30 December 2008

Azerbaijan Bans International Broadcasters

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, has issued a statement deploring today's decision by the Azeri National TV-Radio Council to ban all international broadcasters, including VOA as well as RFE/RL and the BBC, from the domestic airwaves effective January 1.

"The people of Azerbaijan are the real losers," said D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors "The decision appears to be part of a concerted official effort to limit access to unbiased information. We urge the Azerbaijani authorities to reverse this decision and to continue to work to resolve this situation, as they had indicated they would. Meanwhile, we will pursue all available alternatives for broadcasting the popular programs of RFE/RL and VOA to Azerbaijan."

The U.S. State Department says the decision will represent a "serious setback to freedom of speech and retard democratic reform in Azerbaijan."

VOA's Azerbaijani Service had broadcast two five-minute newscasts and a 30-minute program daily on 101.7 FM in Baku. The Service also produces television programs, including a weekday, seven-minute Newsflash segment featuring the day's top news stories and a weekly 15-minute American Review program, which aired on Azeri TeleVision (AzTV).

VOA broadcasts are available on shortwave, on satellite and online.

17 December 2008

The Great Firewall of China Rises Again

It is sadly ironic that just days after renewing our call for the free flow of information worldwide, we have learned that Internet users in China are once again running into screen messages saying some of the websites they are looking for cannot be displayed.

VOA Correspondent Stephanie Ho in Beijing reports the blocked sites include those of the Voice of America, in both English and Chinese.

What is regrettable about this is that back in August, the Chinese government bowed to international pressure and halted its interference with our and other sites -- a gesture tied to China's hosting the Olympics.

So why the renewed controls?

Some western analysts say the action is consistent with how Chinese authorities deal with what they perceive as potential political trouble. There is the upcoming 20th anniversary in June of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. China’s economy is also reeling under the impact of the global financial crisis. And just recently a group of dissidents issued a manifesto called "Charter '08" that calls for legal reforms and greater democracy.

Chinese officials are, not surprisingly, defending their latest Internet blocking move. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao insists some websites violate Chinese law. He did not cite any specific cases.

Reporters Without Borders is condemning the renewed censorship by China of websites like VOA’s.

In a statement, the group said: “Right now, the authorities are gradually rolling back all the progress made in the run-up to this summer’s Olympic games, when even foreign websites in Mandarin were made accessible. The pretence of liberalization is now over. The blocking of access to the websites of foreign news media speaks volumes about the government’s intolerance. We urge the authorities to unblock them again.”

So do we. As VOA Director Danforth Austin has noted, “When our broadcast frequencies are jammed or our website is blocked, it is the people in our audiences who suffer the most.”

11 December 2008

International Broadcasters Joint Statement on the 60th Anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration

We received the following VOA news release:

Sixty years ago, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The representatives of international broadcasters - BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Radio France Internationale, Radio Netherlands Worldwide and the Voice of America - meeting in Paris (on Dec. 10), recognized the important contribution the Declaration has made to promoting a better-informed world.

The meeting, at Radio France Internationale, noted the importance of Article 19 of the Declaration, 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."

They said that their organizations must continue to maintain the highest journalistic standards of accuracy, objectivity and truth in upholding the Declaration.

They noted that some governments have been implicated in harassing, detaining, expelling, threatening or - in extreme cases - killing journalists, committed as they are to freedom and information. They also expressed, with regret, the efforts by some governments to contravene the Declaration by interfering with international broadcasts through deliberate blocking of transmitters ("jamming") and blocking of websites.

The broadcasters underlined the continued determination of their broadcast organizations to overcome these obstacles in order to reach the largest possible audiences worldwide, through traditional means - radio and television - as well as the Internet and other emerging digital media.
These new media, they noted, offer unprecedented opportunities for interaction across national borders and between diverse groups of people, in keeping with the spirit of the Declaration, which enshrines the right to "receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Alain de Pouzilhac, CEO of Radio France Internationale said "Our meeting in Paris was very constructive and I am delighted that the five major international broadcasters share the same desire to broadcast objective and impartial news broadcasts to all publics."

10 December 2008

Honoring Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We at VOA would like to mark the occasion by directing your attention to Article 19:

“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.”

VOA conducts much of its work by transmitting information across international frontiers --- sometimes into countries that don’t support the notion of a free flow of news and ideas. Some of these countries go to great (and expensive) lengths to block VOA programming.

Some of the blocking is aimed at preventing people from accessing VOA websites.

Some blocking is aimed at VOA radio and television broadcasts, using a technique known as jamming.

As VOA Director Danforth Austin has noted, “Millions of people tune in to VOA every week or visit VOANews.com for trustworthy news and information. When our broadcast frequencies are jammed or our website is blocked, it is the people in our audiences who suffer the most.”

We continue to believe all countries engaged in jamming or internet censorship should halt such activities and live up to the promise of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by allowing a truly free flow of information.

08 December 2008

Journalists Behind Bars

The Committee to Protect Journalists has just released its annual census of imprisoned journalists. The survey found 125 journalists in all behind bars as of December 1st, a decrease of two from the 2007 tally.

CPJ reports that with 28 jailed journalists, China continues to be world's worst jailer of journalists, what CPJ calls “a dishonor” it has held for 10 consecutive years. Cuba with 21 jailed journalists, Burma with 14, Eritrea with 13, and Uzbekistan with six round out the top five jailers from among the 29 nations that imprison journalists.

Of particular interest this year, according to CPJ, is that at least 56 online journalists (bloggers, Web-based reporters, or online editors) are jailed worldwide, a number that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time.

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon says: “Online journalism has changed the media landscape and the way we communicate with each other. But the power and influence of this new generation of online journalists has captured the attention of repressive governments around the world, and they have accelerated their counterattack.”

The number of imprisoned online journalists has steadily increased since CPJ recorded the first jailed Internet writer in its 1997 census. Print reporters, editors, and photographers make up the next largest professional category, with 53 cases in 2008. Television and radio journalists and documentary filmmakers constitute the rest.

Capsule reports on all jailed journalists are available at CPJ’s website.

01 December 2008

Information Warfare and VOA

There has been much discussion in recent months about improving U.S. public diplomacy. Officials, analysts and commentators routinely talk about “the battle of ideas” or “the struggle for hearts and minds” or “information warfare.”

Often the Voice of America gets dragged into these discussions in a way that leaves us a little uncomfortable. Just this week, writing in the Wall Street Journal Asia, two State Department officials triggered such disquiet with an item headlined “Information Warfare Matters.”

The article by Christian Whiton and Kristofer Harrison, expressing their personal opinions, argues the U.S. government needs to create a new agency to manage what they call the “nonviolent practice of political warfare” – specifically to confront jihadist ideology.

And here is where they got our attention. They believe, as they put it, that “U.S. government-supported broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, should be adapted to this mission.”

The problem with this proposal is the same we have had with many others in the past: they are based on the premise that VOA is some sort of U.S. government mouthpiece.

So let us repeat a few observations. First, it is true that VOA is financed by the US government. But look at VOA’s Journalistic Code. The Code says specifically: “VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government.”

Similarly, the notion that any government agency can tell VOA what to say is false. As the VOA Charter says, “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society…”

Yes, VOA offers news about the United States and US government policies. But so do other international broadcasters. Why? The answer is obvious: the United States is a global power with global interests that no responsible news organization, American or non-American, can ignore. Our research also shows many of our audiences want to hear about American culture, life, history, youth and more.

But our emphasis will always remain on offering reliable and authoritative news --- that is, credible news. If our audience perceives we are more interested in pursuing a political or ideological agenda and not playing it straight in our reporting or in our selection of news items, we will lose our credibility. And soon thereafter we will lose the audience itself.

24 November 2008

Honoring Press Freedom Fighters

This week in New York City, the Committee to Protect Journalists will honor five journalists with its 2008 International Press Freedom Awards. They are two journalists from Afghanistan and one each from Cuba, Iraq and Uganda. A special award is also being given to a media lawyer from Zimbabwe.

The two journalists from Afghanistan are Danish Karokhel and Farida Nekzad, the director and deputy director of Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan's leading independent news agency.

Award recipient Bilal Hussein of Iraq is a photographer for the Associated Press who was jailed by the U.S. military for two years without charges.

The Cuban award recipient is independent journalist Maseda Gutierrez who is in prison in Cuba for writing about issues ignored by the official state press.

The Ugandan recipient is Andrew Mwenda, founder and managing editor of The Independent newsmagazine in Uganda. He has faced repeated government harassment.

Mwenda was quoted in a recent VOA report as saying: “You can be sure that no matter what the state may do, whether they threaten to jail us, to torture us, or even to kill us, we strongly believe that we would rather die yesterday, defending the cause of freedom of expression, than live for the next one-thousand years acquiescing to tyranny.”

In addition to the five press freedom awards, the committee is also honoring media and human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa from Zimbabwe. Mtetwa has defended numerous journalists against charges brought by President Robert Mugabe's government.

We here at the News Blog congratulate them all. You can read more about the International Press Freedom Awards at the Committee to Protect Journalists website.

10 November 2008

The Death of a Former VOA Director

Henry Loomis, who died Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida, at the age of 89, was director of the Voice of America from 1958 to 1965. His VOA career is worth remembering for two important reasons.

For one, he was largely responsible for the creation of VOA’s enormously popular Special English programs, the shows which have helped millions worldwide learn English.

According to his widow, Jacqueline, Loomis wanted to make English easier to understand by VOA’s foreign audiences. He asked Barry Zorthian, VOA’s program manager at the time, to devise a way of reaching an audience with a limited knowledge of the language.

The result was called Special English and it embraced two changes from VOA’s standard procedures: the news was delivered at the slow pace and the vocabulary was limited to 1,500 words.

Mrs. Loomis writes, “University critics said it would never work; American embassies abroad demanded the program be taken off the air. With the support of Mr. Loomis, the program stayed on the air, and soon, hundreds of letters of praise came in to VOA every month from pleased foreign listeners.”

The second reason worth remembering Loomis is this: he was a man of principle who understood VOA news could only be credible if it was free of political interference. It was under his guidance that the VOA Charter was drafted.

Loomis said: “It is my hope, it is my belief that the Charter, like the Constitution, is so fundamental and so represents the realities of the world and the moral principles that undergird this nation, that the Charter will endure for the life of the Voice.”

The final version of the Charter, initially known as a directive, was approved by President Eisenhower shortly before he left office. It eventually became law in 1976.

As we have noted here many times before, the Charter is our audience’s guarantee that the news we report is accurate, objective and comprehensive as well as independent.

Loomis’s belief in the principles embodied in the Charter led to a sharp confrontation with President Johnson during the Vietnam War. The President had ordered American intervention in Laos and wanted it kept out of the news. Loomis thought otherwise and quit as VOA director.

03 November 2008

U.S. Presidential Election Coverage

It’s almost over. The 2008 U.S. Presidential election campaign ends Tuesday as American voters go to the polls to decide who will be the next occupant of the White House.

VOA has, in recent months, devoted considerable resources to telling audiences worldwide on the air and on the web this most American of stories.

And we know already there is considerable global interest in the outcome.

For one, history will be made. As VOA National Political Correspondent Jim Malone has written:

No matter who wins Tuesday, election history will be made. Senator Obama is poised to become the first African-American president, while Senator McCain would be the oldest candidate to win a first term as president. In addition, a Republican victory would usher in the country's first woman vice president, Sarah Palin.

But international interest goes beyond just that. There have been a number of online polls asking non-U.S. citizens who they would vote for.

Of course, non-U.S. citizens can’t vote for real.

But everyone around the world can follow the actual voting results closely by staying with VOA. In addition to special broadcasts in English and VOA’s other languages, there will be comprehensive, multimedia coverage at VOA’s new community interactive website, USAVotes2008.com.

Visitors will be able to track returns on the site’s U.S. map, reflecting the popular and electoral counts as well as the balance of power in Congress. USAVotes2008.com also offers blogs and a live T2A (Talk2America) online chat beginning at 0000 UTC. Users can also find USAVotes2008.com and VOA updates on Twitter.

“The presidential contest of 2008 has riveted people around the world from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe,” said VOA Director Danforth Austin. “Because we broadcast in English and vernacular languages, VOA has the unique ability to deliver news and information about the election, the democratic process and the people of the United States,” he said, adding, “We'll be using every technology possible to reach people with the results of this race.”

We hope you will join us. And when it's all over, we'd like to hear your thoughts on how well we did.

28 October 2008

Still No Justice in Murder of Uzbek Journalist

One year ago, Alisher Saipov, a 26-year-old Uzbek journalist who was a correspondent for the Voice of America and contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was shot to death by an unidentified gunman near his office in the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Osh. Despite pledges by the Kyrgyz authorities to bring Saipov's killers to justice, the case remains unsolved.

Edward Kaufman, member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal government agency that oversees VOA and RFE/RL, said: “One year later, and the shots that killed Alisher Saipov still echo with his young family and among journalists worldwide who seek to freely report the facts. The government of Kyrgyzstan must pursue Saipov's killers, following a path to justice no matter where it leads.”

Reporters Without Borders said: “The lack of any substantial progress is disgraceful. So far neither perpetrators nor masterminds have been identified. Such a degree of impunity is an outrage. The investigators should seriously consider the possibility that the murder was linked to Saipov’s journalistic work instead of trying to explain it away in terms of his support for the Uzbek exile opposition party Erk or the contacts he may have had with banned religious groups.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has also spoken out: “Solving the contract-style murder of Alisher Saipov is a litmus test for [President Kurmanbek] Bakiyev's administration. He came to power in 2005 with the promise of democratic reform and rule of law. The smear of impunity casts doubt on that commitment, shaking the public's trust in the government's ability to protect its citizens. Kyrgyz authorities should work to restore that trust by mounting a transparent and effective investigation into Saipov's murder. They owe this to Avaz Saipov and all of us who remember Alisher for his courageous journalism.”

Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Uzbekistan 162nd out of 173 countries when it comes to freedom of the press, with Kyrgzstan ranked 111th.

23 October 2008

Journalism Moments: Remembering I. F. Stone

Earlier this month, John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief for a U.S. newspaper chain (McClatchy Newspapers), was awarded the first I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence for his reporters’ coverage of the period leading to the start of the Iraq war.

Walcott’s reporters produced dozens of stories that, virtually alone among news organizations, challenged Bush administration claims about the threat posed by Baghdad.

The award is administered by the prestigious Nieman Foundation at Harvard University but probably not many people outside the journalism world in the U.S. know who I. F. Stone was. He was an independent American investigative journalist best known for his newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, launched in 1953 and published through 1971. (He died in 1989 at the age of 81.)

As the New York Times noted in its obituary of Stone, “the primary grist for his profitable, 19-year newsletter was documents rather than people. He read at least 10 newspapers a day and ferreted out contradictions and inconsistencies in the voluminous records of official Washington, using them to oppose McCarthyism, racism, the nuclear arms race, American military involvement in Vietnam and other issues he regarded as stains on democracy.”

Walcott, in his acceptance speech for the award, made several comments that we think bear noting here --- none more important that his statement that being skeptical was “at the heart of who I.F. Stone was, what his legacy to us is and what's been missing in American journalism in recent years, not just in the coverage of the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq” but also, in Walcott’s view, in coverage of the latest Wall Street crisis.

Some other key Walcott observations:

“Why, in a nutshell, was our reporting (about the Iraq war) different from so much other reporting? One important reason was that we sought out the dissidents, and we listened to them, instead of serving as stenographers to high-ranking officials and Iraqi exiles. I'm afraid that much the same thing may have happened on Wall Street. Power and money and celebrity, in other words, can blind you. Somehow, the idea has taken hold in Washington journalism that the value of a source is directly proportional to his or her rank, when in my experience the relationship is more often inverse.

“That brings up a larger point, and one that I think is another part of what went wrong back in 2002, and what may have gone wrong on Wall Street. Instead of being members of the Fourth Estate, too many Washington reporters have been itching to move up an estate or two, to become part of the Establishment or share in the good times. I.F. Stone, on the other hand, knew well that reporters, by definition, are outsiders.”

Walcott, by the way, served as moderator during a panel discussion in September at VOA headquarters on the “New Media vs. the New Censorship”. The event, sponsored by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), focused on the challenges posed by the increasingly sophisticated efforts of authoritarian regimes to suppress and manipulate news online.

29 September 2008

We Have A Winner!

Congratulations to Hongwei Liu, who is the winner of our first-ever News Blog contest. He correctly identified the graphic in a recent post as a QR or two-dimensional bar code.

The code contained a message which said: “Welcome to the VOA News Blog. If you can read this, please send an email to the News Blog with the word HAPPINESS in it. You will be featured in an upcoming posting. Thank you.”

Hongwei says he was attracted to a later post announcing this was a contest and asking visitors to “crack the code.”

Alas, he was disappointed because no sophisticated code-cracking software was needed. Instead he just read it by using a cell phone. We hope the promise of a VOA T-shirt will ease any dissatisfaction.

QR codes, by the way, are in growing use overseas, especially in Asia, and appear regularly in magazines and on signs and other objects that people might want more information about. Often they contain web links. Users who have a camera phone loaded with the right software can scan the image of a QR code and translate it.

19 September 2008

Bloggers’ Tele-Conference with Glassman: Blogging Diplomacy with Iran

The State Department this week held a bloggers’ roundtable with James Glassman, Under Secretary For Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and former Chairman of the Board of Broadcasting Governors, the board that oversees the Voice of America.

The VOA News Blog was invited to take part as were several prominent bloggers who routinely write about public diplomacy and strategic communications issues.

The full transcript has now been posted. Much of the session focused on Iran and included a discussion of a recent online exchange between a member of the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team and a senior Iranian official. (You can read that transcript as well.)

Here is the excerpt of our exchange with the Under Secretary:

QUESTION: Mr. Glassman, how can public diplomacy or, as you recently wrote, diplomacy aimed at publics, succeed when, as in the case of Iran, there’s little or no engagement with officials and both governments have essentially sought to demonize one another in the eyes of their respective publics?

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: Well, I think public diplomacy can do things that official diplomacy cannot. And examples of that are, you know, in some countries around the world, for reasons of our concerns about stability, we may not be as officially as aggressive in our support of, let’s say, pro-democracy elements in official diplomacy. But in public diplomacy, we can do that.

So here is a really good example, I think, with what’s happening in Iran. For, in my opinion, good reason, we are – we have been limited in our engagement at the official level for – I think, for very good reason. But at the public diplomacy level, where we are engaging with the people of Iran, we can engage quite a bit and we do. And what’s interesting, I think, about this blogging concept is, you know, people talk about – remember it was the Chinese ping-pong diplomacy or table tennis diplomacy, you know. Well, this is this sort of blogging diplomacy, I guess you could say.

We are – we’re actually – and I think that one of the earlier questions was related to this – we are actually engaging with an official. Now, we’re not doing it in an official way. I want to emphasize that. We are doing it because it provides a window into the public or a way to reach the Iranian public. But I don’t think that these two things are incompatible; that is to say, our policy regarding official diplomacy and our policy regarding public diplomacy. I mean, we are – you know, as you know, we’re now broadcasting seven hours a day into – with VOA Persia -- and I say we, Broadcasting Board of Governors. That’s separate from the State Department. But they are broadcasting seven hours a day into Iran right now.

Behruz Nikzat of VOA’s Persian News Network, also took part and asked about the State Department’s recent launch of Parsloop (www.parsloop.com) as a forum for Iranians around the world to exchange opinions and experiences. “How do you intend to promote this website among the Persian-speaking people and what are your expectations of it? How would you persuade Iranians that the U.S. State Department does not exercise any control over its content?”

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: Actually, I’m glad you asked this question because this is another example of the kind of thing that we’re doing. Your question about how we’re promoting it, I actually don’t know the answer to that. This is – Parsloop is a project of International Information Programs Bureau and it was started before I got here. I think it’s a superb project and I think it is exactly the kind of thing that we are – that we want to do more of. But the specifics of how we’re promoting it, I don’t know. Glen can get back to you on that.

But let me just say this. America.gov, which is our main website for disseminating information that tells America’s story – let’s put it that way – is – we have that – it’s now in seven languages, including Farsi. But we felt that there was more that was needed and so parsloop.com, which is a .com website, it’s not a .gov website, was launched. It is not, strictly speaking, our website. It’s not a United States Government website. But it’s a website that we support and encourage and participate in, and it is a social networking site.

So we feel that when – that if we can be a facilitator of a large conversation such as the conversation that will take place and already is on parsloop.com, that our values and ultimately the kinds of policies that we believe in will benefit. And so that – so we are really focusing on a lot of other projects that have to do with social networking. And let me just say that the war of ideas aspect of this is that our opponents in the war of ideas can’t stand this kind of thing. They use the internet for a completely different purpose. They are broadcasting, exhorting, teaching people how to make bombs, banging them over the head with their ideology, and they don’t want feedback that may be negative. We, on the other hand, are encouraging this kind of conversation with the confidence that people will arrive at the kinds of answers that make the world a better place.

17 September 2008

It’s A Contest

OK. It’s official. The question we put to you in the last posting, identify the graphic or whatever you want to call it, is now a contest.

The first person (outside the U.S.) who can crack the code and send us an email with the answer we are seeking will receive a VOA T-shirt! How about that!

So make haste. We will close the contest on Sept. 30th. So get to work, loyal NewsBlogAudience.

15 September 2008

Journalism and New Tech Trends

Several of us from VOA attended the annual convention of the Online News Association right here in Washington last Friday and Saturday. What impressed us most of all were the statements by several speakers that “the journalism should always comes first” as news organizations worldwide struggle to cope with the ever-growing number of technological applications available to them.

One of the more impressive presentations was called “10 Tech Trends You've Never Heard Of” by Amy Webb, who is a former journalist and now a media consultant.

We won’t go into any detail on her presentation, a summary of which can be found online.

But one of the emerging tech trends with possible journalistic application involves this:
Can anyone out there tell me what this means/says/is? We hope to hear from you soon.

11 September 2008

Annoying the Media as a Campaign Tactic: Please NO Lipstick!

One of the souvenirs we kept from the 1992 U.S. Presidential election campaign is a bright red baseball hat with the inscription: “Annoy the Media: Re-Elect Bush.”

It was handed out to the pro-Republican audience at a rally in the state of Wisconsin for then President George H.W. Bush (who lost out in his re-election bid to Bill Clinton). The reporters traveling with Mr. Bush were amused and scrambled to get hats themselves. But the underlying theme --- media bashing --- captivated the audience then and it is what has captured our attention now.

During the just-concluded Republican National Convention, top party figures repeatedly attacked news organizations – mainly over their reports on the surprise selection of little known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be the Vice Presidential running mate to Republican Presidential contender John McCain. Much of the reporting focused on her family, including the revelation that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter was pregnant.

Governor Palin herself joined the fray in a wildly-applauded convention address:

“I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion - I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country.”

Attacking the media is an old sport in U.S. politics.

Before Palin and before George H.W. Bush, there was the case of Spiro Agnew, who was Vice President under Richard Nixon. He became famous for his attacks on the Nixon administration’s political opponents and critics, including news organizations, using such descriptions as “nattering nabobs of negativism”, “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Before him, in 1964, former President Dwight Eisenhower denounced “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators.”

Back to Governor Palin. Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post, says she was, in his opinion, “mauled, minimized and manhandled by an openly skeptical media establishment.”

But then Kurtz says, the McCain team responded by declaring war on the press. He says: “Press-bashing plays well among Republicans.” He says it has also stirred sympathy among the broader public.

Indeed, a survey by Rasmussen Reports last week found over half of American voters (51%) thought reporters were trying to hurt Sarah Palin with their news coverage, and 24% said those stories made them more likely to vote for Republican presidential candidate McCain in November.

Will that apparent sympathy approval last until the November election? It is too soon to say. But the opinion polls released after the Republican convention show the Republican team of McCain and Palin have gained ground on their Democratic rivals, Senator Barack Obama and Senator Joe Biden.

As for the impact on the media? Well, one might ask whether some news outfits are trying to make up for any perceived anti-Palin bias by now showing toughness against her opponents. And by doing so, one might ask if they have fallen victim to a carefully orchestrated put-the-media-on-the-defense campaign?

Consider the “lipstick-on-a-pig” incident. We won’t go into the sordid details but recommend you read VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone’s story and the item “Notes From The Pig Sty In which we all get dirty” by Megan Garber on the web site of the Columbia Journalism Review.

We’ll note only one reference came up on VOANews.com when we searched for stories with the keyword “lipstick.” (And that is fine by us.) But CJR reports its count on U.S. cable news TV networks broke down this way: CNN 28, MSNBC 35 and Fox News 48. And that was just within the first 12 hours after Obama’s comment.

10 September 2008

Internet Freedom Facing New Threats

“There is no freedom without freedom of information. There is no freedom of information without Internet freedom.”

That saying comes from the website of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, whose ambition is one we can only praise: helping those living in closed societies take down the Internet firewalls that separate them from the rest of the world.

The group was among those represented at VOA headquarters here in Washington DC today at a workshop organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors on “New Media vs. New Censorship: The Authoritarian Assault on Information.”

China’s government is perhaps the best known and certainly the largest of the Internet censors. Its efforts to control access to the web are well known and received considerable publicity during the recent Olympics.

But the workshop heard that China is now exporting its censorship technology to countries like Iran and Cuba, two other governments who, along with Burma, are responsible for what the Consortium terms “the Dark Ages in cyberspace.”

There is more to fear, though. Today’s meeting also heard that China is working on a new kind of filter that will enable censors to do more sophisticated work than simply block a single page or site. The new filter will target specific content on the Internet. For example, any material that might describe the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in positive terms would remain open to readers in China. But any derogatory information about Mao would lead to that particular page or site being blocked.

It’s tough work, trying to stay ahead of the Internet censors. But VOA will keep working with its partners to thwart those who would suppress or manipulate information online.

02 September 2008

The Private Lives of the Candidates and Their Families

Are political figures in the United States entitled to any privacy? Do news organizations overstep the bounds of propriety when they expose what might be considered a politician’s private family matters? Do such matters have any public relevance?

These questions come to mind in light of the case of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who was unexpectedly picked to be the Republican Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in the coming national elections.

In the face of growing media interest, Palin and her husband, Todd, revealed in a statement that their 17-year-old daughter Bristol is about five months pregnant and will keep the child. The Palins said that Bristol plans to marry the child's father.

Is this news worthy of presenting to the American public --- and for that matter to international audiences? Most major American news organizations think so and so does VOA.

Here’s why. VOA has an obligation to explain not just what is in the news, but also why certain information is considered newsworthy. Sometimes that means explaining why a particular story or development is news in the United States --- even when the topic might be considered off-limits or simply not newsworthy in other countries and cultures.

One of VOA’s stories on the Republican National Convention said the revelation about Gov. Palin’s daughter overshadowed the proceedings.

Unfortunately it did not explain why or how.

But another hinted at the relevance by noting teen pregnancy appeared at odds with the Alaska Governor’s views on sex before marriage:

“…Palin…has been lauded by fellow social conservatives for…her support of abstinence-until-marriage sex education.”

The same item also addressed the question of whether Governor Palin might have concealed this information from Republican Presidential contender John McCain, another relevant question considering how little is known outside Alaska about her.

“Senior officials from the campaign of Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain say he and his top aides were aware of Bristol's pregnancy before selecting Palin as his running mate.”

The article also sought to downplay the importance of the disclosure politically by noting the reaction of Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama:

"Obama urged reporters to back away from the story. Obama said people's families, and especially their children, are off limits.”

And it noted: “The Palins have asked the media to respect the young couple's privacy.”

Despite this, American news organizations are interested. The New York Times, for example, has several stories today that mention Governor Palin’s pregnant daughter --- three of them on the front page, a clear sign of the importance the publication attaches to the disclosure.

Whether or not it proves to be a political problem for the Republicans and their Vice Presidential candidate remains to be seen. However reporters have a responsibility to assess the potential political impact by asking analysts and voters for their views. VOA should be presenting such evaluations to audiences --- so they can fully understand the multiple phenomena that might be at play in the minds of Americans before they head to the ballot boxes.

We could also provide a report explaining how the question of politician privacy has evolved over time --- from the period when reporters might conceal a political figure’s health problems to a time when they would expose a candidate’s infidelity or reveal a politician’s daughter is gay.

There is in addition a broader social issue that is worth addressing and that is the rate of teen pregnancy in the United States and how it compares to other countries. One VOA item mentions the situation in the U.S. but fails to present comparative foreign figures:

“A U.S. organization on teen pregnancy, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said in a statement Monday that U. S teen birth rates are on the rise for the first time in 15 years and that, at present, 3 in 10 girls in the United States become pregnant by age 20.”

One footnote: in preparing this, because it dealt with politics and morality questions, we looked into the case of John Edwards, a former Senator and unsuccessful contender for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination this year. Edwards admitted last month that he had an extra-marital affair in 2006.

The story was originally reported by a U.S. tabloid known for its sensationalism but shunned by mainstream news organizations. Only after the former Senator’s public confession did it receive extensive coverage. Although VOA’s Central Newsroom prepared a report on this, we discovered it was not posted on VOANews.com.

It was an unfortunate oversight. When we inquired, we were told staff shortages were to blame. Sorry.

We’d like to hear from you on the topic of candidates, their families and privacy. How are such matters handled in your country? Write us here at: VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

27 August 2008

Georgia vs. Russia, Reporting the Conflict

Back during our vacation, on August 14th to be precise, we received a very critical email from someone named Rita in Russia. Here is the full text:

“Hello, The Voice of Saakashvili! Do not waste your time and money transmitting your programs in Russia. I do not know anyone, who listens to them. I also won't do it any more. Every time I turn on the radio I hear nothing but "Saakashhvili said, Saakashvili says, Saakashvili is saying". Is he going to shut up and let us have some rest? You should change your name from "The Voice of America" to "The Voice of Saakashvili". It suits you better.
One of these awful Russians”

Well, first of all, we double-checked with our Russian Service and they confirmed they halted radio broadcasts on July 26, before the crisis. A senior editor in the service said he wasn’t completely surprised by the criticism, though, because, as he put it: “What we have found in the past is that people sometimes write to us about things that were actually aired on Radio Liberty…”

So we have to put the question back to Rita in Russia: Are you sure you weren’t listening to some other radio?

Our Russian Service is now fully web-based. And we just completed an on-line customer satisfaction survey on that site. What we found, based on more than 350 responses, was what an internal analysis described as “skepticism about our content.”

That said, the VOA Russian site received a high score (80 out of 100) when those who responded to the survey were asked if they would return to this site. That is a very positive sign.

VOANews.com has of course been paying a lot of attention to the situation involving Georgia and Russia. In addition to reports from our resident correspondent in Moscow, Peter Fedynsky, we have deployed reporter Peter Heilein to Tblisi. Heinlein is himself a former Moscow-based correspondent. Recent sample reports can be seen here and here.

But we also get regular reports with reaction to the crisis from our correspondents covering the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and the White House.

Those are the English-language reports. We also have full coverage in Russian (see a sample report here) and in Georgian (see the Georgian website here). VOA has also doubled its broadcasts in the Georgian language. (See the announcement here.)

Going back to Rita from Russia’s email criticism, we’d also like to note the reports we’ve seen, including one by correspondent Fedynsky in Moscow, about how the truth has been a casualty in some of the Russian and Georgian reporting on the conflict.

He notes in that report the case of the Tbilisi correspondent for Russia Today, Moscow's international English-language television service, who resigned --- this after the broadcaster refused to air his reports after he informed viewers on live TV that Russian warplanes had bombed the central Georgian city of Gori.

Fedynsky also notes Georgian media have appeared heavily one-sided with Russian troops compared to brutal Soviet invaders of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has also given numerous interviews to international media, prompting charges from Russia that western journalists favor the Georgian side.

26 August 2008

Drop Everything!

And get right over to our special new US election site! You can’t afford to miss it!

USAVotes2008 is an interactive site. In this election year of unprecedented international interest, this new online meeting place is THE PLACE for visitors to both learn more about the candidates and electoral process --- and to share their own experiences, comments, and questions.

So rush over there, browse the site and join the global community discussing the coming vote. Hey, even if you can’t vote, you can become a part of this fascinating and historic election by making USAVotes2008 a daily stop.

25 August 2008

Flashback! Conventions, Olympics and History

OK. We’re back after our News Blog vacation. And it’s time to once again go back in time to recall the words of a famous American:

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

If you need another clue, the speech we are quoting from is perhaps best known for the following line:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Of course, those are the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who delivered them from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963.

The reason we note this is that the Democratic National Convention is taking place this week in Denver, Colorado. It is the political event at which Senator Barack Obama will formally receive his party’s nomination as its Presidential candidate --- the first ever African-American to win the Democratic Party’s nod.

And Senator Obama will deliver his acceptance speech on August 28th --- exactly 45 years after Dr. King’s historic speech.

We certainly expect VOA’s coverage from Denver to take note of this coincidence.

But we have already had a series of reports by Chris Simkins and Jeff Young exploring the question of whether the United States is ready for a black President. You can see those reports here, here, here and here. We commend them to you if you haven’t already seen them.

Speaking of the past, during the News Blog’s vacation, we, like millions of other sports fans, watched the Olympics in Beijing. Now we will acknowledge most folks probably did not turn to VOA to watch events since we did not have the rights to transmit any actual sporting events.

But Olympic games are also socio-political events and this is the kind of reporting VOA excels in --- especially when the host country has been associated with such sensitive issues as human rights violations, media censorship, etc.

So we were surprised in looking back at the coverage of the stunning opening ceremonies that no one noted the absence of any mention of one of the most important figures in Chinese history: Mao Zedong. After all, as VOA Sports Editor Parke Brewer wrote about the ceremony: “The program mixed China's ancient history and culture with elements showcasing the modern face of the country.”

In fact, the only mention we could find of Mao (in English) on VOANews.com during the Games was a piece by reporter Mandy Clark that said “in place of the cult of personality that the Communist Party built around Chairman Mao, the Chinese are embracing a new cult: celebrity. (And) No Chinese person is more famous now than basketball player and NBA All-Star, Yao Ming…”

As our news file has noted in the past, the Chinese government officially discourages public discussion of the founder of modern China who, after all, pursued several disastrous social programs blamed for the deaths of tens of millions of people.

Still, just because Chinese authorities don’t want Mao mentioned, that doesn’t mean VOA and other news organizations should fall in line. Sometimes it is just as important to report on what isn't said and to ask experts to explain why.

08 August 2008

News Blog Vacation & Call for Comments

The News Blog is going to take a break for the next two weeks. During that time, we hope more of our many readers (and there have been over 60,000 of you from 159 countries since January) will join the few who have so far ventured comments on our posts.

We’d be especially interested in your views on what happens when the Great Internet Firewall of China is lifted and what that means about the peoples’ desire for free access to news and information.

Our Mandarin site is, by the way, currently running a poll asking whether readers think China will leave VOANews.com and other web sites open after the Olympics. As of this morning (Washington time), 80% of those responding believe the answer is no. (China is in the top 10 countries sending visitors to the News Blog, along with Iran and Russia as well as Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. For the record, the top European country sending visitors is Great Britain, Brazil is tops in South/Central America, Pakistan in Southwest Asia and South Africa for Africa.)

In the meantime, consider these comments on some of the features appearing on our main website.

Shafiq wrote us about VOA’s new Urdu (and English) TV production called “Muslims’ America.”

“Happen to watch your programme Muslims America which is a real eye opening and an informative serial. Admiration for the team for their hard work and research efforts. These sorts of series are the real time requirement for the Muslims of the world. The start was good and I hope it will continue with the same pace till its conclusion. Once again appreciations for the team.”

Then there were two comments about our efforts to explore the question of whether the United States is ready to elect a black President. (See this item.)

The first comment:

“The author missed the other side of the equation; which is that most blacks will vote for Mr. Obama just because he is black. I think it is sad commentary for any white or black to vote solely on the basis of skin color!"

Actually, had this writer waited a bit, he would have seen a second item examining African-American voter sentiment.

The other email on this question of whether America is ready for a black President:

“The topic of the piece today is laughable, at this point. I might expect a high school essay getting handed in on it but really, VOA? Sen. Obama…has been overwhelmingly accepted as a viable, engaging, credible presidential candidate. Write about the person, defined in terms pertinent to what they are trying to become.”

We want to draw your attention to a third item in this series which looks at the history of race and politics in the United States. It concludes that while many Americans may be ready to elect a black president, others aren’t so sure.

So, off on our break. Send in those comments. And we look forward to going through them on our return. Thanks.

06 August 2008

What Happens When China Lifts Internet Restrictions: A Surge in Visits

Since Chinese authorities lifted censorship of our VOANews.com website, there has been what VOA Internet Director Michael Messinger terms a "significant increase" in traffic originating inside China.

What an understatement!

For the entire site during the period July 1 - 5, before the lifting of Internet filters blocking VOANews.com, we recorded just under 6,000 visits from China.

In the first five days of August, after China lifted the filters on August 1st, we recorded 155,520 visits --- an increase of 2,502%.

For our Mandarin site, the comparable figures are: July 1-5: 1,535 visits; August 1-5: 138,089 visits --- an increase of 8,896%.

And sometimes we hear people are no longer interested in the news?

04 August 2008

Soldiers Masquerading as Journalists, Revisited

A month ago, we asked on the News Blog: “Isn’t anyone out there concerned about the potential hazard posed to real reporters when soldiers masquerade as journalists?”

We raised the issue because we hadn’t seen any expressions of worry from major journalists’ organizations since it was revealed that Colombian special forces who took part in a dramatic hostage rescue pretended to be both aid workers and a TV crew.

So we were delighted to see last week that the Committee to Protect Journalists has written Colombia’s Defense Minister to say:

“We fear that such impersonations could endanger the work of the already beleaguered Colombian media… By posing as journalists, security forces undermine the role of the free press and bring mistrust to the profession, ultimately damaging the public good.”

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon went on to say the impersonation of journalists was especially troubling at a time when reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan were being kidnapped and accused of being spies.

Colombia’s government has so far sought to minimize the issue. Like CPJ, we hope they give these expressions of concern serious consideration.

01 August 2008

China and the Olympics: Controls on the Internet

China appears to have relented in the face of complaints from journalists’ groups over media controls imposed ahead of the Olympics in Beijing. The latest complaints dealt with the blocking of Internet access to selected websites at the main press center for the games.

According to VOA correspondent Stephanie Ho in Beijing, a colleague at the main Olympic press center reported today that he was able to access previously blocked websites for VOA and Amnesty International. The French news agency AFP reported the previously barred websites of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle were also accessible.

But many other sites were still blocked, they said, including those linked to Chinese dissidents, the Tibetan government-in-exile and sites with information on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Still, correspondent Ho in Beijing notes another Internet improvement outside of the Olympic press center. She says the VOA news website and all its contents are now fully accessible. Until today VOANews.com could be opened but readers were unable to navigate to any links for stories or language pages, including Mandarin.

Here is an updated list of the changes in Internet access as noted today by our Beijing office:

Unblocked websites:

Voice of America—www.voanews.com
Articles, as well as multimedia now available in English and Mandarin
Amnesty International—http://www.amnesty.org
Can download PDF and html versions of new Amnesty International report “Olympics Countdown-Broken Promises”
Radio Free Asia—http://www.rfa.org
Can navigate articles in English and Mandarin
Can now access entries on Tibet, Dalai Lama, Tibetan People, Uyghur People

Several Taiwan News Outlets were also accessible, the Taipei Times, China Post, Apple Daily and Liberty Times.

Reporters Without Borders—http://www.rsf.org
Can navigate website in English
Human Rights Watch—http://www.hrw.org
Can navigate website in English

Blocked sites:

Our office in Beijing reports that websites still blocked include Amnesty International’s “China Debate” section, multimedia material on Radio Free Asia and various Tibet-related websites, including the website of the Dalai Lama.

Complaints about blocked Internet access at the Olympics had come from groups like the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which called such controls contrary to the free reporting environment promised by the hosts and the International Olympic Commission. As the group put it in a statement: “Thousands of visiting journalists will now get to experience the censorship that reporters and other internet users in China have to put up with every day.”

Reporters Without Borders had also complained as had the Committee to Protect Journalists.

We hope the improved access remains in place after the Olympics.

30 July 2008

Afghanistan’s Government, the News Media, Criticism and LBJ

Private media have flourished in Afghanistan since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. But the Afghan government does not always tolerate criticism of its performance. Thus we were disturbed to read this week that a journalist at Afghanistan’s Ariana TV was detained and now faces prosecution for allegedly insulting senior government officials.

According to a government statement, journalist Nasir Fayaz, host of a weekly show called “Truth”, made what were termed baseless accusations against two cabinet ministers. The statement said: “The Cabinet decided that such people, and any other persons who are working in the media and are making baseless accusations, should be prosecuted.”

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for The Committee to Protect Journalists, says: “These kinds of heavy-handed tactics show that Afghanistan still has far to go in accepting the role of a critical press in an open society.”

Reporters Without Borders said: “The government is making a mistake when it arrests the host of an outspoken current affairs program.”

Reporters Without Borders acknowledges Fayaz was “very critical” of the government, describing two of the country’s ministers as thieves. The VOA news report on his detention quoted government officials as saying Fayaz tried to ask the ministers for special favors.

While we may not know the full story behind this incident, we do know that criticism of government officials can be routine in countries that enjoy a free press. Some leaders even make light of this fact of political life. When the late Lyndon Johnson was US President, he joked that he was never portrayed favorably in the news media, even when he did something spectacular. As he put it: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: President Can't Swim.”

29 July 2008

Obama-Mania 2: Will It Translate Into Votes in November?

We noticed today the latest Presidential campaign coverage study released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism here in the United States.

Not only did Senator Obama’s trip abroad dominate domestic political reporting during the past week, even the number of reports about press treatment of the Democratic Presidential contender exceeded the number of stories about Republican contender John McCain’s campaign.

Obama’s trip filled 51.2% of the campaign “newshole” in the major domestic media outlets. Press treatment of Obama filled 6.9%. Pure McCain coverage came in at just 3.6%.

The PEJ report notes that not all of the coverage of the Obama trip was flattering. But it went on to say:

“Whatever the tone of the coverage, Obama’s visit to the Middle East and Europe was an extraordinary media event.” And PEJ noted, “Barack Obama’s speech to a crowd of about 200,000 in Berlin provided a startling campaign visual to punctuate a week of remarkable media attention.”

But here is the important issue for non-Americans to keep in mind: warm receptions abroad don’t necessarily translate into votes at home.

Or as one prominent US broadcaster, Brian Williams, noted in his news program the same day as Obama’s Berlin speech: “If the election were held today, Barack Obama could sail to victory by a margin of 70 percent or more as President of Germany. Perhaps even all of Europe. The only problem is Senator Obama is running for President of the United States.”

We would encourage you to pay close attention to the campaign on our website’s special election page. And please note the VOA stories about race and its possible role in the 2008 election.

For the record, the Project on Excellence in Journalism weekly survey monitors 48 different news outlets each week from five different media sectors: newspapers, web sites, network television, cable television and radio --- all in the United States.

23 July 2008

Zimbabwe: The Real Story

If you were searching for news about Zimbabwe this morning and went to VOANews.com for the latest, you’d find this story with the headline: “Zimbabwe State Media: Political Talks Set to Begin Thursday”

This story and similar ones on other international news sites refer to plans by Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to begin talks about the country’s political future.

The talks follow controversial runoff elections in which Robert Mugabe was re-elected President. He was the only candidate after opposition contender Morgan Tsvangirai dropped out of the race (after taking the most votes in the initial round of balloting). He decided to pull out after many of his supporters were wounded, jailed or killed in what was considered widely a state-sponsored campaign of intimidation.

Understandably, many Zimbabweans, weary of the violence, the political turmoil and a collapsing economy, have welcomed the talks.

But does the narrow focus on talks accurately reflect what is actually going on in Zimbabwe?

We think not because the violence in Zimbabwe continues, as our courageous reporter in Harare, Peta Thornycroft, has discovered.

She notes in a report today that some opposition MDC legislators remain in hiding in Zimbabwe and abroad, afraid to go to their homes for fear of being arrested. She says about 20 winning MDC legislators have been arrested since the elections.

One legislator, who spent three weeks in detention recently and asked not to be identified, is quoted as saying members of the ZANU-PF militia are asking for money from people who fled during post-election violence and now want to return home. He said those that have returned have found their assets, such as food and livestock, were taken after the elections.

Her report goes on: A parliament member from a ZANU-PF stronghold where many voted for the first time for the MDC said militias still control people's movements in and out of villages. And, she notes, many opposition activists and supporters have now gone missing.

Covering talks or press conference or staking out meetings and conferring with officials is important but generally easy and convenient, journalistically. What is much harder is getting out and about, often under difficult conditions, to meet real and possibly fearful people affected by often frightening events and gathering their stories.

Such stories paint a grim picture --- but it is a picture that should be an integral part of any news about Zimbabwe today.

(For the record, Thornycroft’s story has, since we finished writing this, been moved up to the front page of VOANews.com. We’d also like to draw your attention to the reporting of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe where the daily news regularly chronicles the ongoing turmoil, with reports like this one and this one.)

21 July 2008


If you looked at the top two stories on VOANews.com at the same time we did today (around 10:45AM Eastern), you’d see they were both about U.S. Democratic Party Presidential contender Barack Obama. (See here and here.)

In fact, if you were to run a search at that same time for the name of Obama’s Republican Party rival, John McCain, you’d find most of the first 10 hits for McCain were actually stories about Obama! Take a look:

Obama Gets First-Hand Look at Iraq War US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama meets with senior Iraqi officials, US military commanders 21 July 2008
Obama Says US Must Focus on Threats in Afghanistan Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee spoke after meeting with Afghanistan's president in Kabul 20 July 2008
Obama Meets Karzai in Kabul Democratic presidential candidate promises to send more troops to Afghanistan if he wins US presidential election, calls for gradual withdrawal of US troops from Iraq 20 July 2008
Presidential Hopeful Barack Obama Meets Military Leaders in Afghanistan He visits Bagram air force base in eastern Afghanistan as part of congressional delegation 19 July 2008
Obama Seeks to Bolster Foreign Policy Credentials With Overseas Trip Obama expected to visit Iraq, Afghanistan soon 18 July 2008
Obama's Overseas Trip Draws Praise, Criticism from McCain Republican rival astonished Obama would deliver foreign policy speech on Afghanistan before visiting country 18 July 2008
US Candidate Obama Raises $52 Million in June Amount is more than double what Republican McCain rival raised 17 July 2008
Former Vice President Gore Issues US 10 Year Electricity Challenge Al Gore challenges US to produce all of its electricity through wind power, solar power and other environmentally friendly sources within 10 years 17 July 2008
McCain Calls for Education Reform; Obama Talks Security Threats John McCain says there have been decades of big promises by public education establishment but same poor results 16 July 2008
Obama Leads McCain in 3 New Polls Polls give Senator Obama lead over Senator McCain of between six and nine points 16 July 2008

Does this suggest a bias in VOA news coverage of the election campaign?

We don’t think so. Most of the stories in the list focus on Obama’s current overseas trip --- a trip that has taken the Democratic contender to Afghanistan and Iraq. Senator McCain’s campaign is still being covered but his most newsworthy comments in recent days have been reactions to Obama’s statements abroad, thus making him a part of the same stories, just not the leading part.

Other news executives also reject the suggestion about bias. Some even blame Senator McCain for the disparity in coverage. A senior vice president of CBS News was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that by criticizing Obama for a lack of foreign policy experience, McCain raised the stakes for Obama's current overseas trip, “especially if he winds up going in to two war zones.”

The Project on Excellence in Journalism studies news coverage here in the United States. Between May 12 and July 13, it says Obama received more media attention than his rival, although not all of the news about his campaign has been positive.

Tom Rosenstiel, the Project's director, is quoted by the A.P. as saying some of the attention is understandable but he suggests something is out of balance: “No matter how understandable it is given the newness of the candidate and the historical nature of Obama's candidacy, in the end it's probably not fair to McCain.”

Rosenstiel goes on to suggest that instead of a McCain-vs-Obama contest, the 2008 Presidential campaign could become a referendum on Obama if this apparent attention gap continues.

But some see risks for Obama in all the attention focused on the Democrat. If, for example, he makes a misstep while on his foreign trip, it could convey to voters the impression he doesn’t have what it takes to be an international statesman.

Still, some, like NBC News President Steve Capus, also quoted by A.P., find the issue of an alleged coverage imbalance funny --- given that in the not-too-distant past, critics charged campaign reporters with being much too chummy (friendly) with McCain.

17 July 2008

Honoring Journalists Killed in the Line of Duty

There is a new feature in the main hallway at Voice of America headquarters in Washington: a memorial to 10 journalists who worked for VOA, RFE-RL, Alhurra and Radio Sawa who were killed in the line of duty. The memorial was unveiled this week by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the government agency that supervises U.S. international broadcasters, including VOA.

The memorial honors Leonid Karas, Abdulrachmann Fatalibey, Georgi Markov, Iskandar Khatloni, Abdul-Hussein Khazal, Ricardo de Mello, Ogulsapar Muradova, Khamail Muhsin Khalaf, Nazar Abdulwahid Al-Radhi, and Alisher Saipov. Short profiles of these international broadcasters and reporters can be viewed in the news section of the BBG website.

At the dedication ceremony, Board member Steven Simmons called the memorial “a sad reminder that journalists risk their lives to protect a most basic freedom: the freedom to receive information. Information that sometimes is a matter of life and death.”

Board member Joaquin Blaya noted: “While a journalist's toolbox consists of pens, papers and sometimes a laptop, camera and microphone, the arsenal of the opponents of freedom of the press too often includes fists, arrest warrants and - as we acknowledge so vividly today – murder.”

“The tragic events that we recognize in today's dedication attest not to the power of despots, but to the power of journalists - whose seemingly insignificant tools produce the words of truth that find their way into millions of households every day. Journalists, whose words are so powerful, that the foes of freedom choose to fight them with force,” observed Governor Blaya.

15 July 2008

Death to Bloggers?

We were naturally disturbed the other day to see a report from Tehran headlined: “IRAN MULLS DEATH PENALTY FOR INTERNET CRIMES”

According to this report, Iran’s Parliament will consider a draft bill that adds to the list of those crimes meriting the death penalty “establishing weblogs and sites promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy.”

The Internet is widely used in Iran and blogging is very popular --- especially for those interested in criticizing the country’s governing system.

“This proposal is horrifying,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Iranian Internet users and bloggers already have to cope with very aggressive filtering policies. The passage of such a law, based on ill-defined concepts and giving judges a lot of room for interpretation, would have disastrous consequences for online freedom. We urge the parliament’s members to oppose this bill and instead to starting working on a moratorium on the death penalty.”

According to the press freedom organization, a blogger, Mojtaba Saminejad, was tried before a Tehran court in 2005 on a charge of “insulting the prophets,” which carries the death penalty. In the end, the court acquitted him.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, other bloggers elsewhere have also run afoul of authorities. A Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, is being held in connection with a story alleging that a top official and his wife were involved in a murder.

A blogger is also being held in Burma, according to CPJ. The blogger is Maung Thura, better known as Zarganar.

The CPJ has also voiced concern about the detention of blogger Gopalan Nair on charges of insulting a Singaporean judge during a high-profile libel case.

Global Voices Advocacy, a project of Global Voices Online, is trying to build a global anti-censorship network of bloggers and online activists throughout the developing world.

One key piece of advice: “Advocacy often involves taking unpopular or controversial positions and criticizing powerful people, particularly members of the government. If you think that the material on your advocacy blog could get you into trouble, please consider blogging anonymously.”

The group makes available Ethan Zuckerman’s guide, “Anonymous Blogging with Wordpress & Tor.”

The guide says: “If you follow these directions exactly, you’ll sharply reduce the chances that your identity will be linked to your online writing through technical means - i.e., through a government or law enforcement agency obtaining records from an Internet Service Provider.”

Some key pointers for anonymous blogging:

Do not use any personal information on the blog, such as your name, employer, school, or home town.

Use a pseudonym or do not use any name at all.

Never post a photo of yourself on your blog.

Do not use a paid blogging or e-mail service. Your payment information can be used to track your identity.

Use different computers to post to your blog so that your blog cannot be connected to a single IP address (the unique series of numbers connected to each computer on the Internet). Identifying the computer from which the posts were uploaded is only one step away from identifying you.

Use a “proxy server” to browse the internet (this hides your IP address).

To achieve maximum security, ask a friend in a freer country to run the advocacy blog for you, sending them the information they need through an anonymous e-mail account

A couple of downloads for aspiring bloggers:

Title: “Anonymous Blogging With Wordpress and Tor”
Published by: Global Voices Advocacy (2007)
Download: http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/tools/guide/

Title: “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents”
Published by: Reporters Without Borders (2005)
Download: http://www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/handbook_bloggers_cyberdissidents-GB.pdf

11 July 2008

Good News, News Cocoons and Truly Bad News

A friend sent us a news release the other day from Vienna from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It really caught our attention. Read it and you’ll see why:

VIENNA, 8 July 2008 - The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, asked Romanian President Traian Basescu today to veto a proposed amendment to the broadcasting law that would oblige television and radio stations to ensure that half their news coverage consists of "positive news".

"Prescribing, or even defining good versus bad news is a severe political intrusion into editorial freedom, and is fully out of touch with the rights of the audiences as well," said Haraszti.

"I do not see how ordering editors to carry 50 % good news could 'help improve the general climate and give people a balanced view of everyday life', as argued by the sponsors of the amendment," he added. "It is the diversity of unrestricted news reporting that makes a well-informed public, and this rule would only diminish such pluralism."

Naturally we share the view that this is a bad idea. And we appreciate even more the fact that the US Constitution (First Amendment) specifically bars any legislative action that would impinge on freedom of the press:

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Today we learned from the OSCE that the Constitutional Court of Romania has ruled the “good news” draft is unconstitutional. That is good news.

As journalists, we are familiar with the impulse that often drives political figures and ordinary citizens to complain that the news is “too negative” or “never tells us anything good about anything.”

We are also aware that many people, some of them sour on what they see as too much bad news, are moving into what one American professor, Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago, writing in Neiman Reports, characterizes as “information cocoons” --- where they only see exactly what they want to see and where, as Sunstein writes, “people can reinforce their own convictions.”

This, too, we find troubling. And Professor Sunstein explains why:

“A central consequence of this kind of self-sorting is what might be called “enclave extremism.” This term refers to the fact that when people end up in enclaves of like-minded people, they usually move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the group’s members were originally inclined. Enclave extremism is a special case of the broader phenomenon of group polarization, which has been found in more than a dozen nations. As group polarization occurs, misconceptions and falsehoods can spread like wildfire.”

We at VOA news have always reported the news, good and bad. We don’t deal in rumor, gossip or speculation. Nor do we play to only certain points of view. We have a responsibility to you, the audience, to present news that is accurate, objective and comprehensive.

And we believe you, the audience, have a responsibility to know what is happening in your world, good and bad. We believe it is the only way responsible decisions can be made.

Here is how Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel of the US-based Project for Excellence in Journalism put it in their book, “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect”:

“Journalism provides something unique to a culture -- independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture… The issue isn't just the loss of journalism. At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.”

If you can’t get that kind of information, we think that is truly bad news.

09 July 2008

Covering the Olympics in China: The Difference Between Press Convenience and Press Freedom

VOA correspondent Stephanie Ho in Beijing reports that with one month to go before the Olympics, China is reaffirming its promises of complete media freedom during the games. But these assurances come at a time when foreign journalists working in Beijing are reporting continued harassment and interference.

The problem could be that China is confusing media convenience with press freedom.

Ms. Ho quotes Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, as telling reporters China takes media service seriously and as asserting China has honored its commitment, in his words, to “adopt all kinds of measures to provide every convenience for journalists.”

The International Olympic Committee's Hein Verbruggen seems pleased. He is already thanking the Beijing organizing committee, but for what?

Here is what he says about the organizers: “They have made great efforts to provide excellent services for the press, such as providing all that is virtually needed for the media to make this their home for several weeks, from hair dressers, gyms, restaurants, to even a massage center.”

Massage center!!! That’s great. But again we ask, what about press freedom?

Listen to Johannes Hano, from the German broadcaster ZDF:

“We were stopped by security guards last week, on the Great Wall, and we had all the permissions we needed. They stopped us. We had a rehearsal before and nobody interfered. But when we started the live (shot), when we were on air, then they stopped us, running to the camera, putting their hands on the camera.”

Hano is quoted as saying he does not care as much about the working facilities as he does about having the ability to report freely. He said he is worried that, despite Chinese promises, media freedom will be seriously curtailed.

His concerns have been echoed by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which has recorded 259 cases of reporting interference since January 1st, 2007. That is the date the new, more open, rules for Olympic reporting went into effect.

In a statement this week, FCCC president Jonathan Watts said:
“The Chinese government has not yet lived up to its Olympic promise of complete reporting freedom and there are mixed signals about its willingness to do so. In the run up to the Games, we have seen steps forward towards greater openness and at the same time backward to tighter controls. The government should show which way it intends to go by making access and transparency an enduring legacy of the Olympics.”

Human Rights Watch has also issued its own report accusing Chinese authorities of continuing to block and threaten foreign journalists despite promises to lift media restrictions ahead of the Olympics.

Its 71-page report, “China’s Forbidden Zones: Shutting the Media out of Tibet and Other ‘Sensitive’ Stories,” documents how foreign correspondents continue to face intimidation and obstruction by government officials or their proxies when they pursue stories that can embarrass the authorities, expose official wrongdoing, or document social unrest. It says some journalists have suffered serious threats to their lives or safety. And it reports China is also threatening to restrict entry to news organizations that do not toe the line.

“These constraints limit what the estimated 25,000 correspondents going to China for the Olympics can cover,” says Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. “Journalists who try to report objectively on the complex realities of modern China are facing real risks, despite the government’s commitments to give them greater freedom.”

Reporters Without Borders also weighed in recently on the same subject. It asserts “There has been no improvement in the situation of free expression in recent months and arrests are continuing at the same pace.”

And the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement of its own this week, notes Chinese journalists are suffering, too. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said: “We remain dismayed by the repressive conditions under which our Chinese colleagues continue to work. The censorship, imprisonment, and harassment of domestic journalists are the fundamental issues that should be resolved.”

Seems there may be a problem here that can’t be massaged away.

08 July 2008

Soldiers Pretending to Be Journalists?

Isn’t anyone out there concerned about the potential hazard posed to real reporters when soldiers masquerade as journalists?

We ask because we haven’t seen any expressions of worry from major journalist organizations since it was revealed that the Colombian special forces who took part in that dramatic and successful hostage rescue last week pretended to be both aid workers and a TV crew.

Here’s how the Washington Post reported it:

“The commandos who volunteered for the operation took acting classes. Two posed as a camera crew… and a handful of others played the role of relief workers, faking foreign accents.”

Now, don’t get us wrong: we rejoice in the release of the hostages.

But, as one observer in Colombia argues:

“By having soldiers pose as journalists and aid workers in order to gain access to the hostages, the Colombian government has increased the already high risks faced by legitimate reporters and NGO workers. In a country that is already one of the most dangerous places in the world in which to work as a journalist or a defender of human rights, the armed actors will now be even more suspicious of anyone claiming to work in those fields.”

We agree that it is worrisome.

What do you think?

03 July 2008

Climate Change and Criticism: Chill Out

Very often, we here at VOA News get emails from someone in our global audience who challenges one of our reports not because it is wrong, but because he or she simply doesn’t like what the report says or disagrees with what one of the sources in the report is quoted as saying.

Is this legitimate criticism? Well, far be it for us to tell audiences what they may or may not write us.

But let us put the question back to the audience: what would you have VOA do? Not quote somebody? Not report at all on a certain topic? Or leave out one or more significant viewpoints in a report that tries to present multiple points of view?

If that were our practice, we might find it difficult to write any reports or to quote many officials, including some very prominent ones.

We raise this topic in light of an email we received recently which accused us of doing a disservice to our audiences in reporting on what has become a rather contentious topic --- climate change.

The writer was referring to a TV report about a recent appearance at the National Press Club in Washington by Director James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

Hansen is among the first scientists to sound a warning about the potential dangers of greenhouse gases and global warming. He now asserts the dangers are even greater.

In the VOA report, he says, “We really have reached a point of a planetary emergency” and he predicts, “We are going to lose all of the sea ice in the Arctic summer season, and we know we are going to lose that sea ice because the planet is out of energy balance.”

Our emailer accuses Hansen of ranting and raving and insists “the science is not on his (Hansen’s) side.”

He accuses VOA of failing to do adequate research, suggests a couple of websites we should use and ends by demanding that we “start reporting the science and not the propaganda.”


Well, it’s not as if we don’t recognize there are other points of view. In this report, for example, our reporter notes there are those who, as the report puts it, “downplay the warnings of global warming and dispute the claim the climate system is reaching a tipping point.” It even quotes a lawyer representing energy interests as saying, “Most people who work on climate change issues… believe there are a suite of technological applications that we will be able to apply that can reverse, or at least adapt, to the consequences of global warming.”

This all gets back to a point we have made before. We think it is our responsibility to present significant points of view and let the audiences weigh them and draw their own conclusions. We don’t decide for you.

A final note: we looked at the two websites suggested by our emailer as sources of expertise on climate change. One of them is for a supposedly independent non-profit center which, after a little search, we learned is reported to have taken money from a major energy corporation, something that journalists generally view as a conflict of interest. The other is the website of a scientist who, when we looked into his work, characterizes himself as a global warming optimist and who appeared in a documentary film titled, “The Great Global Warming Swindle”.