Just How Independent a Voice?
Voice of America strives for independence, not propaganda.
By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at
the Washington Post.
Every time Spozhmai Maiwandi delivers a newscast to her former
countrymen, she fulfills her late father's dream--that the people of
Afghanistan be able to hear Voice of America in their own language. He
wanted them, she says, to know about democracy.
On a late October afternoon at VOA's Washington headquarters,
Maiwandi and two fellow expatriates--all of whom left their country
following the Soviet invasion--sit in a gently lit studio broadcasting
news stories live in Pashto, the language spoken by the Taliban, to
anyone in Afghanistan or Pakistan with a shortwave radio.
"I sit behind the mike and I just imagine those families sitting
around the radio," says Maiwandi, director since 1991 of VOA's Pashto
service. And people are listening. They e-mail her. When she calls
people in Afghanistan as part of her job, strangers recognize her voice.
A survey two years ago showed that 80 percent of Afghan men listen to
Though Maiwandi is used to relative obscurity in Washington, after
September 11 her work and that of her VOA colleagues began drawing
attention. First there was a critical column by William Safire. Then the
State Department objected to a VOA news story that included statements
by Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar--from an interview conducted by
Maiwandi and another reporter. State made its views known to some
members of VOA's Broadcasting Board of Governors before the piece aired.
But Acting Director Myrna Whitworth, awaiting replacement by a Bush
administration appointee, gave the go-ahead. Almost immediately, the
president named a new director--Robert R. Reilly. Reilly had spent 11
years on the policy side of the organization, which articulates official
government views through editorials and talk shows.
The question of whether VOA should operate as an independent,
American-style news organization or a tool for foreign policy has been
with it almost from the start. Its charter, drafted in 1960 and signed
into law in 1976, essentially charges it with both. VOA will present
"accurate, objective and comprehensive" news; a broad sampling of
American thought; and clear, effective presentation and discussion of
U.S. policies, the charter says.
VOA's director of external affairs, Joseph D. O'Connell Jr., says
he's often asked if the organization simply presents the United States
in the best possible light, putting a spin on everything it airs,
including news. His answer: "We do [that] by telling the whole story.
That by itself says something about us as a country. We're not afraid to
let people make up their own minds."
The news is broadcast in English and 52 other languages to some 91
million people via shortwave, AM and FM radio and online at voanews.com.
It originates from a staff of correspondents plus stringers in more than
20 bureaus overseas and in the U.S., including 60 journalists in
Washington and others in New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. Every
fact in their reports, from 55-second hard news spots to longer
backgrounder pieces, must be double-sourced, says News Director Andre de
The day's stories are pulled together by a staff of Washington-based
writers and editors. On this day in October they're juggling more than
20 stories, including the latest U.S. airstrikes near Kandahar, the
upcoming trial of five Europeans in Laos, the World Series and a
celebration of the Ivory Coast president's first anniversary in office.
Each language service translates stories and broadcasts them from one of
A 21-year VOA news veteran who's been in his current job a year and a
half, de Nesnera says he's had no administration interference in his
operation and wouldn't stand for any. "I'm a journalist," he says. "End
But he feels increased pressure since September 11. "There are quite
a lot of people on [Capitol] Hill who would like this to be the office
of war information," he says. "That goes against everything we've fought
for as journalists over the years. It takes a very long time for us to
The news director found his name and quotes from an internal e-mail
he sent to VOA's leadership in Safire's September 20 column. The
columnist excoriated the news operation for a story that included the
views of a leader of an Islamic group dedicated to overthrowing Egypt's
government--without mentioning that the group claimed responsibility for
the deaths of 58 foreign tourists at Luxor in 1997. Safire noted that
North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms called VOA to protest the
segment as "equal time for Hitler."
De Nesnera says the story "was a mistake but it was not a capital
offense. We should have been more diligent," he says, in fully
identifying the source. "In this very volatile situation," he says,
"everything is kind of magnified and really blown out of proportion."
Reilly, the new director, offers a harsher assessment. "They slipped
up in letting that piece out," he says. "That was a mistake. That was
not up to our standards."
"It's very tricky during wartime," Reilly says. "This place began
during World War II. It pledged itself to telling the truth from the
outset. It never allowed itself to be a platform for Nazi propaganda.
That we not handle the news about these organizations in a way that they
have a platform to promote themselves, that's just part of your
Editorials air in each language, says Tish King, media relations
chief. She says that typically, "an hour of 57 minutes of news might
have a two-minute editorial at the bottom of the hour." An October 25
editorial began, "As President George W. Bush said, the terrorists who
have made war on the United States are evildoers who have no country.
They are parasites--leeches--who try to suck the blood out of any
country that hosts them." The State Department approves all editorials.
Former VOA Director Sanford J. Ungar says the editorials can
sometimes complicate news reporting. "There have been times when
correspondents in the field have been out reporting and there's been a
particularly strident editorial on some subject," says Ungar, who left
VOA in June after two years and is now president of Goucher College.
"This gets brought up with them by their news sources, or government
officials, or people they're talking to," who may think the reporters
share the editorial view.
Reilly says he's never heard of that happening. Besides, he says,
"There's a buffer in the way the programming is presented on the air
that separates what's happening in the news reports and the
editorials.... It's just as clear on the air as when you're reading the
And as for concerns among those on the news side about having a
former editorial writer heading the organization, Reilly says that he'd
be "stupid" to "squander the reputation and trust that almost 60 years
of accurate news reporting has created around the world."
Meanwhile, Maiwandi, working seven days a week since September 11, is
too busy filling the extra hour of news added each day in Pashto (the
other Afghan language service, Dari, also has an additional hour to
fill) to worry about the controversies over the post-attack coverage.
She reads aloud from an e-mail she received from a listener in
Peshawar, Pakistan, in mid-October: "Hello dear sister.... I just want
to appreciate your being brave on 11th of September.... You with
confidence broadcasted the news. On that time I was in Laghman
[Afghanistan] listening to the news with my villagers. And they asked me
to e-mail you in appreciate your braveness."
Edited by Jill Rosen###