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2 June 2008 - Good afternoon. I’m Dan Austin, director of the Voice of America, and I am pleased to be here with you today. Before I start, I would like to extend my thanks to Erik Betterman and his entire staff here at Deutsche Welle for putting together such an ambitious program on such an important and timely topic.
This panel explores so-called “new media,” asking how these media—the Internet and other digital platforms—are being used, and misused, and how, or even if, international broadcasters can somehow encourage some in these new media endeavors to be more responsible, more helpful - or at least less harmful - to society.
Since I came to VOA from the private sector in 2006, not a single day has gone by that I haven’t thought about some variation of these questions.
The Voice of America, like many other international broadcasters, is now reevaluating every aspect of how we do business. We don't have any choice.
The days of short-wave radio broadcasts produced offshore and beamed to information-deprived masses yearning to breathe free are waning. Technology now makes it possible for almost anyone with inexpensive software and hardware to become an international broadcaster or publisher, to reach across borders and oceans and into the homes and telephones and mobile devices of millions through the Internet and other digital pathways.
This technology also, of course, empowers those who want to censor content. There’s no need, for example, to invest in expensive jamming equipment if a simple software program launching a denial of service attack will do.
The fact is, there is no longer any technical distinction between a domestic broadcast and a worldwide one.
What haven’t changed are the values behind those broadcasts.
Ever since the Voice of America was founded in 1942, we have been in competition with those who use media to mislead and manipulate, to promote agendas of narrow self-interest, even hate.
I can tell you from experience that there seems to be little we can do to make some of those who inhabit this space responsible, let alone accountable.
That is not to say, however, that there is nothing to be done. Indeed I want to offer some practical steps that I believe broadcasters and, in some cases, governments can take to promote better, more responsible use of both old and new media.
One such step is simple: more resources for international media training.
The Deutsche Welle Academy is a splendid example of how major international broadcasters can promote the best practices of journalism worldwide.
Journalists across the world often want to be better, to be more professional. But a lack of established traditions, a shortage of formal training opportunities, and a simple lack of resources often stand in their way.
And it’s in this area where Deutsche Welle and other international broadcasters are making such an important contribution. By bringing foreign journalists to their headquarters, or conducting training in the journalists’ home countries, international broadcasters can make substantial contributions to promoting responsibility in media.
Our staffs can do this well. We are working journalists ourselves, and we can train others in the craft of journalism as well as in a culture of accountability and responsibility.
There is another area of international cooperation that I firmly endorse – improving the media regulatory climate. It is simply not enough to train journalists on how to best serve the public. They also need a legal environment that provides a degree of protection for journalists, that allows truth as a defense in civil or criminal defamation prosecutions, which all too often employ courts to do what censors could not—put journalists behind bars or out of business.
This body of media law should also provide for access to information. That includes open meeting laws, freedom of information statutes, and transparency in the workings of government.
I think we need to be as aggressive as possible in spreading these values to journalists in developing countries, and to render assistance in developing the best media regulatory climate possible – which, in many cases, is the least regulation possible.
As we encourage responsibility in media, we must demand access, accountability and transparency in government – the two go hand in hand.
Respecting the dividing line
There is another area in which I believe we can promote responsibility. And that is in rigidly enforcing the dividing line between government-financed efforts to inform people – and government-financed attempts to influence and even mislead a population without revealing that government's involvement or motives.
The Voice of America does not do propaganda. And neither do other international broadcasters who recognize that credibility with an audience is the most powerful tool they have, that reporting news accurately and fairly in order to help people reach their own decisions is an end, not a means.
If we draw the line between honest, fair reporting and analysis and “influence operations” that are disguised as journalism, we show the world what it means to be responsible. We also give the people of the world, who often know propaganda when they see it, a clear choice of whom to believe, and whom to ignore or reject.
I am grateful that Deutsche Welle has offered us this forum to spotlight these kinds of issues and, hopefully, to spur thinking and debate on how best to address them. And I look forward to the discussion that we’ll have shortly.