VOA journalists resist plans to restrict mission in support of media freedom

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Voice of America (VOA) marked its 65th anniversary Saturday amid plans to cancel radio broadcasts to many countries where press freedom is under attack. These program cuts are resisted by many former and current VOA journalists who see them as a dangerous departure from VOA's mission to support press freedom worldwide. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) - a bipartisan body managing VOA and other U.S. international broadcasts - plans to expand news coverage to the Middle East, North Korea and Latin America by eliminating or reducing programs to Russia, Tibet, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and a number of other media-at-risk countries. Acting with apparent approval from the White House, the BBG also want to eliminate VOA's flagship English radio broadcast News Now.

Former and current VOA journalists who have criticized the BBG's plans as a betrayal of VOA's support for media freedom are circulating two online petitions asking the U.S. Congress to stop the proposed program cuts.

One of the petitions specifically opposes the planned elimination of VOA Uzbek radio broadcasts by pointing out that Uzbekistan's ruler Islam Karimov has effectively silenced political opposition and eliminated or forced underground nearly all independent media outlets.

Cquote1.svg this lack of consistency sends a terrible signal to defenders of freedom and courageous journalists around the world. Cquote2.svg

—FreeMediaOnline.org

This is the second time the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) - bipartisan body in charge of U.S. international broadcasts - is trying to eliminate VOA radio programs to Uzbekistan. The BBG had stopped VOA Uzbek radio programs once before, in August 2004, but the pressure from the U.S. Congress and human rights groups forced the BBG to resume them in June 2005.

This year the BBG is again trying to end VOA radio presence in Uzbekistan and in a number of other countries. In addition to VOA Uzbek radio programs, the BBG is planning to eliminate or reduce U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasts to Kazakhstan, Russia, Tibet and China -- countries whose regimes were declared by the Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) as major violators of media freedom and freedom of expression. Uzbekistan's leader Islam Karimov, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Kazakhstan's authoritarian ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev and China's leader Hu Jintao have been all called by Reporters Without Borders "Predators of Press Freedom."

The second online petition initiated by a former VOA Associate Director Ted Lipien focuses on the BBG plans to eliminate VOA Russian radio broadcasts. The petition asks the U.S. Congress to reject the proposed cuts and demand from the White House and the BBG a consistent U.S. international broadcasting strategy in support of freedom.

FreeMediaOnline.org, a California-based nonprofit group founded to support freedom of the press worldwide, described these proposed cuts and reductions in U.S. international broadcasting as nothing less than a "gift to dictators and suppressors of press freedom." FreeMediaOnline.org believes that "this lack of consistency sends a terrible signal to defenders of freedom and courageous journalists around the world. Some of them, like independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, paid with their lives for exposing human rights violations. To make their voices heard, they have relied on VOA Russian radio programs which the White House and the BBG plan to eliminate."

According to the BBG, some program cuts are necessary to fund expansion of U.S. broadcasts to Iran and to other major Muslim countries and regions. Critics such as FreeMediaOnline.org activists have pointed out, however, that there are many other noncritical programs within the U.S. international broadcasting bureaucracy controlled by the BBG. They maintain that reducing these support programs instead could easily pay for new programming to the Middle East and for the much needed enhancement and modernization of programs and program delivery to countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and China.

VOA first broadcast on shortwave to Nazi Germany February 24, 1942, just weeks after the United States entered World War Two. In that broadcast, news announcer William Harlan Hale told listeners, "The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth."

VOA Director Dan Austin says although the technology of broadcasting may have changed in the intervening years, the Voice of America's adherence to its core mission remains the same. He says the agency will continue to honestly and accurately report the news. Austin did not address the issue of the program cuts demanded by the BBG and how they might affect VOA's mission. He was appointed to his position as VOA Director by the BBG.

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