White House Attack on VOA Misguided and Dangerous

The White House attack on the integrity of the reporters and editors at Voice of America is unwarranted and dangerous. Its claim in its April 10, 2020 1600 Daily posting that “Journalists should report the facts, but VOVOAA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda” is not only false, it puts VOA journalists around the world in danger.

But first some history.

The Voice of America is indeed owned and operated by the US government. It is not a propaganda machine for whatever administration is in power. The reporters and editors have independence to find and report stories, no matter where those stories lead.

The VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and then signed into law in 1974. Here is the concise charter:

The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts.

  1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
  2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
  3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.

In addition, in 1994 when the US foreign policy agencies were re-arranged, a firewall under the 1994 U.S. International Broadcasting Act was built to protect VOA from direct control by any policy making agency.

The firewall prohibits interference by any U.S. government official in the objective, independent reporting of news, thereby safeguarding the ability of our journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference.

The firewall ensures that VOA can make the final decisions on what stories to cover, and how they are covered.

The independence of VOA was re-affirmed in 2016 under the National Defense Authorization Act.

  • The Secretary of State and (Broadcast Board of Governors) Chief Executive Officer, in carrying out their functions, will respect the professional independence and integrity of the Board, its broadcasting services and the grantees.
  • The Inspector General of the State Department and Foreign Service shall respect the journalistic integrity of all the broadcasters covered by this chapter

For details go to the following”

On top of all the legal protection, there is the Code of Ethics that all VOA journalists must agree to as part of their employment. Here are some key points:


Accuracy, balance, comprehensiveness, and objectivity are the qualities audiences around the world expect of VOA. These standards are legally mandated in the VOA Charter.


VOA staff avoid imbalance or bias in their news reports. VOA does not speak for the U.S. government. VOA staff do not accept treatment or assistance from U.S. government officials or agencies that is more favorable or less favorable than that of staff of private sector news organizations.

Accuracy and Balance

    • It is essential that accuracy takes priority over speed in our reporting, programming and online/social media presence.
    • VOA rejects efforts by foreign and domestic special interest groups to use its radio and TV broadcasts, websites and social media sites as platforms for their own views. Regardless of the medium, the views of a single party must be challenged if alternative opinions are unrepresented.


    • VOA always presents a full and fair account of events
    • VOA journalists will not fabricate, distort, or dramatize an event

Context and Comprehensiveness

    • VOA staff avoid using political or other biases in their reporting, programming, websites and social media sites

Past Administrations’ attacks on VOA

In the 1980s, a political appointed ambassador complained that a VOA reporter used the term Contras when discussing the US-backed armed forces fighting the Nicaragua government in the 1980s. The ambassador said the reporter should have called them Freedom Fighters, a term more in line with the Reagan political philosophy.

In 2001, shortly after the Al Qaeda attack on the United States, VOA had the opportunity to interview the head of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. At the time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and were giving Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden sanctuary.

At the time every news organization in the world was trying to get an interview with Omar. The world wanted to know what he was thinking harboring Bin Laden and what he thought might happen in the aftermath of the Al Qaeda attack on the United States.

Omar chose VOA. For a reason.

At the time I knew the VOA Bureau Chief in Hong Kong, which was the bureau in charge of this story. I later met the reporter. They both said Omar agreed to the VOA interview because he knew most of the people of Afghanistan listened to and trusted VOA above all other news services. It was also made clear to him that his interview would not be carried in its entirety but rather would be part of a larger story.

Almost immediately the George W. Bush Administration tried to prevent the interview from getting on the air.

“We didn’t think that the American taxpayer, the Voice of America, should be broadcasting the voice of the Taliban,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

VOA pushed back.

“We were never going to give him an open mike,” Joe O’Connell, director of external affairs for VOA told CNN.

O’Connell said parts of the interview were to be used in a five-minute report on different language broadcasts.

The move by the Bush Administration caused a led to complaints of censorship and that the moves violated the VOA Charter. In the end, the interview got out, but the reporter and many of the editors involved were reassigned in ways that each of them thought they were being punished.

The Society of Professional Journalists was part of an international effort to support the VOA frontline reporters and editors. The SPJ convention in Seattle that year passed a resolution of supportof the VOA journalists.

In that resolution the SPJ stated (in part):

WHEREAS the Society of Professional Journalists believes truth is best revealed in the light of contesting opinions.
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Society commend VOA for its editorial integrity in this matter, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Society salute the courage of VOA’s news executives who risked the displeasure of their own government in the service of their mission to inform, and that it find VOA’s practice in this case an exemplar of the most fundamental principles of democracy, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Society condemn the efforts that were made to prevent VOA from carrying out its mission of responsible, objective and comprehensive reporting,

The SPJ – and journalism groups around the world – stood up for the VOA to protect it from government interference in its reporting. As a result, the VOA has withstood the winds of political control over the years. It remains a news organization widely respected around the world for its independence and fair and accurate reporting.

And now, the VOA is once again being attacked by an administration that wants a propaganda arm rather than a real news organization.

The Trump Administration attack on the VOA in its 1600 Daily commentary on the White House website is uncalled for and dangerous.

The claim that the VOA speaks for America’s adversaries is just plain wrong. The VOA reported on not only how the government addressed the issue but also how dissidents were being harassed by the Chinese government for revealing information about COVID-19 that the government did not want released.

Some examples:

The attack is dangerous because it opens VOA and its journalists to unwarranted attacks.

If the administration tries to make VOA nothing put a public relations arm of the US government – as it implies it wants under this attack – then that would make the journalists agents of the US government and subject to espionage laws and other “agents of foreign power” acts in other countries. It would also make the journalists targets of mobs with “nationalistic” feelings who want to attack any soft target directly related to the US government.

One of the strong points of VOA has been its proven independence from US government political control. When ever it does a news story, listeners around the world know that the story is fair, accurate and not dictated by a political master.

To be clear, there are times when VOA does broadcast something that is the official position of the US government. At those times the statement is clearly identified as the position of the US government. Think of it as an editorial. Divorced from the news gathering arm of the organization.

In addition, the White House statement is playing to a US domestic audience that does not know much (if anything) about the importance VOA plays in providing accurate news to countries with controlled media. Also, they are unaware of how, by being fair and balanced in its coverage, the VOA represents the best of American ideals. Think of it…Here is a US-government news organization airing stories that are often critical of the US government. (Try doing that in China, Russia, Nicaragua, etc.)

The White House statement shows brazen politics and unbelievable ignorance in its statement about the VOA.

Fortunately, the VOA is finding all sorts of support.

And, hopefully, soon the Society of Professional Journalists.



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Filed under Censorship, Human Rights, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

WSJ Journalist Bounced from China and Why It Matters

The Washington Post reported today China denied the visa renewal for Chun Han Wong, a Wall Street Journal reporter. The action came after Wong helped write a report on allegations the cousin of Chinese president Xi Jinping was involved in gambling and potential money laundering in Australia.

As the Post pointed out in the past the Chinese government has retaliated against foreign journalists through the visa process for stories that discussed the private lives and wealth of the families of the country’s ruling elite.

A 2012 Bloomberg News investigative report disclosing the Xi family’s investments resulted in a visa ban for the news agency that was only lifted after extensive discussions between Bloomberg executives and Chinese officials.

At least half a dozen correspondents for the New York Times faced lengthy delays receiving new visas or were expelled outright after the Times published a similar expose that year about former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s family wealth.

Why is this important?

Basically without independent reporting from China the global public would have little information about what is going on in that country. We would not know the economic and social pressures that are at play in the world’s second largest economy and up and coming military power.

And that is what dictators like the Communist Party leadership in China want. They don’t want information about the cracks and flaws in their society. They are especially afraid of the Chinese people learning about  see the lavish lifestyle they lead.

Traditionally the big fear is an outraged farmer class. In the past the governments of China have tolerated a lot of push back from farmers because of their large numbers.The party’s biggest fear is that these farmers would see how well the leadership is living and compare it to the bone-crushing poverty the rural class faced.

Now, however, there is a growing middle class and these folks want to see continued growth. They are also more educated. So they know corruption impedes economic growth. So it is this danger the party leadership faces. They do not want the rising middle class to know just how much wealth the leaders have. Or how they give unfair advantage to their family members.

So for the party leadership their very survival depends on controlling the press and keeping their dirty laundry hidden. And that is why journalists who do what journalists do — finding and reporting on facts — are such a danger to the Chinese government.

The rest of the world needs to know this information because we have to live in a world where China is a major player. Whether it is economics or military, China has a role. And we need to know if they are playing fair or if they are cheating. (And then take appropriate steps.)

Knowing about a government leader’s family connections to wealth and possible criminal activity is a vital part of knowing how to deal with that leader.

And that is what a free press is all about.

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Filed under Censorship, China, Connections, Corruption, Freedom of Information, Harassment, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

How tariff wars affect Main St. America

Here is just a quick look at how imposing tariffs on one place comes back to bite American businesses in the ass.

U.S. whiskey exporters struggle after year of EU tariffs

Some key points:

  • The Distilled Spirits Council said that 63% of U.S. whiskey exports have faced retaliatory tariffs from the European Union, China, Turkey, Canada and Mexico. The EU currently levies 25% tariffs on U.S. whiskey.
  • …at least 11,200 to 78,600 jobs could be lost in the beverage, alcohol and hospitality sectors, which currently employ 2.4 million Americans, if the EU-U.S.-conflict worsened.
  • Foreign governments subject to U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade tariffs have targeted American distilleries and their bourbon and rye whiskeys for retaliation. The industry fears new tariffs under consideration by the U.S. government could result in even higher tariffs on their products in Europe.
  • U.S. whiskey exporters are struggling to recoup lost sales after shipments to Europe plummeted 21% between June 2018 and 2019, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council, a U.S. industry group.

The math in this issue is simple and easy to report. Reuters did a great job of looking at the impact on local employment. This is just one way to make a connection between an international action — tariffs — and local consequences.

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Why foreign assistance is important to US economy

Too many Americans are just plain wrong when it comes to foreign aid.

In January 2016 a Kaiser Foundation survey showed that 15 percent of the American people believe the foreign aid budget represents more than half of the U.S. federal budget.  The average answer from the survey was that the US spend 31 percent of its budget on foreign aid. Only 3 percent had the right answer: 1-1.5 percent.


And now the Trump Administration wants to cut the aid program (and the rest of civilian foreign policy operations) by a third.

Contrary to the attitude that seems to come from the administration and its supporters, the purpose of foreign aid is not to just give away money to make us feel better. In fact, foreign aid is an important factor in improving the U.S. economy.

When poor people in another country start earning more money, they most often use the money to improve the lives of their children by investing in education and health. And once those basic cares are covered, these people then start buying things.

If the country has a free-trade agreement with the United States, that means U.S. products can enter the country with low or no import fees. And that means the U.S. products can be purchased by the emerging middle class.

Helping build a strong middle class in the developing world is part of what development aid is all about. One of the most visible programs in the US Agency for International Development universe is Feed the Future.

I have seen the program in action in Honduras.

Farmers who barely able to grow enough to feed their families were able improve their agricultural output under the Feed the Future program. I saw farmers install healthy stoves — designed to expel the smoke outside the house. The extra income was also used to improve the diets of the families, thereby making the children healthier and better able to learn. And the extra money was also used to educate the children so they can find better paying work when they graduate.

For less than a penny on the dollar, tens of thousands of people in Honduras were brought out of severe poverty — about $1 a day. The lives of these people was improved and their children were given opportunities to improve their future.

And this affects the U.S. how?

By giving young people a viable future, U.S. aid programs keeps them away from gangs — in particular the major syndicates that help move drugs into the United States. Also, by improving the local country’s economy, there are fewer reasons for young people to leave their country for the United States.

And to be clear, Feed the Future is not only for farmers. It works with people who have an idea for a company but who aren’t sure how to proceed.

Norma Linares owns Loma Alta, a thriving food processing enterprise that she and her husband founded in 2014 in their village of Azacualpa, Honduras. The husband and wife team turned about 300 plantains per month into chips, which they sold to local retail outlets. Home-based and family-run, the business started small, generating a net income of around $75 a month.

Soon after Loma Alta’s founding, Linares and her husband started working with a Feed the Future project, where they were introduced to a wide range of training and technical assistance to improve processing efficiency, quality control, and packaging in their business. Feed the Future also helped Loma Alta establish ties with market contacts, giving it year-round access to reliable buyers and a more steady income throughout the year.

Opportunities Sprout from Growing Plantain Business

Eventually the company expanded into other packaged foods and changed from a solely family business to one that hires people to package and sell their goods.

In just a few years this family moved firmly into the middle class in Honduras. And that means they will be able to buy U.S. products. It also means they will be staying in Honduras rather than making the dangerous journey to the U.S. to look for economic opportunities.

For about one cent on the dollar USAID (and the State Department) provide programs and assistance that helps build the economies of other countries, which in turn means more markets for U.S. goods AND reduced immigration.

So what is the more wasteful program: Building a wall and militarizing a border or providing assistance to people to work their way out of poverty?

Common sense says it is clearly the latter.

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Filed under Central America, Connections, Development, Story Ideas

New Provision Threatens VOA Editorial Independence

This item first appeared in the blog site of the SPJ International Committee

Politico reported this week a provision included in the just-passed National Defense Authorization Act would get rid of the bipartisan board running Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other news outlets with a single CEO nominated by the president.

The Voice of America has had a long and strong reputation for presenting the news in a fair and balanced nature in spite of the political winds blowing in Washington. Efforts by administrations to slant the news or to not report events with the full vigor expected of journalists have all failed.

The independence of the VOA was first drafted in 1960 and then signed into law by Pres. Gerald R. Ford.

The Code of Ethics for VOA journalists is also very clear what their role is:

“VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government. They accept no treatment or assistance from U.S. government officials or agencies that is more favorable or less favorable than that granted to staff of private-sector news agencies. Furthermore, VOA professionals, careful to preserve the integrity of their organization, strive for excellence and avoid imbalance or bias in their broadcasts.”

All this was possible because of the multi-party nature of the board of governors that controlled the VOA and other broadcast outlets. Now, according to the Political piece: “Essentially, Trump is finally getting his Trump TV — financed by taxpayers to the tune of $800 million per year.”

The SPJ stood up for the reporters and editors of VOA when the George W. Bush Administration tried to prevent VOA from interviewing and airing its exclusive interviews with the leadership of the Taliban just as the Afghanistan war was starting.

Numerous VOA reporters received the highest awards the SPJ offered for reporting over the years.

All this could change because of a provision slipped into the authorization bill by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce. He argued the CEO structure would make VOA more efficient.

What it also does is make the VOA susceptible to pressure from the White House to become a propaganda organ rather than an honest news organization.

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Filed under International News Coverage, Press Freedom, SPJ