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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

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 VOA.

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 Nesnera.

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 26 studios.

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 of story."

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 develop credibility."

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 responsibility."

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 paper."

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