Does U.S. government-funded broadcasting enhance national security by reporting facts to a curious world in a digital age? Billions of multimedia consumers around the planet would readily agree that unbiased information about America and the world is more crucial than ever before.
Contrast the “fake” or distorted news propagated by Russian international channels, or those of Iran, China or North Korea with the solid, comprehensive, objective reporting of Western broadcasters such as the Voice of America or the BBC World Service. There are basic values cherished by all consumers of information, whether they live in sealed-off societies like North Korea or Iran, or Finland and the Netherlands, top-ranked for press freedom by Freedom House in 2016.
Adam Powell, a former journalist, who is now president of the Public Diplomacy Council and director of the USC Annenberg School office in Washington recently told the governors of the five U.S.-funded broadcasters: “To state the obvious, not everything is true… not everything is equivalent. Some things are repulsive to humanity.
“Seizing neighboring countries’ territory by force is not just another ideology. Shooting down civilian airliners, whether Korean Airlines 747 or Malaysian Airlines 777, is not just another point of view. Jailing political opponents in Havana or Caracas is not just an alternative lifestyle. Mass enslavement of women and girls is not just another way of exercising power. Kidnapping of African boys and forcing them to become soldiers is not just another way to govern. These are, by any objective standard, practices which civilized people everywhere can and do condemn.”
All five U.S. international broadcasters are mandated by law or their governing codes to objectively convey such facts to their audiences whether the people they reach are in Beijing or Bujumbura, Moscow or Montevideo, Tehran or Timbuktu. The record 60 million refugees and displaced people in today’s world also depend on the broadcasts, sometimes for their very survival. In addition to the globe-spanning VOA and Radio-TV Marti to Cuba (federal agencies), other entities are Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (fully U.S. funded privately incorporated grantee networks).
VOA is the largest of the networks, chartered by law to comprehensively reflect the United States, its civil society and culture as well as world news. The Voice celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, reaching 236 million people in more than 45 languages each week.
Consider VOA correspondent Heather Murdock’s on scene reporting March 22 from the frontlines in Mosul, Iraq. Her multimedia account (for TV, radio and on line services including exclusive on scene photos), vividly reflects the plight of innocent civilians fleeing as the Islamic State’s occupying forces are pushed westward from a city they have occupied since 2014. “Every day,” Murdock reports, “thousands of people are fleeing Mosul — many running as the walls of their homes collapse… while Islamic state militants fire at the families running away.”
Two days later, there are reports that more than 100 Mosul civilians died when a coalition air raid struck a building where they were detained by ISIS. VOA covers that, too. U.S. and Iraq halt the airstrikes as an investigation of the fatalities begins. An echo of VOA’s pledge in its first broadcast to Germany in 1942: “The news may be good for us, the news may be bad, but we shall tell you the truth.”
Or consider an exclusive documentary depicting Boko Haram executions of civilians in northern Nigeria, footage in a video camera left behind and picked up by a VOA correspondent in the region. The TV images, recorded live a few months earlier, include more than 400 video files, 18 hours of recordings showing Boko Haram chopping off peoples’ hands, whipping a small boy, and executing others in mock trials.
After months of checking and double checking the videos and even visiting places from which Boko Haram has since retreated (it still occupies swathes of territory in northern Nigeria), VOA’s Africa Division produces a documentary released in February.
The videos are shown to Nigeria’s Defense Minister Mansur Mohammed Dan Ali. Watching scenes of Boko Haram militants flogging and beheading villagers, the minister fights back tears. An estimated 7.5 million users have viewed the VOA documentary, many in the local Hausa language and others in English and several of other languages broadcast to Africa and the world by America’s Voice.
Reform is at the forefront in U.S. international broadcasting. After a trial period of two years, RFE/RL and VOA formally launched a multiplatform around the clock service in Russian on February 7. Produced in Prague, Current Time was the first joint live daily recurring program of two networks in the system since RFE was established in 1949. The television-radio-on line service has more than 30 affiliates in countries flanking Russia. It is accessed each week by an estimated two million users in Russia via satellite.
The impact of joint action by the two networks was evident in responses of Russian users to extended live coverage of last November’s U.S. presidential election. One Russian viewer reacted to a four hour live VOA election night broadcast streamed on Current Time: “How great it is to see a free people freely elect their president!” And another, on the surprise victory of Donald Trump: “It’s amazing to see REAL elections in America! In Russia, we can already tell for sure who is going to be elected president in 2018.” And, as a courageous Chinese on line user put it: “I hope President Trump will continue to regard democracy and freedom as the foundation of a normal world and help us achieve the same freedom and democracy that Americans enjoy.” President Trump’s inaugural address was translated and broadcast or streamed live on VOA in 23 VOA languages.
As VOA Director Amanda Bennett wrote recently: “Like my predecessor David Ensor, I see our closest analogue to be the BBC and I often use that comparison in talking about the Voice.” She went on to cite “the immense credibility we have around the world as a result of being in both fact and perception a neutral, independent news service. It would be a mistake to think our readers, listeners and viewers don’t notice and don’t care.”
Take North Korea, for example. Its highest ranking official who has defected, Thae Young-Ho, was interviewed recently by VOA News Center and Korean Service reporters in Seoul, South Korea. In Ambassador Thae’s words: “The Voice of America has been playing a very important role to bring back human rights to every citizen of the world… and when I was a diplomat in the Foreign Ministry, I read every morning and afternoon the materials — we called these reference radio materials — of VOA. And the North Korean regime also pays great attention to the content of VOA, so I think it’s very important that VOA should further strengthen its activity, and also its content so that one day, I hope VOA is remembered by the North Korean people as… the main player who contributed a lot for the reunification of the Korean peninsula.”
More than 120 high-ranking U.S. generals and admirals would readily agree. On February 28, they signed an appeal for investing more in public diplomacy (soft power) to complement the military (hard power), both vital and essential, they said, to the success of their mission. Truth in journalism is part of America’s DNA. In the words of the Founders: “Let facts be submitted to a candid world.” And as a VOA listener in Africa wrote not so many years ago: “Even after the darkest night, there is always the bright dawn of a new day.”
Alan L. Heil Jr.
Summary: As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 125 million people in 44 languages.
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Author: Alan Heil
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