14 December 2009

Give ‘Em Hell, VOA - Part 2

We recently quoted former U.S. President Harry “Give ‘em Hell” Truman as saying back in 1948 about his political rivals: "I don't give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell."

We used the quote to explain why it is that VOA has only to report the news accurately and objectively and some foreign officials, usually in repressive countries with no free press, quickly complain.

The latest case is Zimbabwe, where the state-controlled Herald newspaper now describes VOA as a “pirate radio station.”

Real “pirate radios” rose to fame in the 1950’s and 60’s in Europe, when several, mainly commercial, broadcasters took to the seas, sending out programs from vessels anchored in international waters to circumvent strict government regulation of the airwaves in various countries. These radios mainly broadcast popular music of the sort that couldn’t be heard on state-run stations.

(For the record, VOA did mount a sea-based broadcasting operation back in the 1950’s in an initiative approved by President Truman. The Coast Guard cutter Courier was designed to provide a ship-borne radio relay station to transmit VOA programs behind the "Iron Curtain." She was stationed in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean off the island of Rhodes, Greece. You can read a full history of this vessel here.)

But VOA is no “pirate radio station” by any stretch of the imagination. It is a legitimate international broadcaster and it has been since 1942.

Zimbabwe has also taken to criticizing neighboring Botswana for hosting one of VOA’s transmitter relay facilities -- or as Zimbabwe puts it, “hosting pirate radio stations.”

The government of Botswana has just responded, noting “there is nothing exceptional about Botswana hosting the radio relay broadcasting facilities for an international broadcaster such as VOA.”

As a Botswana government statement also noted, “the VOA relay station, located near Selebi-Phikwe, has been in open operation for three decades. Its frequencies are filed with the International Telecommunications Union. The VOA relay transmitter was not constructed to relay to Zimbabwe alone, but to the region as a whole, including of course Botswana. The Government of Botswana is unaware of any broadcasts being relayed by VOA from the facility could be considered as hostile to Zimbabwe.”

Botswana also made the point that hosting international relay stations like VOA’s is consistent with a protocol agreed to by all Southern African countries which provides for a diversity of opinion and free flow of information in the region.

So like a recent VOA editorial said: “If the Mugabe regime really wants foreign-based stations to stop broadcasting into Zimbabwe, let it release its grip on the media there, liberalize the press and broadcasting environment, and domestic radio stations will flourish.”

In the meantime, don’t call us pirates.

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