Governors of “dismantling the nation’s radio beacon” piece by piece and broadcasting “less news, information and analysis to fewer countries for fewer hours in fewer languages . . . at a time when the ability of the U.S. to speak to the world in a clear, effective and credible voice is more crucial than ever.”

According to its Web site, the VOA was established in 1942 to provide the world comprehensive and balanced news coverage of the U.S. VOA broadcasts in 44 languages and received a $151 million congressional appropriation this year for its radio, satellite television and Internet operating systems.

The petition accuses the Broadcasting Board of Governors — eight presidential appointees and the Secretary of State who serve as a “firewall to protect the professional independence and integrity of the broadcasters,” according to the VOA’s Web site — of shutting down the group’s Arabic Service Bureau in favor of new broadcasting entities in the Middle East that lack editorial accountability.

The petition further accuses the board of significantly cutting backing broadcasts transmitted in English from 24 hours a day to 19 and halting broadcasts to 10 Eastern European countries “still struggling with political and economic instability.”

The petition criticizes the board for circumventing its congressional charter — the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 — by launching radio and television entities that are not held to the editorial standards practiced by the VOA.

The major complaints listed in the petition include the creation, under board direction, of three news services in the Middle East: Radio Sawa, al-Hurra (“the Free One”) and Radio Farda. The petition calls Radio Sawa a “slick, music-driven radio service” with “coverage [that] is cursory, and providing little to no context or analysis.” The station did not even report on the capture of Saddam Hussein, the petition said.

Al-Hurra is described as “dismissing widespread criticism of the content, presentation, and premise of [its programming] in Arab and Western news media” and “not reporting breaking news,” including the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin in Palestine.

Radio Farda, which transmits broadcasts to Iran, is accused of replacing VOA Persian and English broadcasts with “redundant” reporting.

“At a time when the Middle East is in flames, it is important to have larger VOA stories with more viewpoints and a range of opinions, as opposed to the abbreviated stories and top-of-the- hour headline stories that the new stations are now broadcasting,” according to Alan Heil, a former VOA deputy director who helped circulate the petition among staffers.

Heil said the board is aiming to commercialize its Middle East stations at the expense of longer news reports by expanding its audience through music-driven, 24-hour radio stations.

“Reporting from the new services lacks balance and editorial oversight,” Heil said. “The VOA had full service programs with rich programming . . . the new services are not even under an obligation to carefully source their information.”

In a statement released through the VOA’s press office, Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the broadcasting board, said Radio Sawa had “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.”

He further defended the board’s actions by pointing out that Sawa broadcasts 48 newscasts each day and Farda runs eight hours of daily news and commentary in Iran.


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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