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 VOA 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.
- VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
- 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.
- 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.
- CNN: (https://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/24/gen.voa.taliban/index.html)
- The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/26/afghanistan.features11
“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.
- China Cracking Down on Those Critical of COVID-19 Response (April 2)
- China Reports Just 8 New COVID-19 Infections (March 13)
- Voice of America experiences record audience numbers due to its robust global coverage of COVID-19
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.
- Washington Post editorial: No, Mr. Trump, VOA is not Chinese propaganda. Now don’t turn it into U.S. propaganda.
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- PEN America: White House Denigration of VOA Unfounded
- (And a bit of historic support) – WHY THE VOICE OF AMERICA REMAINS A VITAL FORCE IN THE WORLD
And, hopefully, soon the Society of Professional Journalists.