Tag Archives: VOA

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

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

NHK credibility on the line

Government-owned news organizations usually cause some people to pause and think about the impartiality of the editorial policy. And yet some of the most respectable news organizations in the world depend on government largesse.

No one will question the quality and independent nature of the BBC.

Likewise, the Voice of America has an international reputation of fairness and impartiality. (A handful of misinformed Americans and anti-US propagandists outside America think otherwise, but the facts are against them.) And has a charter protecting journalists from interference from political control.

In Asia RTHK in Hong Kong fights daily to keep mainland China and the Hong Kong government out of its editorial policy. So far, it has been successful.

Also in Asia the NHK is seen as a global example of a government-financed news organization that digs deep, tells its stories without bias and stays with the facts.

Now, the reputation of the NHK is on the line.

In recent months, some members of the board of governors at NHK have expressed extreme positions, such as the Rape of Nanjing never happened and defended the practice of “sex slaves” during World War II.

Board member Naoki Hyakuta said Japan was lured into the war by America because of the economic embargo imposed after Japan invaded China. He also said Japan was liberating Asia from white colonialism.

According to the Independent in London, NHK’s new chairman, Katsuto Momii, stunned journalists by saying it was “only natural” that NHK should follow the government line on Japan’s territorial disputes with its neighbors. “When the government says ‘left’ we can’t say ‘right’,” he said.

It is that very statement that has people – including other news organizations in Japan – nervous.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe named Momii and Hyakuta to the 12-member board. He also named two other members who have also expressed hardline nationalist views.

Abe has a history of interfering with the NHK prodcuts.

According to The Diplomat:

[Abe] was the central player in the notorious muzzling of a NHK documentary about the comfort women that took place a few years ago. The documentary in question concerned efforts by women’s rights groups in Japan to highlight the government’s failure adequately to compensate surviving comfort women. Abe, already a very senior government official, paid a personal visit to NHK shortly before airtime to insist that the documentary be “fair and neutral.” NHK management immediately called the producers to demand drastic editorial changes to the already completed program. Last-minute revisions included the removal of all criticism of LDP policy and Emperor Hirohito. Also cut were dramatic confessions by two Japanese veterans admitting rape. Criticisms of the women’s movement were hurriedly inserted, including an interview with a discredited revisionist historian. Even the program title was whitewashed, from “Japanese Military’s Wartime Sexual Violence” to “Questioning Wartime Sexual Violence.” Far from being “fair and neutral” the final program was a lop-sided swipe at the redress movement and a complete exoneration of the LDP.

The Japanese High Court cleared Abe of charges of interference and berated the documentary producers for over reacting to Abe’s visit.

If the views of the board find their way into the NHK reporting, Japan and the world will lose what has been an excellent news organization.

A bit more reading on this issue:

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Filed under Asia, Harassment, International News Coverage

Hong Kong freedoms under attack — again

Each year the Hong Kong Journalist Association issues a report on the state of media and civil freedom in Hong Kong. Each year, the report is a little more pessimistic than the previous year.

The 2010 report — “The Vice Tightens: Pressure Grows on Free Expression in Hong Kong” — continues in that depressing pattern.

The report looks at issues where the Hong Kong political and legal establishment are deferring more and more to Beijing or their proxies in Hong Kong.

An issue of direct concern to Hong Kong journalists is the status of government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong.

The government decided RTHK will remain a government department, despite petitions from the public and non-governmental organizations, that it should become an independent public service broadcaster.

The status of RTHK has long been an issue for free-press advocates.

Under its current status as a government department RTHK has limited editorial freedom –although the government said it will issue a charter guaranteeing RTHK full editorial independence.

For many veterans in the battle for RTHK independence, the issuance of a charter is not a victory.

When the Voice of America aired an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Omar September 21, 2001 the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell intervened to kill the story.

He failed.

The attempt by the U.S. government to step in and censor a legitimate news story sent chills of fear among supporters of editorial independence for RTHK. VOA has long been known as a fair reporting news organization. Partly because its charter — signed into law by Pres. Ford in 1976 — protects it.

Point One of the charter states, “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” That means no slanting the news to fit a political agenda.

The folks at RTHK got nervous because if the U.S. government could get away with intimidating VOA, what chance did RTHK have against the Hong Kong or Chinese governments.

In the end VOA won and story ran.

RTHK has always faced massive pressure by the Hong Kong government — British or Chinese — to “be more positive.” Since the handover in 1997 pressure on the Chinese language side increased so much that many journalists feared for their jobs unless they tread gently around stories critical of China.

The HKJA also pointed out the government is unwilling to adopt a more open approach towards government information. The report cites an investigation by the Ombudsman that found misunderstandings of the government  code on access to information.

The cure, said the HKJA is enactment of a freedom of information law.

Again, this has been an ongoing issue that has involved journalism groups from around the world in support of the HKJA position. In 2002 or 2003 the U.S. SPJ president spoke on RTHK about the importance of freedom of information laws.

The HKJA also noted an increased lack of interest by the Hong Kong government to defend its citizens from harassment in China. Two major incidents last year involved the detention of a journalist and a cameraman in Chengdu on trumped-up drug charges as they tried to report on the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake.

In another case Hong Kong journalists were beaten and detained by local officials in Urumqi. The journalists were covering the ethnic riots in that region.

The Hong Kong government promised to follow up on these cases but nothing concrete emerged.

The HKJA said in its report that the government is not living up to its international commitments – under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – to uphold freedom of expression and press freedom.

The Hong Kong government has also been lax in protesting arbitrary rules set up by Beijing to keep out journalists from news organizations, such as Apple Daily.

All in all the past year was another one of concern for supporters of civil liberties and free press in Hong Kong.

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Filed under Asia, Press Freedom