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.