28 January 2008

How VOA Helps, Part 2

For the second installment of our How VOA Helps, originally triggered by an email from a listener in Africa, I asked our Persian service, known here as Persian News Network or PNN, to share some of the emails they receive daily from their audience.

One program in particular broadcast on PNN has proven quite important: a show called ”Today's Woman”. Emailers say it has helped more men in Iran understand women and the issues they face politically, legally, and socially. In many cases, it has, as one emailer noted, “opened the door for Iranian families to have open discussions on subjects that are often taboo in Iranian society.”

Here is a sampling of some other emails shared by PNN with us here at the VOA News Blog:

From a journalist and blogger in Iran: “In recent months, [as you know, from your reports on the matter], Iranian authorities have cracked down on dog owners and detained their dogs, claiming they are impure according to Islam http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/2007/09/13/iran-dogs-arrested . I was the object of a complaint from the Iranian president’s office and was detained on November 26. Several Iranian blogs and web sites say the main reason I was arrested is because I revealed that Ahmadinejad’s security staff bought four dogs from Germany.... I want you to know that I believe VOA’s report on my detention was instrumental in securing my release. Thank you for your effective programming.”

From a young viewer in Iran: “Thank you guys for the wonderful job you do every night. You bring joy to our homes. You guys ROCK. I wanted to ask you to play a video from the rock band QUEEN. Their music is so popular in Iran but you kind of ignore them. It would be awesome if you could pick one of the many great songs they have and play it at the end of your program. Thanks again and keep up the great job.”

From a male viewer in Iran: “After 10 years of listening and watching VOA, I am sending you my first e-mail. I was on my way to work today for a private company when the government announced a two day holiday. A radio reporter stopped me for an interview and actually had the audacity to ask me to thank officials for city services . . . when all city services [during the difficult days of this blizzard] have been stopped! This is the kind of news we hear on the radio in the Islamic Republic.”

From Ali Dizaei, senior police official in London, interviewed on Roundtable with You January 6 on Scotland Yard’s investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto: “It would have been remiss of me not to e-mail VOA and let you know about the incredible feedback I have had due to my interview. You may recall that the last time I had an interview with VOA, my Yahoo e-mail account collapsed as I received over 1000 emails in 24 hours! That is why I was reluctant for VOA to put my e-mail address on the screen this time. However, I decided to increase the size of my inbox and the response has been incredible. It seems our community, like [most people], is fascinated with anything to do with the police. Police dramas are often the best watched in UK and probably across the world. This may explain why when the viewers see a senior police officer, they become fascinated with the story. But I believe there is a sense of patriotism at play here in the Iranian community. I think people feel particularly proud when they see a senior Scotland Yard officer who is of Iranian origin on their TV screen, especially in Iran where young people’s opportunities to find their true potential is constrained. This may explain the reason for this massive response.”

From a woman viewer in Ramsar: “As long as there are uneducated people in Iran and [others are in a position] to take advantage of their beliefs, [we will] have to observe crimes like amputations. The best remedy for all the long-suffered problems in Iran would be exposing [people] to free information and the chance to compare themselves with others around the world in order to see what is going on in civilized countries. This is the exact thing the [Iranian people] have been deprived of for three decades.”

As a final note, let us mention an article that appeared January 23rd on the website of the Kuwait Times titled “What Iranians are watching.” The full item can be read at:

But here is one excerpt involving satellite TV broadcasts into Iran:

“Among the most popular of these is the Persian service of the Voice of America. Operated by the US government, the channel has attracted a large audience because of its high-quality programming and because it is seen as the only independent source of Persian-language TV news. The channel claims to have 10 million viewers a day, and is considered one of the most important sources of news and information in the country. The channel's popularity has prompted the BBC to launch its own Persian news channel.”

To learn more about VOA’s Persian programs, go to: http://www.voanews.com/persian/
The link for the program “Today's Woman” : http://www.voanews.com/persian/_-todays-woman.cfm and for “Roundtable” : http://www.voanews.com/persian/_-roundtable.cfm

22 January 2008

The VOA Charter and Why It Is Important to Our Audiences

There is no more important document guiding the work of journalists at the Voice of America than the VOA Charter. It was drafted in 1960 and signed into law on July 12, 1976 by then President Gerald Ford.

The Charter is intended to protect the integrity of all VOA programming and define the organization's mission.

It reads:

The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:

1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)

Now, there is actually an expression that has long been used at VOA by journalists: waving the Charter in someone’s face. It is generally used when some official tries to insist on coverage by VOA of some event or to dictate how something should be reported.

All such efforts --- yes, even by U.S. government officials --- are strenuously resisted. And that’s a fact!

For example, the State Department objected when VOA interviewed Taliban leader Mullah Omar shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and demanded that none of the interview be broadcast. VOA refused to comply and excerpts of that interview were used.

We know some people out there think VOA is nothing more than a government “mouthpiece.” But as one emailer to the VOA News Blog recently wrote: “I wonder if those who use the word ‘mouthpiece’ ever actually listen?”

We invite you to listen, watch and/or read. Go to: VOANews.com

16 January 2008

How VOA Helps, Part 1

As we noted last week, the VOA News Blog had received an email from Aboaondofa, who asked: "how do you help people in your journalism?"

We put this question to several VOA colleagues and we plan to roll out their replies, one at a time, in the weeks ahead.

Our first reply comes from Idrissa Dia, Chief of VOA’s popular French-to-Africa service. He quotes from some emails and phone calls his service has received.

Idrissa says VOA French programs are probably having their most significant impact in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He says one email writer there sent this message:

“I am and will always be a faithful VOA listener, since thanks to you we are aware of the taboo information… because no state or private network will touch those stories, not wanting to take any risks of being closed down or seeing their journalists arrested.”

Another emailer writes: “I'm in Bujumbura, and I did not have the chance to go and vote like every good Congolese, but it is more useful for me to congratulate all those who have contributed to the success of this big rendezvous of the Congolese people. I thank VOA for its coverage which allowed us to learn more throughout our country.”

Idrissa says one writer went so far as to suggest that VOA be nominated for a Nobel prize because, as far as this emailer was concerned, VOA has played a “very positive role by being among those forces for peace in Congo".

French-to-Africa’s Managing Editor Ferdinand Ferella, who has been covering the region for almost two decades, received an email in which the writer said “I had the pleasure of listening to your Forum on the DRC elections, and congratulate you for your objectivity. This should be a very important lesson to our own press.”

Other communications from listeners to our French programs are thankful for VOA services like English lessons, and the opportunity they are given to ask questions in interactive programs like Washington Forum and America and You.

Sometimes the help given by VOA affects individuals directly. Idrissa reports that the publisher of the Djibouti-based journal "Le Renouveau", Ahmed Farah Daher, called recently to say thank you because one of his journalists had been freed from detention after VOA's broadcast of a story about his case. Idrissa says this publisher “assured us that the Djibouti government pays attention" to what VOA is saying.

14 January 2008

Terrorist Vs. Rebel: Who Decides and Why

VOA often gets queries from readers/listeners/viewers on a variety of topics. One that comes up regularly involves the word choices journalists make --- in this particular case, choosing to describe the PKK Kurdish group as “rebel” vs. “terrorist.”

Here is the original query, sent on 12/25/07 by Aykut:

“I wonder on what basis you designate PKK as rebels but not terrorists…Please make a search on your web site and find out who you call terrorists and explain to me how PKK is any different.”

Here are some excerpts from a recent VOA news story about talks in Washington between top US and Turkish officials http://www.voanews.com/english/2007-12-28-voa44.cfm in which the PKK played a role:

“…the talks are expected to focus on efforts to counter separatist rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The Turkish military has launched an offensive against the PKK in response to a series of deadly ambushes by PKK rebels in southeastern Turkey in recent months. A U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey Friday said the U.S., Turkey and Iraq have a common enemy in the PKK… The United States, Turkey and the European Union consider the PKK a terrorist organization.”

Note that the story does two things: first, it characterizes the PKK as “rebels” but, second, it also notes the US government, along with Turkey, consider it a “terrorist” organization.

In line with that, here are some excerpts from a recent VOA editorial http://www.voanews.com/uspolicy/2007-12-26-voa5.cfm that used the “T” word to characterize the PKK:

“U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Iraqi, Turkish, and U.S. authorities should work together to stop attacks from Iraq into Turkey by Kurdish terrorists known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK... President George W. Bush said the United States is committed to working closely with Turkey and Iraq to stop PKK terrorists.”

VOA editorials reflect the official views of the US government. But please note, these editorials are not written by VOA journalists and when used in broadcasts, they are segregated in a distinct bloc of programming to make clear they are NOT part of the news.

Why the difference? Here is how senior VOA Central News Division editor (and keeper of the official VOA Central News Stylebook) Don Benson addresses the rebel-vs-terrorist question:

“We (VOA journalists) try to keep in mind that one person's "terrorist" is another person's "freedom fighter," and that there often are political implications in how governments distinguish one group from another. As journalists, we try to be as objective and unbiased as possible. We do not check government terrorism lists to determine how we should identify any particular group in our news stories. However, in those stories we do often quote the government description, making sure we attribute carefully. Although rebel or opposition groups on occasion use violence to achieve their political goals, terrorism is most often defined as the intentional and specific targeting of civilians for violence. In our stories, we do use the term "terrorist group" to describe al-Qaida, which I think most people would agree is dedicated to the indiscriminate killing of innocents to achieve its goals.”

Since VOA also broadcasts in both Kurdish and Turkish, I checked with one of VOA’s senior language broadcast programmers to see how they handle this question. Here is what Taclan Suerdem, Managing Editor of the Near East and Central Asia Division, had to say:

“Both services [Kurdish and Turkish] use the original English terminology [from VOA central news stories and VOA editorials.] In other words, in translating [news] items they use "rebels" or "militants" or "members of PKK" and make sure to include the reference to the official US position regarding the PKK [i.e. characterizing it as terrorist]. ”Services also use the original language [from] editorials and call PKK "terrorist" if the editorial uses that kind of language.”

Taclan, a distinguished veteran journalist, tells us media outlets in Turkey “are under pressure” to call the PKK terrorist. He says “some voluntarily do that while others try to vary their use of "terrorists" or "rebels."” VOA’s Turkish service works with FM and TV affiliates in Turkey. Taclan says “so far, the affiliates have not raised any objections [to the use of “rebel” in VOA stories to describe the PKK] but the service has received a few calls and e-mails from individuals who protested the use of "rebels" instead of "terrorists."”

Most other major news organizations do what VOA News does: characterize the PKK as rebels or militants but also note some governments have labeled them a terrorist group.

11 January 2008

VOA's US Election Debate Coverage: A Complaint

Some of you have written in complaining about the fact that we did not mention Republican presidential contender and Texas Congressman Ron Paul in our correspondent report on the Republican presidential debate on January 10th. http://www.voanews.com/english/2008-01-11-voa8.cfm

We asked VOA's National Correspondent Jim Malone to consider these complaints and respond. Although Mr. Paul is shown in a photo of the participants in our web version, Jim says:

"Those of you who raised objections have a point. We should have mentioned his name along with the other Republican contenders who took part."

As Jim points out: "This is an example of the challenges that face all news organizations when it comes to balancing coverage of the so-called frontrunners in both political parties and those other contenders who remain in the race but not at the forefront of the polls or fundraising."

We would like to point out a story by our Houston-based correspondent filed earlier this month http://www.voanews.com/english/2008-01-02-voa38.cfm that dealt exclusively with the Paul campaign and the buzz he has generated in the general election debate and in his ability to raise campaign funds through the Internet.

10 January 2008

How VOA Helps: A Question

We at the VOA News Blog have received an email from Aboaondofa, who asks "how do you help people in your journalism?"

We are going to answer this one soon. Several VOA correspondents and editors in Washington and overseas have been asked to share their views and experiences, explaining how they think our programming helps people in their lives.

As soon as we hear back from them, we'll post a reply. Thanks to our questioner and, in advance, to our VOA colleagues who will be providing the answer.

07 January 2008

Welcome to the VOA News Blog

It’s been a while in coming. But finally, we have a VOA News Blog. And as we inaugurate it, we thought it appropriate to discuss some of the basic principles that guide all editorial personnel at the Voice of America – especially because many people have a lot of misconceptions about VOA and how it operates journalistically.

Since we are in the process of producing a new handbook for VOA journalists, we thought quoting from the draft manuscript would help all of you with an interest in going behind-the-scenes at VOA to better understand what VOA is all about. So here we go. These are the proposed first words in the new handbook:

CREDIBILITY is our constant goal and ACCURACY, OBJECTIVITY and COMPREHENSIVENESS our tools for achieving it. Edward R. Murrow, testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1953 on the Voice of America, said: “The measure of our success will be the degree to which we are believed.” Those words are as valid today as they were more than a half century ago.

INDEPENDENCE: VOA will always air all relevant facts and opinions on important news events and issues. Although funded by the U.S. government, our journalists do not speak for the U.S. government. We accept no treatment or assistance from U.S. government officials or agencies any different than that granted to other news organizations.

RESPECT: We will always show respect for our audiences, whose interests are at the center of everything we do, and for our colleagues, whose creativity and energy are essential to our ability to meet our audiences’ needs. We will work to foster teamwork and goodwill in the workplace, putting the quest for excellence in the content of our programs above all other considerations.

Now, we hope this is a good start to a dialogue with all of you out there with questions or comments about VOA and our programs. Let the dialogue begin!