July 23, 2014 Washington DC 10:08 PM


VOA in 2020

VOA Director David Ensor

Imagine the VOA newsroom of the year 2020: a multi-ethnic, multi-skilled global hub connected with hundreds of reporters and stringers worldwide. By then, the VOA News Center will gather and distribute trustworthy information to perhaps 250 million people a week in many languages. Most of it will be video news and analysis, much of it watched on phones and tablets.

The bulk of our audience by that time will see or hear us through an affiliate partner – dramatically increasing not only our footprint in the market, but our influence as well. Already today—in 2014—56 percent of VOA’s global audience is reached through television and radio affiliated broadcasters. By 2020, it could be 75 percent.

By 2020, today’s 15- year-olds will be the innovators and game changers in their societies. This tech savvy demographic will set the standard for content delivery: portable, immediate, and interactive. VOA will position itself to meet those needs, with more cutting-edge efforts like the new Hausa Service programming stream — audio, pictures, text — designed especially for the mobile device.

At VOA, we are keeping on track with the human communications revolution and we are doing it cost effectively. In fact, VOA provides our country with some of the best “bang for the buck” of anything America does to reach out to the world. For $196.4 million—the approximate cost of two F-35 jet fighters—VOA currently reaches 164 million people a week. That is enormous reach and gives VOA powerful impact worldwide. It is in our national interest for people around the world to have knowledge about what is really going on, and especially about America, its policies and its values.

Credibility is the key

Of course, building the VOA of the future requires a strong foundation and a clear sense of identity. In today’s world, what is VOA for?  From time to time, since its founding in 1942, the question has been posed this way:

Should it be the Voice of America, or the Voice of the United States Government?

In 1942, the United States faced one of the greatest crises in its history, as U.S. and allied forces suffered reverses in Europe and Asia.  The first VOA director, John Houseman, had a choice: Accurately report the grim news or, as we would now say, spin it for the sake of America’s image.  Looking back on that perilous time a few years later, Houseman said, “In reality, we had little choice.  Inevitably the news that the Voice of America would carry to the world in the first half of 1942 was almost all bad.  [But] we would have to report our reverses without weaseling.  Only thus could we establish a reputation for honesty which we hoped would pay off on that distant but inevitable day when we would start reporting our own invasions and victories.” 

The issue came up again in the seventies. President Nixon’s administration began applying pressure on VOA, not only for its coverage of the Vietnam War but also of the Watergate scandal that eventually forced Mr. Nixon’s resignation.  How did VOA respond? That is captured in Alan Heil’s Voice of America: A History.  Heil, a former correspondent and deputy VOA director, cites a Wall Street Journal story praising VOA for broadcasting, in its entirety, a call by a senator from Nixon’s own Republican Party for him to resign.  “[His] open call for resignation was news,” the Journal wrote, “and the Voice of America is in the news business.” 

VOA is, indeed, in the news business, and that was made the law of the land in 1976, when Congress approved and President Ford signed the VOA Charter mandating that it serve as a “consistently reliable and authoritative sources of news” that is “accurate, objective and comprehensive;” that VOA report on America and American thought, and that it present “the policies of the United States.”

Quite simply, the Charter is the foundation upon which VOA has built its credibility. It is an indispensable reason for our sizable audiences.

Moving forward, VOA will continue to set a standard, to be widely emulated, for principled, objective and trustworthy journalism, based on the notion that the proper response to propaganda is honest reporting, not counter-propaganda.  It will reflect the conviction that if people have good information, they will make better decisions on matters that affect their lives. Done properly, this will not only ensure a wider understanding of American values and viewpoints, but also enhance respect for the United States as a nation where truthfulness and fairness are highly valued.

Change is Needed

While it would be a mistake to damage that solid foundation, major changes are needed, both in the structure of U.S. international broadcasting and at VOA. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees VOA, as well as Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, is wisely planning to hire a Chief Executive Officer of U.S. international broadcasting. The Obama Administration has asked Congress to pass legislation giving such a CEO full control of all personnel and budgets currently under the BBG. This reform is needed. A complex enterprise with an overall budget over $730 million needs a fulltime boss, and has suffered without one. By 2020, we should be in much better shape under a fulltime leader chosen by the BBG.  

At VOA, we are not only embracing new ways to distribute our content, but also reforming the way we collect and prepare news. This summer we are rethinking the way VOA Central News and our English Division are organized, and moving to a “digital first” newsroom. New beats have been established on topics such as corruption and Internet freedom—topics our audiences have told us they want.  Coverage of U.S. foreign policy and New York business news is getting more resources, as is news about American efforts in health, technology and higher education—areas where the world looks to this country for leadership and innovation. That increased coverage comes from journalists from Persian, Chinese, Spanish, Hausa and other language services as well as Central News correspondents.

Making a Difference

Critics sometimes ask: why should the U.S. government fund a VOA when the world already has an American network in the form of CNN?

For three reasons:

First, CNN, FOX, NBC and Bloomberg are commercial enterprises, broadcasting, for the most part, in English. I once reported for CNN and ABC News—formidable news organizations which choose their markets based on profitability. The decisions about which audiences VOA should reach for are made instead by our Board, the Administration and Congress based on U.S. national interests. Thus, VOA news broadcasts reach terrified residents of northern Nigeria where Boko Haram recently kidnapped 200 school girls and they do it in Hausa, the language of the region. In Ukraine, our television audience has doubled since the Russian invasion of Crimea, and we have added Russian language news for eastern Ukraine. In Iran, even though home satellite dishes that can receive us are illegal, a quarter of the adult population watches at least one VOA TV show a week in Farsi—the largest reach of any western broadcaster in Iran.

The second reason is that not only does VOA reach larger, more diverse audiences than CNN by doing news in 45 languages, but we also define what is “news” differently than commercial networks tend to do. It does not have to “bleed to lead” on VOA.  In Afghanistan, for example, we not only report the latest bloodshed or Taliban bombing, we also report on school and health clinic construction, and other kinds of nation building by the Afghan people and their government, as well as reports on the essential help provided by the West.

The final reason VOA is needed is one that perhaps does not readily occur to many Americans, because in this country we do not have a domestic state broadcaster. There is no real American equivalent of the BBC on our airwaves.  In most of the rest of the world—as in Britain--the state broadcaster is influential, so the significance of the role is well understood. VOA is the international state broadcaster of the United States. That fact brings with it a prestige and influence that is quite simply, priceless. Combine it with our commitment to honest journalism—even about news stories like the Abu Ghraib Iraqi prisoner scandal, that require Americans to examine our own consciences—and you have a winning formula. It is one that has radio and TV networks in many parts of the world lining up to partner with VOA, and to broadcast the work of our trusted journalists. They do so because each day, we answer an essential question on people’s minds in Karachi, Kyiv, Lagos and Caracas: “what is Washington saying?”

In countries where we have a national interest, or where anti-Americanism is an issue, VOA must seek to be part of the conversation. There must be an American voice.

VOA exports the First Amendment concept of freedom of speech and of the press. It combats ignorance, propaganda and anti-Americanism, promotes American ideals and culture, and even saves lives with information for refugees in troubled regions.

Americans understand the importance of hard power—a strong military—but many of our fellow citizens seriously underestimate the potential of our “soft” power, and as a nation, we underfund it. With sensible reform by 2020 VOA can—and should—be doing much more for our country and for the world.

 


Journalism is Not a Crime

A week ago, scores of journalists, media leaders, and the heads of some human rights organizations took to the streets of London, covering their mouths in silent protest against the suppression of free speech around the world. The protest marked 100 days since the imprisonment of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt on trumped-up charges of terrorism.
 
Protesters – myself included – stood shoulder to shoulder outside the headquarters of the BBC, holding blue and yellow placards that said “Journalism is not a Crime.”

What is a crime – and a crime that all too often goes unpunished – are deliberate, targeted attacks on journalists.  Since 2007, 547 journalists have been killed worldwide. In just one in 10 of those cases has the perpetrator been tried and justice served.  Many of the protest participants were in London for a symposium on the safety of journalists that was also attended by prominent judges and media lawyers. The discussion focused on how to respond to the growing impunity with which governments and armed groups mistreat or even kill journalists in order to suppress or distort freedom of information.
 
In almost three decades as a broadcast journalist I covered a number of wars, including Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and El Salvador among others. The work sometimes put me at risk of being wounded or even killed in crossfire. At times it was quite dangerous, but there is a marked difference between what I experienced and what some journalists are facing today.  It is one thing to cover a conflict where you are not the target. It is quite another when people are deliberately trying to kill you.
 
Earlier this month, two AP journalists were shot – one fatally – by a police commissioner in Afghanistan. In Kyiv’s Maidan Square, reporters were targeted by snipers apparently working for the Yanukovich government.  In Brazil, over 100 journalists have been injured covering the protests ahead of this summer’s World Cup.  Many of these injuries were inflicted by security forces, but some journalists were deliberately attacked – even killed – by protesters. The latter reflects a worrying new theory among some extreme protest groups: injure journalists and you may get the news organizations to pay more attention to your issues.
 
VOA correspondents in the line of duty have been violently threatened in Mali and the Central African Republic, in Syria and Egypt – on the frontlines of some of the most dangerous places on Earth. Today, we still feel sharply the pain of losing one of our own, two and a half years ago. In January 2012, Mukarram Khan Aatif was shot in the head at point-blank range inside a mosque in Northwest Pakistan. 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.”
 
Over 600 days ago, Bashar Fahmi, a correspondent for VOA’s sister station TV Alhurra, went missing in Syria while on assignment in the northern city of Aleppo.  He has not been heard from since August 20, 2012, when he, his cameraman and two reporters from Japan Press came under fire.  Mika Yamamoto of Japan Press was fatally shot in that incident, and Cunyet Unal, Fahmi’s cameraman, was captured but released after 90 days. Anyone who knows anything about Bashar’s whereabouts has a moral obligation to provide that information immediately.
 
At the symposium in London, we discussed the media’s reluctance sometimes to focus attention on the real and apparently growing threats journalists face. Many news organizations are uncomfortable seeking attention for members of their own profession.  We do not want to become the story. We ask ourselves: why should the death of a journalist receive more attention than the death of any other person?
 
It is time for journalists to get over that reticence. When a story is suppressed, when efforts to collect news are blocked by arrests, or, worst of all murder, the repercussions are broad. An attack on a journalist has more than one victim. It can send ripples throughout the media. Editors understandably think twice about sending reporters to places where they are being targeted or harassed. Self-censorship can set in. That country’s citizens suffer an information vacuum, and the world suffers from it too.
 
I urge news organizations to do more to cover threats to journalists, and we at VOA will try to do the same. The UN General Assembly has declared this coming November 2nd to be the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. The date carries significance, as it was on November 2nd of last year that two French radio journalists on assignment in Mali were brutally murdered.  We will mark that day, and join in the call for an end to the impunity with which some governments and armed groups behave towards journalists.  Take a look at the 2014 Impunity Index, a global tally of countries with the highest number of unsolved press murders that has just been issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
 
The numbers are shocking.

Tags:journalism is not a crime, safety of journalists, impunity index, bashar fahmi, mukarrak khan aatif


David Ensor's Closing Remarks at "Getting Beyond 2014 in Afghanistan"

VOA Director David Ensor (far left) moderates the panel discussion "The Future of Media in Afghanistan"

[The following is the transcript of the closing remarks delivered by VOA Director David Ensor at the panel event “Getting Beyond 2014 in Afghanistan” held on February 28, 2014, at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. The event was hosted by USIP, VOA, and the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People. Ensor, who served for 17 months as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, moderated a panel discussion on the future of media in Afghanistan, which can be watched in full here.]

Thanks to everyone for attending today’s discussions. I hope you found them thought-provoking and useful. I certainly did, and the world’s media is with us, so perhaps others outside of this room will, also.

Some of you may know that I spent 26 years as an American network television correspondent, many of them covering international news. Among many other adventures, I once rode a Soviet tank from Jalalabad to Kabul, covering the story as the Russians began their troop withdrawal.

I am proud of that work as a journalist, but I have to tell you that one of the bad raps on commercial television news has some truth to it. You’ve probably heard of the cynical view of TV news, that “if it bleeds, it leads”?

Well, it’s the nature of the business, as was mentioned earlier. And it’s human nature. Research consistently shows that people will switch channels during good- news stories more readily than during stories of tragedy, bloodshed, and drama. The networks know that. So do the wires, so do the newspapers. The news business thrives on conflict. And conflict there has been in Afghanistan.

On a day in Afghanistan, if a roadside bomb killed four soldiers, depending on what else was going on, that might make the news in this country. But on that same day, if five new schools, or if a maternal health clinic in Herat was opened, you almost certainly would not hear about that over here.

One network correspondent friend of mine used to come to Kabul every few months when I was working at the Embassy. He would do stories about the American troops, and what they were up to. Frankly, in the biz we call them “bang bang” stories, because they always had an explosion in them somewhere.

And my friend told me he knew that the international forces were only there to open up space for aid workers, NGOs, investors and, most of all, Afghans, to rebuild their country, their shattered economy, and to build some hope for the big generation that’s coming forward in Afghanistan. He understood that that was what they were here for. But, he said, that story is not sexy.

But as was noted in the previous panel, between 2001 and 2010, primary school enrollment rose from around one million to nearly seven million, a seven-fold increase in nine years. The proportion of girls went from virtually zero in school, to now close to 40 percent.

While serving at the Embassy in Kabul, I helped to arrange – and I’m terribly proud of this – to fund the launch of the Afghan version of Sesame Street, the children’s series that teaches reading and counting. We produced our program – and it is still being produced – in close consultation with the Afghan Ministry of Education. And there are some very clever people in that ministry who made it a very strong program. The project helps to educate Afghans from pre-school age and onward, frankly all the way up to adulthood in some cases. That program creates hope and it represents real change that matters.

But you haven’t heard about that much on the American media, because stories of American GIs and Taliban suicide bombers are just more compelling television. They are.

It’s not that American audiences and readers have been told anything that is not true about Afghanistan. There has been plenty of tragedy in Afghanistan, there is plenty of corruption, and plenty of opportunities have been squandered in the last few years. All legitimate news stories, and they have been written about. But in my view at least, the American public has not heard the other half of the story in a fully balanced way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the pessimism about Afghanistan’s future post-2014 is misplaced. There are many reasons for deep concern. It’s a rough neighborhood, as we’ve discussed. Some of the neighbors are seeking to keep Afghanistan weak for their own purposes, and the country has always had its own deep internal divisions, tribal, regional and so forth.

So yes, there is going to be trouble ahead, of course. No doubt about it. But the conventional wisdom seems to hold that Afghanistan is set now to revert to the bad old days.

So I think that it’s incumbent on people in the room here, and those of us who’ve spoken on the panels, and everyone else who is listening, to try to prove the conventional wisdom wrong.

Personally, I believe in the younger generation of Afghans: the young Afghans that I met in Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar and Herat, many of them highly motivated and very impressive. Of course, they’re going to need to be.

In any case, we Americans may be war weary, but our policymakers do know that Afghanistan will continue to matter for geo-strategic reasons both to the United States and to the West. And there’s no getting around that. It’s just a fact.

Speaking for the Voice of America, I can tell you that we plan to keep a robust presence on the air, in Dari and Pashto, on radio and on television, with our fine partner at RTA, and perhaps others. While the shape of our efforts may change a little bit, we and our sister organization, RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, are looking to maintain an important role for serving our audiences in Afghanistan.

I guess what I would like to close by saying is that, whatever happens, in terms of the military, the political, aid budgets, investment and so forth, I hope that one message to Afghans going forward comes from this conference. And it’s simply this: You have friends here. Thousands of us, who put some time into helping out in the past, and we have a special place in our hearts for your country.

Thank you very much.

Tags:voice of america, david ensor, public diplomacy, afghanistan, media in afghanistan, post-2014 afghanistan, kabul, VOA Dari, VOA Pashto, Radio Azadi, Afghan Ministry of Education, U.S. Embassy in Kabul


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.

[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.

VOA is Nobody’s Mouthpiece

Nicholas Kralev and David Ensor

One of the things that strikes me when I talk to people about my job as Director of Voice of America is how little most of our fellow Americans know about what we do and the powerful impact we have around the world. 

Recently, I sat down with Nicholas Kralev, who hosts an online TV program about diplomacy. He actually started his interview by noting there are “quite a few misperceptions about Voice of America.”  He called it a “strange beast,” a government funded journalistic organization. [Full transcript here]
 
The headline in the Huffington Post was: “VOA is ‘Not a Mouthpiece of the White House,’ Director Says.”  Inside the Voice of America, that is not news. The truth is, VOA is a proud journalistic organization created more than 70 years ago to provide fair and balanced information to audiences in places where it is often difficult or impossible to get. Clearly we need to do a better job of explaining what we do, and how we do it, to our fellow citizens.
 
Helping to explain VOA’s mission is especially important because of recent changes in the law that now allow us to share our programs with audiences in the United States.
 
VOA is not in any way going to be competing with domestic broadcasters, but we do now have the option of working with domestic stations that can help us to reach our overseas audience.  Our mission is overseas, in places like Iran and Somalia, but if, for example, a local station has a big Iranian audience in the United States, the new law gives us the option of providing our programs to them.
 
VOA programs have been available on the Internet for many years, but this change in the law opens up new opportunities for people to see our programs.
 
This is an exciting time for U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy, and I hope you will find some of what Nicholas and I discussed interesting.  You can watch the entire interview at http://nicholaskralev.com/tvshow/. To read the entire interview go to http://bit.ly/1aWYjeR.

Tags:voa, voice of america, david ensor, blog, propaganda, nicholas kralev, huffington post, smith mundt, public diplomacy


Iran Must End Shameful Treatment of Journalists' Families

VOA Director David Ensor

Being an exiled Iranian journalist can be tough and dangerous work.  Imagine your parents or siblings being threatened by government intelligence agents because of your profession.  Imagine not being able to go home because of the threat of imprisonment or worse.

That is the reality being played out for Iranian-born journalists who work at VOA, Radio Free Europe, the BBC and other news agencies right now — and it needs to stop.

One of the most insidious forms of harassment is the interrogation of parents who are instructed to tell their children to stop working for Western news outlets.

These tactics frequently begin with Iranian Intelligence Ministry agents calling or visiting the homes of elderly parents.  Intimidating messages are left, or agents tell the parents that the work their children do is “not acceptable,” and “it would be better if your son changed his job and left VOA.”

In some cases, relatives are forced to sign statements accusing their siblings or children of being Western spies.  In other cases, parents or siblings are detained or questioned at length and passports are confiscated.  There is a constant threat of imprisonment.  Another troubling tactic is the production of crude videotapes that attempt to discredit reporters.

Former BBC Director-General Mark Thompson has repeatedly written about the “disturbing tactics” used by Iran to target and intimidate the family members of BBC Persian journalists.  The sister of one BBC journalist was detained and held in solitary confinement on unspecified charges at Evin Prison in Tehran in a failed attempt to bring pressure on her brother. 

Of course, Iran’s actual imprisonment of journalists can never be far from the minds of those who report on what is happening in this important part of the world.  Human Rights Watch and other organizations that monitor press freedom have long noted that Iran is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the sheer number of journalists behind bars.

It’s time for Iranian authorities to end this behavior and renounce the tactics of harassment and intimidation against innocent family members.  Such behavior only brings shame on the Iranian government.

We also urge Iranian officials to stop the jamming of radio and television broadcasts, the filtering of websites and hacker attacks on websites of the Voice of America and other news organizations.

It is time for Iran to close the chapter on this unacceptable behavior and live up to its ideals as a nation that trusts its people to make up their own minds about where they want to get their information.

David Ensor

Tags:voa, voice of america, david ensor, jamming, journalist, iran, BBC, harassment, interrogation


The American People Need to Know More About America’s Voice

VOA Director David Ensor speaks with actress, model and maternal health advocate Liya Kebede at the Global Diaspora Forum, held at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on May 14.

After a speaking tour a couple of weeks ago that took me to Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, California and Pullman, Washington, my main takeaway is that most people in America’s West are unaware that 70 years after its founding, the largest US-funded broadcaster is still on the air, with a larger audience and bigger impact than ever before.

Heads nodded when I spoke about the proud history of Voice of America and its role in helping to win the Cold War, but most Americans have no idea that VOA currently reaches over 135 million people worldwide, or that VOA-TV today is watched at least once each week by one in five adults in Iran.  

It is time to reach out to our own countrymen and build greater understanding of what we do.

At a speech to the Oregon World Affairs Council in Portland, audience members expressed delight that our country is broadcasting reliable news to countries where it is rare, and information about US life and American values in 45 languages.  

“You’ve been out of sight and out of mind for too long,” one person told me, and he urged VOA to do more to make Americans aware of the tremendous “soft power” impact of their taxpayer dollars spent reaching the world through radio, TV, internet, mobile and social media.

A key legislator here in Washington knows it well:

“I think that we in the United States need VOA to show to the peoples of different oppressed countries what America is all about,” Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) said at the May 7th event celebrating the 70th anniversary of our first broadcast in the Albanian language.  “Every dollar that we give to VOA comes back to us with hundreds of dollars of goodwill for America, hundreds of dollars of good faith for what America is and what it stands for.” Engel is the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and an influential voice for democracy in the Balkans.

At VOA, we are not accustomed to talking about ourselves much, or reaching out to our fellow citizens. Our audience—our mission­—­is overseas. Under the 1948 legislation that has come to be known as Smith-Mundt, VOA was not even permitted to make its programs available in the US. That law was amended earlier this year, and starting in July, in certain circumstances, VOA and other US funded broadcasters will be able to offer programs for listening or viewing here, upon request.

The change in the law is in part a recognition of the new reality. Through the Internet, anyone in the world can already log on and see any VOA website they want to, and can often download a TV or radio report, too. Technologically, the web has changed the way media are consumed.

The Portland talk was a chance to bring people interested in world affairs up to date on today’s VOA, as were a talk at the University of Southern California’s School of Public Diplomacy and a commencement speech at Washington State University.  At WSU, I urged graduates of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, and the Colleges of Education and Business to “keep in mind public service.”

“Some of my deepest satisfaction comes from doing it”, I told them, referring to my time working at the US Embassy in Kabul “helping the Afghan people put their country back together, and now, helping people around the world through the Voice of America—with everything from reliable news to life saving health information.”
In the audience in Portland were a number of recent immigrants to this country: naturalized Americans who grew up in Burma, Pakistan or Afghanistan and know well the impact VOA has in those countries, and how many lives have been helped by its broadcasts. Many of them grew up listening to VOA.  

Many Somali Americans are well aware that VOA and Google recently collaborated on a pioneering telephone survey in Somalia that helped shape that nation’s draft constitution in some significant ways, and that Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud participated May 9th in a lively question and answer session with students at a VOA-organized town hall meeting held in London, where he admitted that young people are still joining the al-Shabab militant group because of a “weakness on our part as politicians, religious leaders, elders and women’s groups.”

Ethiopian, Chinese, and Iranian Americans know that VOA continues to provide objective reporting to nations where the local media is controlled by the government and truly independent outlets are banned. America’s diverse diasporas understand better than most the value of what VOA and its sister organizations—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and TV and Radio Marti—do for our country.

After the talk in Portland, a dozen or more of these “new” Americans came up to the podium, to urge me to keep VOA strong and to ask what they could do to help. They are natural allies in any US effort to inform, engage and connect with the world around us.

Tags:voa, voice of america, david ensor, ensor, blog, history, portland, audience


The State of America’s Voice

VOA Director David Ensor

In a time honored tradition, the President of the United States today delivers a State of the Union address to Congress. It is an opportunity to take stock of where we are, and where we are going. Taking advantage of the news peg, here is a look at how the Voice of America is doing and some of our plans for 2013.

First of all, VOA gives America real global impact. The nation’s oldest and largest U.S.-funded international broadcaster has an estimated weekly audience of 134 million people. Admittedly this is an imperfect comparison, but to put that in some perspective, the three largest U.S. domestic cable news channels, FOX, CNN, and MSNBC, have a combined prime-time audience of just under four million (Cable News Ratings from Thursday Feb 7, 2013).

VOA currently broadcasts in 43 separate languages (plus two pilot projects in Africa). It is a complex multi-media broadcaster providing world-wide coverage, with eight 24-hour television satellite network streams, numerous AM, FM and shortwave radio transmitters, and many radio and TV affiliate stations around the world.  VOA provides music, cultural, news magazine and language teaching programs, and a wide variety of podcasts and specialty shows in both conventional radio and TV formats as well as on social and broadcast media sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes.  In the past year, we started simulcasting certain radio shows -- in Pashto, Kurdish and Farsi -- on television.

Since 1942, Voice of America has been a beacon of hope for people in places like Iran, North Korea or Mali, suffering from government repression, censorship, and turmoil.  Last year, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi visited the staff of VOA’s Burmese Service in Washington to personally thank them for the daily broadcasts that she says informed and sustained her during her decades of house arrest. 

For dissidents, people trapped in war zones, or isolated by governments that block outside sources of information, VOA is an information lifeline. Our congressionally-mandated Charter requires us to be balanced and comprehensive. We don’t cherry-pick the people we interview to make them fit U.S. government views -- or any other view for that matter -- and we don’t tailor programs to espouse -- or oppose -- some particular policy goal. We aim, as always, for balance -- and truth.
This past year, our journalists around the world covered the news with creativity -- and courage. They included Scott Bobb, Paige Kollock, Sebastian Meyer, Rudi Bakhtiar, Ali Javanmardi and Afshin Nariman in rebel-held Syria, Elizabeth Arrott and Japhet Weeks in Libya, and Idriss Fall and Anne Look in Mali.

There is an increased focus at VOA on producing more of our own original stories, and there are plans to strengthen and multiply the Central News beats, and to deepen coverage of business and economic news from New York.  Our coverage of the U.S. elections, Hurricane Sandy and the inauguration of President Obama reached record audiences worldwide.  In the past year, VOA has also upgraded its television operations with a new 12 channel, all digital and fully automated master control, modernized its TV studios, installed a dedicated video link to the U.S. Capitol, and begun renovation on the New York News Bureau, which will include a new set with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline.

VOA’s China Branch launched an ambitious new two-hour television program this past year, which is now carried on the most popular direct-to-home satellite provider in the region. One Mandarin language segment, OMG! Meiyu, an exciting youthful video blog that teaches American slang expressions, has enjoyed exponential growth in online popularity. The Chinese government, with free access to the U.S. market, is reported to be spending billions of dollars on CCTV and Xinhua, including a new state of the art bureau in Washington and a ten-fold increase in its overseas staff.  The Chinese government also imposes a concerted Internet censorship program and a systematic campaign to destroy private satellite dishes, especially in areas with large Tibetan populations.  Despite these efforts, VOA continues to find new ways to penetrate the Chinese market with reliable, balanced information in Mandarin, Tibetan and Cantonese.

VOA has also been building this year on decades of audience loyalty in Burma, where our English language radio teaching segments are now being carried on state-run media -- unthinkable until very recently -- and some of our television programs can now be seen on a local dish TV network.  In Vietnam, the VOA website, recorded 2.2 million visits in December, making it one of the most popular in the country.  In Indonesia, VOA programs have an extraordinary weekly audience of more than 21 million people, and the VOA Indonesian Service Facebook pages have more than one million fans.

For Iran, which has been the focus of international tensions over its nuclear program, VOA embarked this year on a wide-ranging update of its Persian programs, and we have built a dynamic new management team.  More than a dozen new or revamped TV shows now fill a 24-hour satellite stream that can be watched on direct-to-home satellite, Livestation.com or social media sites.
Because of its importance and impact, VOA Persian television is closely watched -- and critiqued. Recently, a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece accused our journalists of being ‘too soft’ on the regime, pointing to an interview on the program Ofogh of a former Iranian nuclear official. The column built its argument on quotes taken out of context from the interview, in which the official was in fact closely and pointedly questioned by the VOA anchor. Our programs are rigorously analyzed each year by independent analysts, for their journalistic integrity. VOA journalism strives to be hard hitting but fair—in clear contrast with Iranian state media outlets.  

That approach clearly has credibility. Twenty-one percent of Iranians watch VOA TV each week -- one in five Iranian adults.  VOA Persian attracts that large audience despite ongoing regime efforts to block Internet access, interfere with our satellite broadcasts, and threaten the family members of U.S. international broadcasters.
The continent of Africa offers VOA some of our greatest opportunities for audience growth and impact in a part of the world with increasing importance to U.S. national security.  VOA has demonstrated a creative approach that combines our strong  traditional radio and TV programming with cutting edge mobile technology to reach audiences in some of the most remote and hostile environments.

In Mali, for example, when radical Islamists took over the northern part of the country last year, shutting down independent affiliate stations and intimidating reporters, VOA established a mobile website (Mali 1) that offered cell phone users special reports in French and Songhai, the local language spoken in the North.  Usage soared during the recent fighting. What began as a fledgling effort to augment our shortwave broadcasts, has blossomed into a popular service. Plans are also in place to create a ‘dial up’ radio service that can be accessed using even the most basic mobile phones, and a new FM transmitter has been installed in Mali’s capital, Bamako. We will soon begin broadcasts in an additional local language, Bambara. A new daily radio segment Sahel Plus has just gone on the air in French. 

Reporting on this region is not without risk. In August, one of our local contract reporters was brutally beaten and left for dead by the radical Islamists, who have since been pushed out of many areas by French forces.

Last year in Somalia, once one of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, VOA helped to provide citizens with knowledge and understanding about the country’s emerging new constitution.  In partnership with Google Ideas, VOA conducted a nationwide telephone survey to ask people what they thought of the new constitution, then broadcast and published the findings and analysis on a special radio show.

In other African countries with major challenges, like Nigeria, South Sudan and Zimbabwe, VOA enjoys substantial audiences. In order to better report on Nigerian news in Hausa and English, VOA plans to open a news bureau soon in Abuja.
 
In Latin America, VOA has gone to extraordinary lengths to rebuild its audience. In 2012, VOA’s Spanish Service added 56 new affiliate stations, and is providing them with a rich stream of in-depth coverage of the U.S.  Live VOA radio and TV reports on the U.S. presidential election could be seen throughout Latin America, on networks and stations that have come to rely on VOA as their “Washington Bureau.”  Independent TV ratings from key markets in Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico, indicate VOA’s weekly combined audience in those countries is more than 10 million.

In Russia, once the prime target of Cold War broadcasts, VOA is carving out a new, younger audience with a web-based strategy and a highly ambitious new live television program called Podelis, which allows audience members to participate by Skype, or Facebook or Twitter. Popular cable and Internet television stations are beginning to turn to us for reporting about the United States. With the recent deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, and the growing aggressiveness of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, it is fortunate that the VOA Russian Service is nimble and creative -- continually refining its programming and distribution strategies to meet new demands.

VOA is making an important difference in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the 2014 transition looms, our Afghan Service has a large, loyal audience (60% of adults weekly) on radio and television and a new -- but seasoned -- Afghan service chief.  VOA’s Urdu Service, with broadcasts to Pakistan, has unveiled four fresh television programs in the past year.  VOA’s new youth-oriented shows are being scooped up by independent cable outlets and provide audiences in a troubled part of the world with a dramatically different picture of what America is like than they find on local stations.  They show some of the best of American life and culture, and offer a chance for people to interact with U.S. officials and experts.  And another new TV product for Pakistan, the Urdu VOA News Minute, is an outgrowth of the successful “VOA60” news minute pioneered in 2011 by our VOA Media Lab.

Voice of America plays a critical role on the world stage, but receives little attention at home, and our journalistic mission is often misunderstood.  Amendments to the Smith-Mundt legislation which were made in the recent Defense Authorization Act will allow us to build greater awareness of our impact, particularly in this country’s large and influential diaspora communities.  In the past, if a radio station requested -- for example -- a VOA Somali language program to broadcast to Somali immigrants in Minnesota, VOA had to refuse.  Our general counsel’s office is examining the precise implications of the new amendments and we await that interpretation.  In general however, the changes recognize that in the digital age, complete bans on domestic dissemination of materials produced for overseas audiences are outdated. That should make it easier for Americans to learn more about what we do.

In a world where too many governments still try to keep their people ignorant and afraid, VOA --and its sister organizations Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) and the Office of Cuban Broadcasting (OCB) -- are among some of our nation’s best investments.  Around the world, VOA remains a trusted source of unfiltered news, and of information about America.  

For millions of people, it is a source of hope.

David Ensor

Response to Op-Ed About VOA Persian

Today The Wall Street Journal published a shortened version of my response to criticism of VOA by Sohrab Ahmari in his January 7 op-ed “At Voice of America, Complaints About Its Iranian Coverage.”  The full text of my letter to the editors follows below.

Sohrab Ahmari (At Voice of America, Complaints about Its Iranian Coverage 1/7/2013) is quite wrong to suggest that news coverage by Voice of America’s Persian Service is “often distorted by an editorial line favoring rapprochement with the mullahs.”  In his opinion piece, Mr. Ahmari bases this premise on a pair of sound bites--ten seconds or less--taken out of context from an extensive interview with former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian.  Mr. Ahmari’s assertion that opinions by Mr. Mousavian went unchallenged in the interview is simply not supported by the full transcript of the program, which shows a former Iranian official being obliged to defend his assertions, under pointed questioning by the VOA interviewer.

Mr. Ahmari correctly cites a quote from Mr. Mousavian asserting  that Iran “is in full compliance” with the IAEA safeguard agreement but he does not tell his readers that the very next question by VOA journalist Siamak Dehghanpour was, in that case: “Should Iran let inspectors visit Parchin military complex?” Throughout the interview, Mr. Dehghanpour repeatedly pressed Mr. Mousavian, asking: “Given the history of mistrust and lack of confidence on both sides, how can Iran assure the U.S. that its intentions are peaceful, especially since Iran’s nuclear activities re-started covertly with individuals such as Abdul Qadir Khan in Pakistan?”

At one point Mr. Dehghanpour asks the former Iranian official:  “Why not come clean?” and also: “Is the Supreme Leader genuinely worried that compromise will eventually lead to the end of the Islamic Republic?”

The Mousavian interview was followed by another with Dr. Ali Vaez, head of the Iran Project at The Crisis Group who supports the U.S.-led international sanctions, which he said, “Have remarkably affected Iran’s nuclear program itself.”  Dr. Vaez offered a rebuttal to Mr. Mousavian’s arguments.

It is also not true, as Mr. Ahmari quotes an anonymous source claiming, that the terms of the interview were “dictated” by Mr. Mousavian.  Mr. Ahmari could have asked, and we would have been pleased to tell him that there were no interview preconditions agreed to by VOA.  

The Ofogh show that day featured a former top Iranian official forced to defend his assertions under pointed questioning, and then being contradicted by a subsequent interviewee.   Our job is difficult and our coverage is not always perfect, but on the day Mr. Ahmari wrote about, it was “accurate, objective and comprehensive,” just as the VOA Charter from Congress requires.  

The guest list for VOA’s Persian language programs is long and diverse, bringing many different voices and points of view to Iranian audiences.  Guests on VOA Persian over the past year have included Wall Street Journal writers Bret Stephens and Matthew Kroenig, authors of the Foreign Affairs piece “Time to Attack Iran,” as well as Iran nuclear program critic David Albright, Sen. Norm Coleman, advisor to the Romney Campaign, and many noted Iranian critics of the regime in Tehran. Mr. Ahmari quotes Georgetown professor and former Senate candidate Rob Sobhani as finding himself “appearing far less frequently after 2009” and believing it was because he was “too negative toward the regime.” In fact Mr. Sobhani has been invited by Ofogh to appear four times in the last four months. He appeared once, twice said he was not available and once canceled at the last minute.

Finally, Mr. Ahmari’s unnamed source is completely wrong to say that VOA does not care about its audience.  This is absurd.  For 70 years, VOA has been a beacon of hope to people in repressed and information denied areas, and we are proud that more than one in five adult Iranians tune in to VOA every week, making it one of the most popular international broadcasters in the country.
 

David Ensor

Reporter Attacked in Northern Mali

The work of independent journalists in Northern Mali has become increasingly dangerous.

On August 5th in the city of Gao, local reporter Malick Maiga, a regular contributor to VOA, was viciously beaten by armed men. The attackers burst into the studios of radio Adar Koima as Maiga was about to broadcast details of a demonstration that prevented Islamists from cutting off the hand of an alleged thief.

Maiga, one of the very few independent journalists still reporting from Northern Mali, was beaten with rifle butts and stomped on until he passed out.

The Voice of America condemns this vicious attack and urges an end to the targeting of journalists. The assault is another troubling sign of the lawlessness that has descended on Northern Mali.
 
Local residents, who heard the attack live on the radio, immediately banded together and went searching for Maiga, who was found unconscious in a cemetery and taken to a local hospital.

We applaud the local residents that came to the aid of Maiga, who has since courageously given an interview to VOA’s French to Africa Service from his hospital bed. In the interview, he describes how the attackers left him for dead, saying to each other, “he’ll never speak to VOA again.”

This is Maiga’s 3rd beating at the hands of Islamists in Gao, where he has continued to report on the situation since a March coup in Mali, which has triggered a humanitarian crisis and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In the first instance, Maiga was roughed up when Islamists arrived in Gao. He was then beaten for working with VOA French to Africa reporter Idrissa Fall, who did a series of reports from the region in July.  During that attack, Maiga’s equipment and money were taken.

We join with the Committee to Protect Journalists and others who have condemned these brutal and senseless acts of violence.  All of us at VOA honor and admire Malick Maiga and other  independent reporters who risk their lives every day to provide factual information from troubled regions like Northern Mali.

David Ensor

Tags:voa, voice of america, david ensor, mali, attack, journalist, gao, beating, french t, malick maiga, northern mali


A Cautionary Tale from China

When Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng landed in the United States on May 19th, there were cheers from people who had watched in anticipation as his struggle with the Chinese government unfolded in the western media.

That Chen Guangcheng is able to study law in New York is very good news, but his struggle to reach the West on terms acceptable to him is a cautionary tale: one that underscores the continued importance of international broadcasters like the Voice of America.

Chen’s improbable story: a blind, self-taught lawyer who fights for human rights and somehow managed to flee house arrest and take refuge at the U.S. Embassy, has been front page news just about everywhere in the world: everywhere except in China.

A search of China’s English language CCTV website, which describes itself as “the national TV station of the People’s Republic of China,” yields a handful of brief references to Chen Guangcheng.  Most are ministry statements demanding the U.S. apologize for interfering in the case.

By contrast, Voice of America’s Mandarin Service was one of the first international media outlets to report Chen had escaped, and our coverage has been extensive. VOA interviewed the wife of his brother, Chen Guangfu, who was beaten and detained following the escape.  There were also exclusive interviews with the woman who aided Chen, with Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), Chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and with Chen Guangcheng himself, who spoke to VOA repeatedly, including on live Mandarin language TV broadcasts.

Chen has thanked VOA for reporting on his case, and said he listened to Voice of America while under house arrest at home in Shandong and in the Beijing hospital when he was being treated for the injuries sustained during his escape.  Asked how he had managed to hear the broadcasts, he said, "There's always a way!"

Making sure there always is a way, and that more of the Chinese people have access to unfettered news, is not easy. VOA and other broadcasters work hard, with limited resources, to overcome restrictions such as shortwave radio jamming and efforts to filter and block the Internet.
 
Unlike well-funded Chinese state television, which has been opening bureaus around the world, including a shiny new one in Washington D.C. with dozens of journalists, VOA is currently allowed only two accredited reporters in all of China. Our longtime standing request for four journalist visas, including one for Shanghai, goes unanswered by Beijing.
 
Despite these obstacles, we are reaching people like Mr. Chen, with information they care about. These efforts cost money, and while China spends billions on an expanding global media empire, we face both increasing costs and tight budgets.

By some estimates, China will spend about $8 billion in the next couple of years to expand international radio and TV broadcasts, as well as the Xinhua News Agency, and its flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily.

By contrast, the United States government spends about $750 million on its entire international broadcasting and media effort, which includes the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and other stations reaching 187 million people in 59 languages around the globe.

Spending comparisons, though imperfect, do raise important questions: is the United States doing enough to effectively penetrate restricted media environments like China’s with uncensored information?  What is the most effective way to reach that audience?

We need to do more, and we are gearing up to do so. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, RFA and others, recently voted to recommend to Congress that spending on programming to China be held at present levels, despite budget tightening, and development of a more robust overall strategy for U.S. efforts to reach audiences in Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan and Uighur.

The best way to reach more people in China today may be satellite TV and radio, since more than ten percent of the population has a satellite dish or access to programming from one. VOA currently offers programming on shortwave radio, satellite radio and TV and the Internet, in addition to social media.  Soon, VOA will launch a new expanded two-hour daily satellite television program in Mandarin. The U.S. also works creatively to limit the impact of Chinese government efforts to censor international news sites on the Internet.

We cannot, and we do not need to match China dollar for dollar.  No matter how many billions they spend, the audience knows that CCTV does not offer objective news or a platform for open discussion.  There will always be an audience that does not want to be told what to think.

What we can do, is to match China’s “soft power” push to influence global public opinion, with a renewed and reinvigorated effort to reach more of the Chinese people with balanced, informative programming, and responsible discussion about the issues that affect us all.

David Ensor

Freedom of Information on Nowruz

Last updated at: March 21, 2012 8:00 PM

The Obama administration has announced new guidelines that ease export controls on the transfer of certain modern communications tools to Iran.   

‘How could this be?’ you may ask, ‘when the United States and most of the world have slapped a broad trade embargo on Iran because of its nuclear program?’

Yes, the administration is trying to block Iran from acquiring technology that would be helpful to a nuclear weapons program, and it has promoted a tight economic embargo designed to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.  But now one part of that embargo is being eased, in an effort to help the people of Iran to circumvent government censorship of the Internet and independent sources of reliable news, such as the Voice of America.

On March 20th, President Obama sent a message to millions of Iranians around the world who are celebrating Nowruz.  “There is no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another,” Mr. Obama said.  In his remarks, which were carried by VOA’s Persian Service during an eleven-hour Nowruz TV special, the president also said, “The people of Iran should know that the United States of America seeks a future of deeper connections between our people.”

Unfortunately, the Iranian government lately has been intensifying its efforts to block access to information.  By jamming satellite news programs, censoring the Internet, and monitoring computers and cell phones, the regime is repressing its citizens with the very technologies that should empower them.  Because of these actions, Mr. Obama said, “An electronic curtain has fallen around Iran – a barrier that stops the free flow of information.”

In a move to circumvent this censorship, the Obama administration has published a list showing the kinds of software and services that are authorized for export to the people of Iran: tools that will make it easier for them to “connect with the rest of the world through modern communications methods.”

The list of items includes widely-used programs such as Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk and Skype. It also includes updates to personal communications software, Internet browsers, plug-ins like Flashplayer, document readers like Acrobat, plus free mobile apps and RSS feed readers. Some of these programs have helped Iranians to watch VOA programs, such as the popular Persian TV show Parazit, which has been downloaded millions of times from its Facebook page, since Iran frequently jams VOA’s satellite television signal.

We hope the measures announced this week will make it easier for people in Iran to learn what is happening in the world around them, from VOA and others.

The Iranian state ‘Press TV’ broadcasts satellite television programs in multiple languages around the world, without interference from anyone, and they use western commercial satellites to do so.  It is time for satellite companies and the firms that broker space on them to agree on some industry self-regulation. They should agree together that if Iran continues to use uplink satellite jamming to disrupt the transmissions of scores of broadcasters as well as broadband capacity companies, then Iran’s ‘Press TV’ will no longer be permitted to book satellite transponders to send out its own programming.

Earlier this month, my counterpart at the BBC in London spoke out forcefully against the Iranian government’s harassment and intimidation against the family members of BBC journalists, a practice that journalists at VOA and other U.S. media outlets are all too familiar with.  During this season of Nowruz, we call on the Iranian government to end these dishonorable practices, and to draw back its “electronic curtain,” restoring the freedom of information to the Iranian people.

David Ensor


Getting it Right in Russia

Last updated at: February 08, 2012 7:00 PM

Every week, about 141 million people around the world, many of them in countries with no access to independent media, get their news from the Voice of America.  They count on us to get it right. That is why we must be open with them when we fall short.
 
On February 2nd, VOA’s Russian Service published an immediate apology for running a story that contained comments it attributed to well-known Russian opposition blogger Alexi Navalny, after he tweeted that the words were not his.
 
On its website, VOA Russian said, “Although we always stand by our efforts to source and verify information, we must be aware of the shifting landscape on these new frontiers of journalism.  Methods of verification that once seemed sufficient, even iron-clad, are now often outmoded.  As a result of this incident we will strengthen our editorial standards and enact additional safeguards.”

This kind of open and honest dialogue with our audience, though painful, should underscore that VOA will continue to serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. In the words of legendary wartime reporter and onetime U.S. Government broadcast official Edward R. Murrow:  “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible, and to be credible we must be truthful.” 

The media landscape has changed, and not just in Russia.  Last June, a French TV channel ran a telephone interview with a woman identified as Syria’s ambassador to France, Lamia Shakkour.  She said she was resigning to protest attacks on civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.  The station said it had called a telephone number on which it had spoken to Shakkour on previous occasions. After the broadcast, Reuters news agency said it had received an email that came via the website of the Syrian embassy in Paris, confirming the resignation.  The ambassador later denied giving the interview, saying it was faked.

Just last weekend, Mr. Navalny, the Russian blogger and protest leader, was the subject of what the New York Times headlined as a “Smear in Russia,” one that backfired.  The incident began with the publication of a photo of Navalny standing next to an exiled Russian financier who is wanted by police.  The use of the doctored photo backfired when the original was produced by the photographer, touching off a series of parodies on the Internet, including a picture of Navalny standing next to a space alien.

Today, the United States faces a political and social landscape around the world that is evolving at breakneck speed.  Regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt disintegrated on live television.  Information, disinformation, or misinformation, can be spread with the click of a mouse, a tweet, or a Facebook status update.  Ferreting out the facts in the digital age is a new kind of challenge, but as Edward R. Murrow also said, “difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.”   We may not know how an email sent to a blogger can land on the computer of someone else, who then fires off a response that appears genuine.  Or how many doctored photos are out there. What we do know is that these photos or comments can spread like wildfire and it is more important than ever to verify the facts.

While some critics long for the days when shortwave radio broadcasts were pumped behind the Iron Curtain, the fact is, listening habits in Russia have changed and so have the methods we use to gather information.  The Internet, blogging and social media tools like Twitter are here to stay.

Some years back, VOA radio and television programs were carried on a number of affiliate stations throughout Russia, but under government pressure almost all those broadcasts were stopped by the end of 2008. Since then we have developed a loyal audience on the Internet and on a wide variety of social media-based platforms.  A new program, Podelis, which means ‘share’ in Russian, is a social media-based TV program that allows the audience to choose the topics, and discuss them with VOA hosts.  VOA’s Russian audience has expanded rapidly because we engage them and offer a platform for views, including those not heard on state-controlled media.

As a correspondent for ABC News based in Warsaw and Moscow in the eighties and nineties, I saw firsthand the lengths to which the Soviet and Polish Communist authorities would go to try to prevent western journalists from communicating with regime critics. Covering dissident views in authoritarian countries is often extremely difficult work. It can require both journalists and dissidents themselves to accept risk. It is essential work that the Voice of America will never stop doing.

At VOA, we know that Edward R. Murrow was right. We must be truthful, and when there is reason to doubt our reporting, we must say so -- and we will. Our credibility depends on it.

David Ensor


Iran Satellite Jamming

Last updated at: January 23, 2012 7:00 PM

Satellites are extraordinary devices, hovering quietly above the earth, beaming everyone’s favorite TV shows into living rooms around the world.

Satellites are one of the things I think about when I hear the term “global village.”  It’s technology that makes it possible to instantly share information and ideas.
 
We’ve come to depend on satellites to experience the great events of our time.  Whether it’s the opening ceremony of the international Olympic Games or live video of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan last year, satellites bring us together.

Unfortunately, some governments have decided they want to try to block this flow of information.
Since September, the Iranian government has radically increased its deliberate interference with satellites, a practice we all know as jamming.  It works like this.  Iran sends a bogus signal to a satellite, which overwhelms the legitimate signal and renders it useless to TV and radio audiences on the ground.

VOA’s Persian broadcasts have been a particular target.  In fact, the satirical VOA Persian program, Parazit, is a play on words that makes fun of this practice.  Parazit, which means static in Persian, is what many Iranians sometimes see when they try to watch this popular program. 

Other international broadcasters including BBC and BBC Persian TV, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Radio Farda, Radio France International, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and Radio Netherlands Worldwide have all suffered from radio, TV or web interference by Iran.

This week in Geneva, delegates to the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) begin a series of meetings that only come along once every four years. Satellite jamming is likely to be on the agenda at this important session in one form or another.

For VOA and other international broadcasters, it can’t come a moment too soon.  Satellites form the critical backbone of our ability to reach our audience.

It is however, much more than a broadcast industry issue. It goes to the very heart of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

That language couldn’t be clearer, and it is part and parcel of everything we do at the Voice of America.  By jamming satellites, Iran is limiting a fundamental human right of its own citizens.  
Unfortunately, jamming by Iran has increased. Worse, the practice seems to be spreading, with new reports of jamming by Syria, one of Iran’s few allies, and a regime increasingly at war with its own people.

VOA and other international broadcasters and organizations have been drawing attention to this issue at every opportunity. The WRC is one forum where governments, regulatory authorities and broadcasters from across the world can become more aware of this insidious problem, and act against it.

On January 24th, five of the world’s largest international broadcasting organizations, including the Voice of America’s parent organization, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, called on delegates meeting in Geneva to address the problem of Iranian uplink jamming.

The statement, issued by the Directors General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Deutsche Welle, Audiovisuel Extérieur de la France, Radio Netherlands Worldwide and the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, appeals to member states to “work to end this increasingly prevalent practice.”  Other organizations, including the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, have urged delegates meeting in Geneva to act urgently.

Censorship and satellite jamming violate the fundamental right of access to the free flow of information enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and countries around the world should join together to end this practice.

David Ensor

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