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David Ensor Keynote Speech to the Public Diplomacy Council

VOA Director David Ensor delivering keynote address to a Public Diplomacy Council forum on November 12, 2013 at the State Department's Marshall Center in Washington, D.C.

VOA Director David Ensor delivering keynote address to a Public Diplomacy Council forum on November 12, 2013 at the State Department's Marshall Center in Washington, D.C.

[The following is the text of a speech by VOA Director David Ensor as prepared for delivery at an event sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Council on November 12, 2013 at the State Department's Marshall Center in Washington, D.C.]

It is a pleasure to be here today with the Public Diplomacy Council to speak about the important role Voice of America plays as an instrument of Public Diplomacy.

VOA was once part of the US Information Agency, which was, as most of you know, established more than 60 years ago, and at one time was headed by the legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

Some current Public Diplomacy Council members are old USIA hands.

I have had a long career in journalism, but public diplomacy is also something I know a little bit about, after spending sixteen months at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan before taking the job I have now at VOA.

I am a big believer in the importance of public diplomacy and I’m hoping to give you a sense of how VOA fits into that picture.

There is a global conversation going on around the world thanks to the ongoing revolution in communications technology. People in what we used to think of as remote places -- like Somalia, or Uzbekistan -- are now part of that conversation.

Gone are the days when VOA relied almost exclusively on shortwave radio to reach audiences around the world. Shortwave now represents only a niche audience in most countries, though there are still some – Nigeria, Ethiopia, Burma and North Korea for example -- where shortwave remains popular, extremely important for us, and likely to remain so.

But the explosion of cell phone apps, the Internet, and satellite TV, has not completely leveled the playing field.

Repressive regimes still crush their opponents and cut off the flow of information so they can maintain their grip on power.

Last year in northern Mali, armed thugs from the ‘Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,’ burst into our radio affiliate in the city of Gao. They ordered the station closed, grabbed our local reporter who was an on-air host, and beat him with the butts of their rifles until he was unconscious. The gunmen then left him for dead in a local cemetery, where they were overheard saying, “he’ll never speak to VOA again.”

In Northwestern Pakistan a couple of months earlier, a gunman with a mask over his head walked into a mosque and at point-blank range shot local VOA reporter Mukarram Khan Aatif in the head. An aide to the local Taliban commander claimed responsibility for the killing, saying, “All reporters of Voice of America are our targets and should resign, otherwise we will kill them.”

These ruthless attacks remind us that a war of ideas is being played out around the world, and journalists from VOA and other organizations are on the front lines.

During a recent trip to Syria, our Middle East correspondent Scott Bobb had a brush with death when he was conducting an interview in the city of Aleppo.

Scott Bobb has travelled multiple times into war torn Syria to report for us. He is one of two winners of our David Burke Award last year.

The other was Idrissa Fall of our French to Africa Service, whose showed courage reporting from northern Mali during its occupation by Islamist rebels.

I’d also like to mention that a journalist from our sister network, Alhurra is still missing in Syria, after he was abducted while on assignment more than one year ago.

Extremist Islamic groups in Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and now Syria, understand the ideological battle underway on the airwaves and in cyberspace.

That is why they threaten, beat, and kill reporters who dare to present balanced or unbiased news. That is why we need to keep on doing what we have always done, and why what we do is so important.

Here is the point: it is not smart to let our enemies dominate the global conversation. It is not wise to let al-Qaida affiliates in Africa, and Pakistan and elsewhere be the only voice that people hear.

As a practical matter, it doesn’t make sense to let hate speech and extremist propaganda go unanswered.

In places like Iran, where the US government has limited ability to speak directly with the Iranian people or with the Iranian government for that matter, VOA reaches about one in five adults every week, according to our most recent data.

Ordinary Iranians take part in our call in-programs, we’ve done cell phone interviews with political prisoners. Our shows about American life, culture and thought, present an alternative to the drumbeat of ‘Death to America’ that has been a staple of Iranian state media since the revolution in 1979.

On the world stage, VOA and other western broadcasters face twin challenges: shrinking budgets, and a proliferation of radio and television broadcasts from countries like Russia, China, and Iran.

China is spending billions of dollars to expand the reach of CCTV and its state run newspapers.

Often, the same state players that tightly restrict or jam VOA signals, seek expanded access and exposure in the United States and elsewhere.

Take the case of Russia. Once the target of VOA cold war shortwave broadcasts -- Russia today has a bustling media market, and we are in the mix.

Social media use is exploding. Podcasts and mobile applications are the new norm. Television remains tightly controlled by the Kremlin, which in 2008 forced VOA radio and TV programs off our affiliate stations.

In response, we adopted an all-digital strategy. We have an excellent TV program that is distributed entirely on the web and uses social media to interact with the audience for a lively give and take about issues that are not covered well in the official media.

In addition, the Russian Service is slowly establishing relationships with online and over the air affiliate stations by providing what we call the “Washington—or US Bureau” concept.

For these affiliates -- as elsewhere in the world -- we leverage our domestic reporting assets and correspondents to provide stations with what they would have, if they had a full blown Washington Bureau. We do standups from our rooftop overlooking the Capitol -- from the White House and State Department -- or even from the Stock Exchange in New York. We provide stations with something they might not otherwise get. The US perspective.

Another major challenge -- and opportunity -- we face today is the explosion of media outlets and the proliferation of ways for people to get their news.

Mobile, social media, podcasts, desktop Internet, direct to home satellite and of course radio - there are more of these sources than ever, and things are constantly evolving. In fact we are in the process of changing the way we speak about what we do. We no longer call it radio, since its available on so many platforms, we call it audio. And television. Well, what if you are watching a VOA news spot on your mobile phone? We just call it video now.

Right now the TV sector is where Voice of America is getting the most competition. It is where governments like Russia, China, and Iran are putting their money. RT, Russia’s government backed television channel, is available on Comcast cable and Verizon here in the United States. And of course we all know that Al Jazeera, which is also a State-funded broadcaster, though clearly no propaganda pusher, has gained a foothold.

In Africa, the battle for hearts and minds is well and truly under way.

Iran’s satellite delivered Press TV reaches 10% weekly in Zimbabwe and 7% weekly in Nigeria.

China’s CCTV, which has been investing millions of dollars every year on beefing up its overseas television programing, was recently estimated to reach 3% of the audience weekly in Nigeria and competition is growing all the time.

Russia’s Arabic language version of Russia Today is making inroads in the Middle East – in a recent four-city audience survey in Syria, more people (26%) said they were using Russia Today to follow events in their country than mentioned BBC Arabic, France 24 Arabic, or the US channel Alhurra.

This competition in the TV sector is worrisome because that is where people are getting news, even in traditional radio environments like Africa, and it’s tough for VOA, with its limited budget, to compete.

One area where VOA remains a powerful presence is cultural programming. Music shows, and English language learning are some of our most popular. The State Department has been taking advantage of our English teaching programs, some of which are wildly popular in places like China. Jessica Beinecke, who produces a VOA video program called OMG! Meiyu, has been seen millions of times in China, where young people look to her to learn the latest slang expressions in America.

Another factor that can’t be ignored is the rising power of mobile. Throughout the world mobile phone ownership has exploded. And while many use mobile phones only for voice calls – itself a huge revolution for previously isolated rural populations in particular – mobile is increasingly the gateway to the Web.

In some markets we are developing web offerings designed exclusively for viewing -- or listening -- on mobile phones.

In Africa, industry projections indicate that close to half of mobile subscriptions will be 3G level or higher within the next five years. The future of all media organizations will be closely bound up with this phenomenon.

In summary, VOA faces challenges on a number of fronts. The media environment is changing rapidly. At the same time, the voices of extremism and autocratic states are proliferating.

I like to tell people we are one of the most cost effective ways to fight this. We reach more than 160 million a week, at a cost of less than 200-million dollars. That’s a little more than the cost of a single U.S. fighter jet.

Back In 2009, when I decided to try my hand at public diplomacy in Afghanistan and had the pleasure of working there with your President, Don Bishop, he and I got a first-hand look at the powerful role free media can play in a society that had been sealed off from the World under the Taliban. We saw firsthand too the important impact of traditional public diplomacy programs like the Fulbright Exchanges and American Corners.

We did a number of effective things in Afghanistan while I was there. We focused much of our effort on young people. Sixty five percent of Afghans are 25 or younger.

We funded a Daily soap opera in Pashto, aimed at a young audience and with a strong female component.

On Tolo TV, the cop thriller “Eagle 4” garnered a loyal audience and in a nation where police are not always well regarded, gave the profession a bit of glamor.

We also commissioned a reality TV series called “Birth of an Army”: the goal was to increase recruiting, and make Afghans proud of a force that is getting more effective every day. The show focused on specific recruits and tracked them through boot camp and into the field.

One of the most important things we organized was a program to bring tribal leaders and local mullahs to Egypt and other Moslem countries where they could interact with moderate religious figures. We used to call it the “Mullahs on planes” program.

The programs we initiated in Afghanistan were designed to give people a positive image of their own society -- to instill a sense of hope. It may be some years before we can really assess their effectiveness, but some of them clearly made a real difference.

For their part, VOA programs are effective because they bring people together in the global conversation, and also offer something people want that is simply not available elsewhere -- a window into American thinking.

Here in the U.S. some people think VOA is some kind of U.S. government mouthpiece -- a propaganda broadcaster. It is precisely because we do news, not propaganda, that we are effective.

Having served in Kabul, I have the highest respect for our Department of State and for classic public diplomacy efforts done from embassies. I am also honored that our Board includes the Secretary of State, and also, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, one of our nation’s most distinguished diplomats. They can help our Broadcasting Board of Governors make the best decisions in terms of how much effort to put into which parts of the world. The BBG also operates as a firewall, protecting VOA journalists from political influence from the Administration of the day, whether Republican or Democrat.

But the reason VOA has real impact is precisely because of its editorial independence. It would not make sense, as some have occasionally suggested, to put VOA under the State Department. My friends in the foreign service agree.

What VOA does is to provide news prepared with the goals of accuracy, balance and comprehensiveness. We train and mentor hundreds of journalists. We provide a role model for other journalists struggling to escape from under the thumb of repressive governments.

I like to say sometimes that ‘we export the First Amendment’.

And when we don’t pull our punches, when we report fully and honestly about our own country, its flaws and controversies -- about Watergate, or the NSA and Edward Snowden, or Abu Ghraib -- that is when we do the most to build our audience. That is when we build our credibility, and like all media organizations, we are in the credibility business.

VOA is a powerful voice for America -- far more so than most Americans realize -- and that is because our audiences around the world know that our journalists practice their craft, without fear or favor.

It must always be so.

Thank you.