Mullah Omar, VOA and the SPJ: An Issue Revisited

The latest reports of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar Mohammad remind me of how the SPJ was a vital part of an effort to stop the George W. Bush Administration from interfering with the editorial independence of the Voice of America.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks a VOA reporter got an exclusive interview with Mohammad. The VOA planned to run excerpts from the interview as part of a larger story on Afghan reactions to a speech by President Bush. Almost immediately, the White House, State Department and Pentagon raised objections to the airing the interview, arguing such a broadcast gives a voice to terrorists.

The Voice of America – and other U.S. government broadcast outlets such as Radio Free Asia — is controlled by an independent board of governors. The creation of the board came about when VOA’s home agency – U.S. Information Agency – was wrapped into the State Department. The idea was to ensure the news organization was not controlled by a policy making agency of the U.S. government.

The VOA Charter that protects the VOA editorial independence from government interference was drafted in 1960 and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

The points of the charter are very clear:

  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.

The Bush Administration brushed aside points one and three. It weighed in – heavily – to have the Mohammad interview spiked.

Voice of America reporters responded with letters complaining about the attempted censorship by the U.S. government in violation of the charter. And for a while the issue in the United States was moving in the direction the administration wanted. Fortunately, the SPJ International Committee caught wind of the situation and mobilized support for the news organization.

The SPJ and the Hong Kong Correspondents Club issued similar statements condemning the actions of the Bush Administration and called on it to honor the VOA Charter and the editorial independence of the reporters and editors.

Other groups around the world soon also rallied to the side of editorial independence.

In subsequent years, the SPJ followed the efforts by Bush Administration officials to limit the independence of VOA reporters.

2001 SPJ Convention Resolutions

WHEREAS the Voice of America in September obtained an interview with Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, and

WHEREAS the U.S. Department of State sought to intervene against use of that interview, and its spokesman called the broadcast inappropriate, and

WHEREAS the VOA nevertheless used the interview in a five-minute report in the local Afghan languages and in its English broadcasts, and

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…

2004 SPJ Convention Resolutions

WHEREAS, the Voice of America has editorial independence protected by law and executive order, and

Whereas, VOA journalists have received numerous awards for excellence in journalism, including several from the Society of Professional Journalists, and

Whereas, the U.S. government has attempted since 2001 to curtail VOA’s reporting, including an exclusive interview with the head of the Taliban, and

Whereas, the independent Broadcasting Board of Governors scuttled a plan in 2002 to shut down all but two VOA bureaus after journalism and human-rights organizations stepped forward to criticize the action;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists supports the journalists of VOA who seek to report without bias stories of importance and interest to the world community, and

Be it further resolved that SPJ opposes any actions by the U.S. government to diminish VOA’s news-gathering capability or the integrity; and that copies of this resolution be sent to VOA and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration worked slowly and surely to punish the reporters and editors who authorized the interview, conducted the interview and who raised the alarm over the administration’s attempts to censor the organization. Reporters and editors were reassigned to less sensitive areas or strongly encouraged to take lucrative buy-outs and leave VOA.

The battle for editorial independence in VOA continues. Reporters and editors still report of behind the scenes pressure from policy agencies – Pentagon, State Department, White House, etc – to go soft or hard on stories, depending on government policy. The reporters and editors continue to push back and continue to put out excellent and balanced stories.

And these journalists deserve our continued support. There are unthinking members of our profession and within the SPJ who dismiss the VOA as “just another government propaganda” operation. If they paid attention to the VOA and its charter, they would know it is one of the best and most trusted news organizations in the world.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Censorship, SPJ, Terrorism

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