09 December 2010

Goodbye

It’s time for this blog to go into a self-induced coma. Perhaps to be terminated at a later date.

I had fun writing about various journalism issues. But defending VOA against the many misperceptions out there was, frankly, quite tedious and repetitive – especially in an era where too many people aren’t interested in the facts, only their own beliefs.

The other problem is that it’s really no fun talking to oneself. While I had hoped for a dialogue, there wasn’t any evidence of interest on the part of the readership, even though it numbered in the tens of thousands over the last couple years.

That has been very disappointing. I had expected otherwise.

But I was wrong -- perhaps because, like I just read in a novel, "rationality is the enemy of consciousness."

You figure it out. I can’t.

30 November 2010

Wikileaks and The Media

The release by the Wikileaks organization of tens of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, as expected, has created a media frenzy. But it has got me to thinking, what if these were Chinese cables, or Iranian cables or, for that matter, diplomatic communications from any other country than the United States? Wouldn’t we all like to see some of those?

And it has also got me to thinking, how are non-U.S. media reporting on the latest leaks? I noticed an item on the Columbia Journalism Review website on how Arab media are handling the story. It is tantalizingly titled, “Tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now.”

The title originates from a reference in the item to an article by Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy, who wrote: “I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints.”

I’d like to hear from readers on how you think your own domestic media are handling the story. Drop us an email.

23 November 2010

Resentment is What Generates Ratings?

It was a week ago that we proposed creation of a network of media watchers. We asked readers in the 15 countries which have sent the most visitors to the VOA Media Watch to sign up. To say the response has been under-whelming would be too generous. In fact, no one has stepped up. That’s right. No one. Not a single message. Nothing.

So maybe we are going about things the wrong way. Let’s try a different tactic. We’ll put up a statement and see if anyone wants to comment on it. Here goes.

Does the following statement describe the content of any of the news outlets you follow?

“…the news exists in order to generate controversy. And controversy exists in order to generate resentment. And the resentment is what generates ratings… Resentment of whom? Well, a cultural elite that is corrupt and maneuvering behind the scenes to exercise power.”

Send in your thoughts (and we’ll reveal the source of the statement). In the meantime, enjoy the video.


18 November 2010

We’ve Had Enough And We’re Not Going to Take It Anymore

Well, that was the title of a posting I wanted to put up this week lashing out at those individuals who make waves by telling lies about VOA, occasionally out of ignorance but usually with malicious intent, hoping that if people hear the lies often enough, they will be accepted as the truth.

But then two things happened. First, I was talked out of it by my editor. And second, I received the latest copy of the Columbia Journalism Review. It contains an editorial decrying a recent media trend in the U.S. “where we increasingly live in separate information silos.”

It laments what it terms “ideological fracturing” in which some news organizations “profit by preaching to their respective choirs.” It says this “massive retreat into ideological niches” isn’t helping the media or the nation address their challenges.

And then the editorial offered some suggestions:

• “Ignore the bias bullies. If you are intellectually honest in your reporting and in story choices, stop cringing every time somebody says you are not.


• “Stand up for facts…


• “Stop groveling…


• “Do what you do best—deep reporting…”

It’s good advice for journalists, wherever they are. So, instead of worrying about the “bias bullies,” I’ll choose to ignore them. And VOA will focus on what VOA does best: serving “as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”

17 November 2010

Notable Quotes: "...an antidote to malicious journalism…"

My thanks and compliments to columnist and author Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who provides today's notable quote in an item titled "Too Good to Check."

The piece discusses how Anderson Cooper of CNN exposed the falsehood that President Obama's recent trip to Asia cost $200 million a day. Friedman writes: "It underscored just how far ahead of his time Mark Twain was when he said a century before the Internet, 'A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.' But it also showed that there is an antidote to malicious journalism — and that’s good journalism."


The key quote comes at the end:

"When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it."

15 November 2010

Building a Community of Media Observers

Since the VOANewsBlog began in January 2008, tens of thousands of people from around the world have visited. Excluding the United States, the top 15 countries with the most visitors have been:

1. Vietnam
2. Iran
3. Japan
4. South Korea
5. China
6. Canada
7. United Kingdom
8. Taiwan
9. Germany
10. Russia
11. Thailand
12. France
13. Turkey
14. India
15. Pakistan

As part of our redesign, I’d like to build a community of media observers, starting with these countries, who would comment on the information they receive from VOA and compare it to the quality of information they can obtain from their domestic media. What do they like about VOA news, or dislike? I might from time to time throw out a question to the community for responses and then collate and display the results here. (I won’t censor anyone’s comments, as long as they avoid hate speech, obscenity and the like.)

So how do we build this community? It’s really up to you. If you want to participate, send an email to VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

Please tell me a little about yourself, your background and any media experience you might have. Explain why you want to join up. Please add a comment or observation about VOA News.
So if you want to get involved, send an email to VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

As the new Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Walter Isaacson, said in a recent speech: “We have to be able to build online communities with our audience that actively engage them on issues of mutual concern and interest.”

That’s what we’re trying to do here.

And as you have probably noticed, we have renamed the NewsBlog and now call it the VOA Media Watch. And we’ve changed the template. New look. New start. Join us.

09 November 2010

Knee-Jerk Critics and Others

A recent post discussed the question of whether our editorial content is automatically suspect because VOA is financed by the U.S. government.

We know the answer is yes, for some people. But additional data, obtained from recent audience research conducted for VOA, suggests at least some of the suspicion is simply “knee-jerk” suspicion, not based on fact.

Take for example the following excerpt from a recent report on a monitoring panel asked to evaluate one of VOA’s language services:

“…despite the respondents’ high ratings for accuracy and objectivity, a minority of panelists expressed some concern about the possible influence of the U.S. Government in the broadcasts. For instance, one panelist opined that VOA tried to hide the drawbacks of American policy in its coverage of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, this same panelist went on to note that VOA’s unbiased look at the challenges faced by a Muslim–American soldier in the U.S. military made up for the shortcomings she perceived in the coverage of U.S. actions in Afghanistan and showed VOA’s concern for Muslims.”

Another audience panel was critical of a perceived bias in the way VOA reported on this year’s devastating floods in Pakistan:

“Some panelists even felt that [VOA] was using the flood as a propaganda tool to make Pakistanis -- who, according to the panelists, view the United States with anger and distrust --better like and appreciate the country.”

One of the panelists in this group admitted he would never view any VOA news item with an open mind, stating “Americans are treated with scorn and derision and we give them no moral weight.”

There is yet another group of audience members -- again, I suspect a minority -- who do not expect VOA to be objective and balanced and indicate they want it to be pro-U.S. all the time. While such comments, in my experience, usually emanate from people here in the United States, this comment came from abroad:

“It is unrealistic for VOA to be a government-owned body and claim to offer ‘balanced’ and ‘unbiased’ news coverage. VOA’s mission is to present the U.S. policies and not the opposition to these policies. Objectivity should not really be a part of the assumption or equation.”

Frankly, I don’t see how we can ever satisfy any of these critics. To those who want “gung-ho, pro-America, slam-our-adversaries all-the-time” programming, I can only say: “Forget about it. We have a Charter and we’re sticking to it. (And besides, we don’t have to bash our adversaries. They do a pretty good job of bashing themselves and all we have to do it report it.)

For those who don’t believe we can be accurate, objective and balanced, I would only ask: “Please don’t make any assumptions. Take some time to actually watch, listen to or read our content.”

04 November 2010

Isaacson: Credibility is the Key

(This is the fourth excerpt from my remarks to John Brown’s Georgetown University class.)

Walter Isaacson says the fundamental BBG mission, despite all the changes in the global media marketplace, will remain exactly the same: “It’s fostering freedom through credible journalism. It’s just that simple.”

The new Chairman, speaking recently at the Newseum, acknowledged that U.S. international broadcasting is in a difficult position because by law and by tradition it’s tasked with two separate missions that might conflict: first of all, covering the news with the highest journalistic standards and secondly, being a part of America’s public diplomacy by accurately conveying U.S. policies and values to the world.

“Let me say to you,” said Isaacson, “we will stress the primacy of the first of these missions, our mission of being credible journalists, because it is the best – in fact, it’s the only way to carry out the second mission. You can’t do it unless you’re credible and telling the truth, and in the end, the truth is on our side. Credibility is the key to all that we do.”

So, to go back to where we began these remarks and the original question posed, the biggest challenge to U.S. international broadcasting in the 21st century is the same one that it has faced since it began in 1942 – credibility.

(My thanks to John Brown and his Georgetown students for having me as a guest and for providing an engaging Q and A session.)

03 November 2010

Firewall or Political Football?

(This is the third excerpt from my remarks to John Brown’s Georgetown University class.)

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is supposed to protect journalists at VOA from being buffeted by political interference by acting as a “firewall.” As a BBG factsheet states, “The firewall safeguards the ability of BBG entities to develop programming that reflects the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism, free of political interference.”

But what if a member of Congress, exercising legislative prerogatives, holds up the confirmation of the entire slate of nominees for a new Board? This actually happened – and the legislator in question was dissatisfied with the tenor of some VOA broadcasts.

Now this legislator would probably argue that his interest was motivated by the need for “Congressional oversight” of a government agency receiving government funding.
But it was viewed in some quarters as political interference. Here is some language supporting that perspective from a Congressional Report on U.S. International Broadcasting issued earlier this year:

“Congress originally established the Board (BBG) in the mid-1990’s to ensure our broadcasting operations were free from political pressures from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. After 15 years, however, it has become clear that the BBG, rather than functioning as a political “firewall,” has become a political “football” as Board membership nominations have become enmeshed and blocked due to partisan politics.”

The report specifically responded to one criticism made of certain U.S. international broadcast programs:

“Critics note that some BBG entities have allowed individuals opposed to U.S. policy to air their views without any rebuttal or balanced context. While allowing such vitriol to go uncontested is clearly poor journalism, such occurrences have been the rare exception, not the norm. Nonetheless, in order for the BBG to be credible to its audience and draw in not just those who already agree with U.S. policy, its networks must be permitted to present both sides of an argument.”

Fortunately, we have a new BBG Chairman, Walter Isaacson, who I believe, based on his early comments, is a staunch advocate of solid journalism and keeping VOA at arm’s length from politics.

(Next: the new BBG Chairman speaks out)

02 November 2010

The Credibility Question

(This is the second excerpt from my remarks to John Brown’s Georgetown University class.)

“Credibility trumps everything else when it comes our role as a government funded international broadcaster.” – Danforth Austin, VOA Director

But here is the follow-up question I put to the Director: “Is it possible to convince audiences of our credibility when many people believe it is automatically undermined by virtue of us being part of the U.S. government? How can we surmount that?”

Here’s what Director Austin replied:

“As a [foreign] newspaper editor…put it to me on a visit last year: ‘VOA, CIA, what's the difference?’ So yes, while in the dark days of WWII the name ‘Voice of America’ may have resonated with much of the rest of the world as the voice of freedom and hope, the moniker can carry a very different connotation in today's world.”

He went on:

“Of course, private-sector American media often get tarred with the same brush, especially in the foreign press which tends to see all of us as agents of Uncle Sam. More difficult to address is the perception among the chattering classes here that being funded by the USG means, ipso facto, that our reporting on the US will be less than objective, that we may even be obligated to shill for the government and its policies. Indeed, there are people on the Hill who believe that's exactly what we should be doing.”

Director Austin’s conclusion about how we contend with the doubts about our credibility:

“The only way I know to combat that perception is to continue to do our jobs as professionally as we know how, and to make sure that the public understands when and why we do this…”

(Next: Firewall or Political Football)

01 November 2010

The Challenges to US International Broadcasting in the 21st Century

(Note: I was invited by John Brown to speak to students in his graduate class at Georgetown University recently on “The Challenges to U.S. International Broadcasting in the 21st Century.” Here is a first excerpt from my remarks. Unless otherwise specified, the views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of VOA.)

Things are no longer as simple as when international broadcasters just did shortwave transmissions to the world. Now we have to adapt to a world where more people want TV than radio – and where the Internet is expanding its reach daily. We have to have a presence on the net and on the various social media sites. And we have to have a mobile phone presence. This has meant staffers need to develop new skills. And it has increased our overall costs, especially to do television.

So when I told senior managers at VOA and the BBG about this event, and solicited their views on the greatest challenges, invariably some of them first mentioned budget. Although our funding has generally been increasing, it’s never enough to do all that we’d like to do.

Another challenge is increased competition – and not just from traditional competitors like the BBC, Deutsche Welle and the like. China, Russia, Iran – they are all pouring tens of millions of dollars into global broadcasting efforts. And that’s not all. With the Internet, everyone is potentially an international broadcaster. That means we've got to be creative about how attract audiences. No longer can we just roll out "the news" and expect people to watch, listen or read.

Yet another possible challenge is posed by those who question why U.S. International Broadcasting needs several entities versus one comprehensive one. The stock answer is that VOA emphasizes international and regional news and in-depth coverage of the United States while entities like Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and TV Marti emphasize domestic news of the countries they broadcast to. That distinction has been blurred over time and can be debated.

But the biggest challenge is one we've faced since we started broadcasting in 1942: maintaining credibility and trust with our audiences.

This is not only my view, it’s the view of VOA Director Danforth Austin. In a message to me, he said:

“The way people consume media, including news media, is changing rapidly around the globe, and keeping up with those changing habits is critical for a news organization like VOA. But if the content we deliver, whether via shortwave radio or mobile device, can't be believed or trusted, we've accomplished nothing. Credibility trumps everything else when it comes our role as a government funded international broadcaster.”

(In the next excerpt, I will raise the question of whether the credibility of a U.S. government financed news organization is automatically suspect by virtue of its funding source.)

27 October 2010

A Response from VOA’s Director

VOA Director Danforth Austin has a response to this week’s post in which a reader in Sweden proposed that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, in an effort to be more competitive in international TV markets, “try to finance an international channel produced by the (U.S.) Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and with PBS quality programming.”

Director Austin notes a decision was made long ago by U.S. government-funded international broadcasters “that Americans living abroad and English speakers in democracies that enjoy a free press are already well served by commercial television and don't require programming subsidized by American taxpayers.”

He goes on to say that at VOA, “we continually work to improve our television efforts--over 300 hours of original television are produced every week... These programs are in the vernacular language of the markets to which they're broadcast, and are often carried as part of a local affiliate's program mix.”

That said, VOA does offer English-language video, audio and text through our English-language web portal, which is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

26 October 2010

The Future of U.S. International Broadcasting?

Last week I asked for reader views on the challenges to U.S. international broadcasting. I received one very thoughtful response from Sten in Sweden that I would like to share with you all.

Sten notes there is no VOA presence in Northern Europe (save via the web) but he says the presence of other government financed broadcasts is, as he puts it, “quite impressive.”

“I have through my satellite dish a handful of free English language news channels… channels from Russia, France, Germany, Iran and UK and two mixed from Japan and Korea. Many of those channels can also be followed via Internet. The American alternative is CNN,” he writes.

“The TV broadcasts from Russia and Iran are good. It´s a shame to admit it, but they are often more interesting than CNN… And they are certainly not transmitting a positive picture of your country.”

Sten says in his satellite world there is only one authoritative broadcaster of American news and that is National Public Radio (NPR).

Sten’s proposal is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, should “try to finance an international channel produced by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS, the TV counterpart of NPR) and with PBS quality programming.”

Sten says he is convinced that there is demand in many countries for more quality television. And he believes the American origin of a broadcast “would not be a hindrance as long as it is PBS. So the audience would be there – probably worldwide.”

Thanks for sharing your views with us, Sten. We will run your thoughts by VOA and BBG management and see what they think.

25 October 2010

Internet Anti-Censorship: Circumvention Tools

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University has issued a new study on the use of circumvention tools that let users bypass Internet filtering aimed at blocking access to various types of content.

The key findings:

1. The study estimates that “no more than three percent of Internet users in countries that engage in substantial filtering use circumvention tools. The actual number is likely considerably less.”

2. “Many more users use simple web proxies than use either blocking-resistant tools or VPN (virtual private network) services.”

As the Berkman study notes, “The OpenNet Initiative has documented network filtering of the Internet by national governments in over forty countries worldwide. Countries use this network filtering as one of many methods to control the flow of online content that is objectionable to the filtering governments for social, political, and security reasons. Filtering is particularly appealing to governments as it allows them to control content not published within their national borders.”

If filtering is so pervasive, why is there not more use of circumvention tools?

The Berkman study offers this opinion:

“…It may be that there is just not as much interest in circumventing Internet filtering as widely believed for any of a number of reasons. For example, users in many filtering countries may simply prefer to access local content, written in their own languages about topics of local interest, despite the fact that the local content is subject to traditional government regulation and therefore highly censored. We note that three of the nations that have tens of millions of Internet users and who aggressively filter the Internet –China, Iran and Vietnam – have made significant investments in creating locally hosted alternatives to popular social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Our findings may suggest the logic of this approach – a large percentage of users in nations that aggressively filter the Internet either do not know how to conveniently reach these popular sites, or they have decided to use censored, local alternatives.”

VOA uses web-based proxy servers to distribute the latest news and information via the web to reach target audiences in countries like China and Iran, where the main VOA web sites are blocked. Since governments like these block access to proxies once they discover them, the addresses are replaced frequently and new ones sent out in email newsletter to allow users continued uncensored access to the web.

VOA also provides links to audiences in countries like China and Iran that enable them to download a special software called Freegate that users can install on their computers to permit them to have direct, uncensored access to the web without the use of special web-based proxies.

21 October 2010

Press Freedom Update

Reporters Without Borders has come out with its annual press freedom index. The 10 lowest ranked countries are: Rwanda, Yemen, China, Sudan, Syria, Burma, Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and, at the bottom, Eritrea.

At the top of the list are: Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand, Estonia and Ireland.

The United States is ranked 20th.

Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-Fran├žois Julliard said: “We must salute the engines of press freedom, with Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland at their head. We must also pay homage to the human rights activists, journalists and bloggers throughout the world who bravely defend the right to speak out. Their fate is our constant concern. We reiterate our call for the release of Liu Xiaobo, the symbol of the pressure for free speech building up in China, which censorship for the time being is still managing to contain. And we warn the Chinese authorities against taking a road from which there is no way out.”

Liu Xiaobo is the human-rights campaigner who just won the Nobel Peace Prize and is imprisoned in China.

In a statement, Julliard continued: “We are also worried by the harsher line being taken by governments at the other end of the index. Rwanda, Yemen and Syria have joined Burma and North Korea in the group of the world’s most repressive countries towards journalists. This does not bode well for 2011. Unfortunately, the trend in the most authoritarian countries is not one of improvement.”

The full report includes rankings for all countries as well as an explanation of how the index was compiled. VOA’s report on this year’s index is here.

20 October 2010

Challenges to International Broadcasting?

Later this month, I’ve been asked to speak to university students on the topic: “The Challenges to US International Broadcasting in the 21st century.”

I’m soliciting opinions from key managers here at VOA and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

But I’m also interested in hearing the views of our audience – that is, your views. So if you have some thoughts, please send them to the VOA Media Watch by October 27th at our email address: VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

19 October 2010

Cyber-threats

There was a good discussion at VOA last week on online freedom and national security. Much of the back-and-forth among the panelists dealt with such threats as cyber-crime, terrorist use of the Internet, surveillance needs, outdated laws and so forth.

But responding to an emailed question posed by “a guy from China”, Ambassador Philip Verveer, the U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy at the Department of State, voiced this opinion about the greatest threat to Internet freedom:

“There are a whole range of threats. The greatest threat, I think, to online freedom turns out to be administrations that attempt to use censorship and other means of repression to prevent the free flow of information, to prevent this quite remarkable institution from being able to function fully and freely.”

Aside from Ambassador Verveer, the other panelists were Richard McNally, an FBI counter-terrorism official; Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology; Martin Libicki, Senior Management Scientist at RAND; and Nancy Scola, Associate Editor, techPresident.com.

You can still watch the entire panel discussion here.

18 October 2010

Boboev Fined

A VOA Uzbek Service journalist, Abdulmalik Boboev, was fined more than $10,000 last Friday by an Uzbek court that convicted him of slander, insult and publishing information harmful to the public peace. A lawyer for Mr. Boboev, who pled not guilty and denied doing anything wrong, said his client is considering an appeal of the verdict.

According to a VOA statement, VOA Director Danforth W. Austin said, "We are reviewing the decision by the Uzbek court. We are pleased that Mr. Boboev wasn't sentenced to jail. However, we remain concerned that his work as a journalist has resulted in a substantial fine. We will continue to follow his case, and hope that he will be able to continue providing fair, comprehensive and accurate reports to our audience without fear of retaliation."

The 41 year-old Mr. Boboev was among several journalists summoned by the Prosecutor-General's Office last year for questioning about their journalistic activities.

After the judge’s decision Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent released a statement saying it was, “Concerned about the implications of this case for the state of media freedom in Uzbekistan.” U.S. officials had raised the case with the Uzbek government and sent American diplomats to observe the trial.

Over the last two years, Uzbekistan has jailed eight reporters.

13 October 2010

Threats Against The News Media: Update

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has voiced concern over the fate of Abdumalik Boboev, a journalist for VOA's Uzbek Service who is on trial in Uzbekistan for allegedly threatening public safety, slander, insult, and visa violations.

The Board issued the following statement today:

“The Broadcasting Board of Governors wishes to express its grave concern with the Uzbek government’s attempt to silence Mr. Boboev and his objective reporting for the Voice of America and the state of media freedom in Uzbekistan. Using the criminal justice system to punish journalists for freely expressed views is contrary to Uzbekistan’s international obligations and has a chilling effect on journalists throughout the country. The Broadcasting Board of Governors calls upon Uzbekistan to drop the charges against Mr. Boboev and cease all interference with the right of journalists in Uzbekistan to gather and report information freely.”

12 October 2010

Chilean Mine Rescue: The World Is Watching

The planned rescue of 33 miners trapped underground for more than two months in northern Chile will undoubtedly dominate the world’s news media in the coming hours. The New York Times reports more than 1,400 journalists are at the mine site. Time Magazine describes it as a “media circus.”

Why does such a story command media attention?

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a study in 2007 analyzing two decades of American news preferences. In a list of broad news categories including conflict, politics and money, disaster news ranked first:

“The index reveals that Disaster News -- reports about catastrophes, man-made or natural -- garners the greatest interest.”

The study found such stories simply engross audiences – in part because “the outcome remains suspended in doubt.”

The international mix of reporters in Chile covering the mine rescue suggests Americans are not alone in their interest in disaster stories. So too does the global mix of comments posted beneath the latest VOA news story. They’re worth reading.

10 October 2010

Accuracy, Credibility, Citizen Journalism and the Internet

Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer prize winning columnist, stirred an on-line controversy this past week with a commentary in the Miami Herald in which he said: “I do not believe in citizen journalism.”

Pitts acknowledged the Internet has “opened the public square to more voices, and you can't complain about that.”

But he maintained that “journalism -- like any profession worthy of the name -- has standards and ethics, and if you don't sign on to those, I can no more trust you than I can a doctor who refused the Hippocratic oath or a lawyer who failed the bar exam.”

“You cannot be a journalist -- citizen or otherwise -- if credibility matters less to you than ideology,” he added.

Columnist Sharon Grigsby, writing for the Dallas Morning News, followed on Pitts’ comment in a supporting post of her own arguing that it simply isn’t true that anyone can do journalism.

Here is how she put it: “Without real journalists -- whether they be working digitally or in print, in new operations or traditional ones -- our country would marinate in an increasing brine of ignorance.”

I bring these opinions up in part because they dovetail with some personal concerns I have expressed here about the depressing growth in the number of on-line outlets in which individuals simply choose to ignore the facts and disseminate inaccurate information, and then use that erroneous information to make some kind of point.

But the main reason I bring the topic up is this: we here at VOA are deeply appreciative of some of the citizen journalists out there and want to keep working with them. Take for example VOA’s Persian News Network. During last year’s disputed elections in Iran and the ensuing protests, PNN relied on user-supplied content, not just information but video.

Importantly, none of it was simply slapped on the air or on-line. Instead, all of it was verified as best as possible by professional journalists and put into proper context. If there were doubts, the material simply wasn’t used.

Walter Isaacson, the new Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, in a recent speech, described this type of collaboration as “a new form of journalism in which user-generated content and great journalistic insights and credibility are wedded together…”

In his remarks, Isaacson went on to say he believes there may be a future role for VOA and the other U.S. international broadcasters in building on-line communities focused on issues of mutual interest and then not just disseminating news but facilitating conversations and sharing information.

It won’t be an easy task. Like commentators Pitts and Grigsby, the new BBG Chairman is concerned about on-line accuracy and credibility. While those are watchwords here at VOA, they are, as Isaacson says, “not at the moment the strong suit of the Internet.”

07 October 2010

Correcting An Error About VOA's First Broadcast

We’ve always believed, as our website states, that VOA’s first broadcast took place on February 24th, 1942.

But now we have to ask, where did that date come from? Because detective work by two men with past ties to VOA, Walter Roberts and Chris Kern, suggests the first broadcast was actually on February 1st, 1942.

Mr. Roberts lays out his evidence in a web article on “Origins and Recollections” of his time at VOA.

To sum it up briefly, he says the February 1st broadcast “was sent via radiotelephone to London early in the morning New York time from whence it was broadcast by the BBC over seven medium wave transmitters at 14:15 GMT.”

Chris Kern followed up on Mr. Robert’s research and recently posted his own report.

His search at the National Archives turned up a script from February 3, 1942, “but it is clear that wasn’t the first Voice of America program because at one point the script calls on one of the announcers to refer to something he said “yesterday.” The reference to the previous day’s program obviously means there had been a broadcast on Monday, February 2.”

The key evidence turned up by Roberts and Kern was a script like the one shown here with a Roman numeral typed under the title. As Mr. Kern writes, “at the top of the February 3 script, just under the title Stimmen Aus Amerika and the date, was a Roman numeral III.” Under the script for February 11 was the Roman number XI. Based on this, they concluded the script with the numeral III was the third, placing the first on February 1st.

VOA is preparing a statement on the anniversary issue. Stay tuned. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, in accordance with standard correction policy, VOA decides to say something like this:

The Voice of the America first went on the air on February 1, 1942, not February 24. We regret the error.

06 October 2010

Threats Against the News Media: Update

State Department spokesman Michael Tran has issued a statement on the impending slander trial in Uzbekistan of VOA stringer Abdumalik Boboev:

"We are deeply concerned by the arrest and impending trial of Mr. Boboev, as well as its implications for media freedom in Uzbekistan. Mr. Boboev has been an independent journalist for Voice of America for more than five years, and his indictment cites articles that he wrote during this period.

"We have been in contact with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, we have raised the issue with the Government of Uzbekistan, and will monitor the case closely."

VOA issued a statement last month expressing deep concern over Boboev's fate. VOA Director Danforth Austin said, "Mr. Boboev, like all VOA journalists, is required to present accurate and balanced reports, and he should not be penalized for doing his job."

05 October 2010

Ignoring The Facts: A Dangerous Habit

To continue a theme from last week, (but in a more serious vein than UFO’s and aliens,) I am increasingly distressed by the number of writers, reporters, analysts and/or commentators who simply choose to ignore the facts and disseminate inaccurate information, and then use that erroneous information to make a point.

The latest example to catch my attention involves VOA.

A blogger named Javad Rad, writing on the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy blog, claimed the reason President Obama recently chose to give an interview to BBC Persian TV and not to VOA’s Persian News Network was audience size.

Rad wrote: “Obviously VOA has not been able to reach a sizable audience inside Iran.”

Obviously? Hardly. This is simply untrue – and begs the question of whether Mr. Rad conducted any research whatsoever before writing.

Because it wasn’t particularly difficult to ascertain that:

According to a BBC news release earlier this year, “BBC Persian has an estimated 3.1 million viewers in Iran.”

And drawing on survey data compiled by InterMedia, VOA researchers estimate the VOA TV audience in Iran to be around 9 million. Even if this audience were only half as big as that estimate, it would still be higher than BBC 's own published estimate for their audience.

Any chance of a correction, Mr. Rad?

04 October 2010

A Notable Quote on International Broadcasting

From Walter Isaacson, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors:

"It’s sometimes said that our international broadcasting is in a difficult position because by law and by tradition it’s tasked with two separate missions that might conflict: first of all, covering the news with the highest journalistic standards and secondly, being a part of America’s public diplomacy by accurately conveying its policies and values to the world.

"Let me say to you, my fellow journalists, that I will stress and we will stress the primacy
of the first of these missions, our mission of being credible journalists, because it is the best – in fact, it’s the only way to carry out the second mission. You can’t do it unless you’re credible and telling the truth, and in the end, the truth is on our side. Credibility is the key to all that we do."

Mr. Isaacson spoke last week in Washington at a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of Radio Free Europe. The Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees VOA, RFE, Radio Free Asia, Radio/TV Marti, Radio Sawa, and Alhurra TV.

30 September 2010

Stories Too Good To Check Out (But We Do): Aliens and UFO’s

One of the fundamentals of journalism is accuracy and one of the chief responsibilities of a reporter is to verify information first and not just slap it on-line, on the air or into print.

But once in a while a story comes along that, as the saying goes, is just too good to check out. A major British newspaper apparently had one of these moments the other day. The London Sunday Times ran an article headlined: “If Mars attacks, she’s our leader.” It said the United Nations was about to designate Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman to be, in effect, the official greeter for any aliens that might arrive on Earth.

Ms. Othman serves as Director of the little-known U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

Seems a natural choice, right?

There is just one problem. When I checked with UNOOSA about the article, here is what they said:

“The article in the Sunday Times is nonsense.”

Ooops.

But aliens and UFO’s are popular topics. In fact this seems to have been an “alien-UFO” week. Besides the Othman story (or non-story), there was also a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington by some former U.S. Air Force officers who asserted unidentified flying objects hovered near nuclear missile sites as recently as 2003, causing several missiles to malfunction.

You can see some of the presentation here.

In the pursuit of fair and balanced journalism, I turned to the Pentagon to see if they had any response to the former Air Force officers. I was directed to an Air Force Fact Sheet on Unidentified Flying Objects which states:

“No UFO reported, investigated and evaluated by the Air Force was ever an indication of threat to our national security… and there was no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as "unidentified" were extraterrestrial vehicles.”

One more alien-UFO connection. I happened to watch a new U.S. TV show called “The Event” this week. Interestingly, one of the key plot elements of this fictional thriller involves prisoners held in a secret compound in Alaska who are -- you guessed it -- aliens who crash-landed on Earth in 1944. They look just like us (though they don’t age as rapidly) and some of the aliens that survived the crash escaped, blending in with the human population.

Maybe that explains the occasionally strange behavior of news organizations?

[Note: the photo above is from the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force says "Aliens" observed in the New Mexico desert were actually anthropomorphic test dummies that were carried aloft by U.S. Air Force high altitude balloons for scientific research.]

29 September 2010

Meles In A Jam Again With VOA

Meles Zenawi believes it is permissible for Ethiopia to jam VOA broadcasts into his country because the U.S. legally bars the dissemination of VOA programming within the United States itself. (See this on Smith-Mundt Act.)

There’s just one problem with that attempted justification. As VOA Director Danforth Austin tells the NewsBlog: “The U.S. government doesn't jam foreign broadcasts heard and seen by U.S. citizens. The Ethiopian government does jam foreign broadcasts heard and seen by Ethiopian citizens. I think the question has to be: What is it about these international broadcasters that Meles Zenawi and his government fear?”

This isn’t the first time the Ethiopia Prime Minister has said something outrageous involving VOA. Back in March he uttered one of the most outrageous statements of all time when he compared VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia to the broadcasts of Radio Milles Collines, the infamous “hate radio” blamed for inciting the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Meles’ justification for the Ethiopian jamming of VOA broadcasts back then drew a sharp response from U.S. officials. A State Department spokesman said the Ethiopian leader was entitled to disagree with the news carried by VOA but jamming VOA signals was in conflict with Ethiopia’s constitution. It says Ethiopians have the right to freedom of expression “without any interference” and that this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, “regardless of frontiers.”

28 September 2010

A Notable News Media Quote: Obama on Fox

President Obama, interviewed by Rolling Stone:

What do you think of Fox News? Do you think it's a good institution for America and for democracy?

[Laughs] Look, as president, I swore to uphold the Constitution, and part of that Constitution is a free press. We've got a tradition in this country of a press that oftentimes is opinionated. The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition — it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It's a point of view that I disagree with. It's a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world. But as an economic enterprise, it's been wildly successful. And I suspect that if you ask Mr. Murdoch what his number-one concern is, it's that Fox is very successful.

Fox News is a cable and satellite TV news channel. Critics say its reporting and commentary reflect a conservative political agenda and a bias towards the Republican Party. In a 2006 interview with the Financial Times, Roger Ailes, Chairman of the Fox News Channel, said: “We’re not promoting the conservative point of view, we’re merely giving them equal time and access.”

27 September 2010

Going (Lady) Gaga Over Headlines Just(in) Time for Ahmadinejad!

Many years ago, in the pre-computer, pre-Internet era, I worked with a group of former British newspaper copy editors. They told me the best possible headline imaginable to attract the attention of most British readers would be this: “Teenage Doctor Priest in Mad-cap, Sex-change Dash to Palace.”

In today’s lingo, those are called “keywords,” and just about everyone with a web presence knows if you want to gain more visitors, you have to drive them to your site with eye-catching headlines using keywords that attract the attention of the big Internet search engines.

Here at VOA, we are no different in wanting more visitors. But our internal blogging guideline says of headlines: “Avoid puns or wordplay.”

Where is the fun in that? Some of the best headlines I remember include:

“HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR”



“One-armed Man Applauds the Kindness of Strangers”



“Chicken in Bag Puts 38 In Coop As Foxy Cops Crash Cockfight”



“Abraham Lincoln Was A Woman”

Of course, none of these really contain good search engine optimization keywords. It is possible people might search for “Abraham Lincoln” but would anyone look for “headless body” or “foxy cops”?

Instead, the top searches these days generally seem keyed to the names of celebrities or the titles of new movies or television shows. Looking at Google’s “Hot Searches” one day last week, the top 20 searches included just one real foreign news keyword: “Ahmadinejad” – Iran’s President, who had just spoken at the United Nations.

VOANews.com headlines are pretty straightforward – i.e. serious. That’s understandable. We are a serious news organization. But a lighter touch might occasionally be more effective.

The problem is: how do you link Ahmadinejad with Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber? Hmmm. Send us your suggested headlines.

24 September 2010

Journalists Are People, Too, And They Have Emotions

Journalists, like fire fighters, police or soldiers, are first responders. They run towards trouble when everyone else is running in the opposite direction. As a result, they bear witness to human suffering in the most horrific of conditions. As a correspondent in Africa, I and other reporters spoke of covering the five D’s: the dead, the dying, the displaced, the diseased and the depressing.

Whether war or natural disaster, a plane crash or famine, genocide or rioting, child abuse or rape, regular exposure to these kinds of traumatic events can take a toll – because journalists are people and sometimes they can hit an emotional wall.

“Breaking News, Breaking Down” is the title of an award-winning documentary by former television reporter Mike Walter. He visited VOA this week to hold a workshop to help reporters and editors understand the impact of trauma reporting on journalists.

Mike recounted his own emotional breakdown after being an eyewitness to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. He literally watched as the hijacked airliner flew into the building, triggering a massive explosion and fire. He spent that day being interviewed over and over by news organizations about what he saw. He couldn’t shake the images from his mind. It changed his life, leading him to produce a film about his experiences and those of other journalists, shedding light on a topic that had previously been largely ignored.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma says research shows most journalists are resilient despite repeated exposure to work-related traumatic events. “This is evidenced by low rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychiatric disorders,” the Center says.

But it goes on to report: “A significant minority, however, are at risk for long-term psychological problems.”

The biggest risk falls on war correspondents. A 2003 study of 160 war correspondents found close to 30 percent had symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

Editors and journalists alike need to be aware of these risks in advance of an assignment and support structures need to be in place to help a journalist returning from a traumatic assignment. The Dart Center says if that is done, “the likely result is reduced risk of harm, as well as greater work satisfaction and productivity among journalists.”

23 September 2010

Celebrate the Lowly Comma!

You probably don’t know this. (I didn’t.) But tomorrow, Sept. 24, 2010, is National Punctuation Day here in the United States. The event has its own website. The organizer, Jeff Rubin, a former newspaper reporter, describes the day as “a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”

In case you wonder how one marks such a special day, Jeff has these suggestions:

1. Read a newspaper and circle all of the punctuation errors you find (or think you find, but aren’t sure) with a red pen. (If you’re reading a website like this one, send a correction email noting punctuation errors.)

2. Take a leisurely stroll, paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words. Stop in those stores to correct the owners. If the owners are not there, leave notes.

Frankly, I see no reason why this has to be a mere national event. Anyone anywhere in the world can do this. Have at it!

22 September 2010

Threats Against the News Media

At VOA, we are accustomed to hearing about the plight of reporters, including some working for us, who are harassed, detained, threatened or even killed because of their reporting. Usually these cases occur in countries with authoritarian governments and the threats to our journalists come from officials. A recent example is Abdumalik Boboev, a VOA Uzbek journalist, who has been charged by authorities in Uzbekistan with threatening public safety, slander, insult and visa violations.

But our attention was riveted by a frontpage item in the New York Times about the situation in Mexico, where drug gangs -- not officials -- have silenced some news organizations with killings and other violence.

The latest victims worked for the newspaper El Diario de Juarez in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. Two photographers for the paper were attacked last week. One died and the other was seriously wounded. The attack prompted the publication to publish an open letter to drug cartel leaders:

“We want you to explain to us what you want from us... What are we supposed to publish or not publish, so we know what to abide by? You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report this month titled “Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press.”

The report asserts that “criminal organizations are controlling the information agenda in many cities across Mexico. Some news organizations have tried to opt out, refusing to cover anything related to the drug trade, even if that means ignoring shootouts in the street. But the traffickers don’t always take no for an answer; journalists report being forced to publish stories attacking rival cartels.”

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon concludes: “The battle for the free flow of information in Mexico has reached a crucial phase. Unless the Mexican government takes bold action, the narcos will continue to define what is news and what is not. That is no way to win the drug war.”

But the report also recommends that the news media take a more active role. It calls on reporters “to consistently cover the issue of violence against the media. Treat attacks against journalists, even those from competing news organizations, as worthy of news coverage. Speak out against attacks on the press in on-air commentary and editorial pages.”

VOA will continue to do its part.

20 September 2010

Islamaphobia, Whitewashes, VOA and Media Criticism

Two reports by VOA correspondents on the controversy over plans to build an Islamic center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City have come under fire. One of the critiques scolded VOA for underplaying anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. while the second accused VOA of overplaying anti-Muslim attitudes among Americans.

Yelena Osipova, a student at American University’s School of International Service working on her Master's Degree in International Communication, has a blog called “Global Chaos” which she describes as “The UNdiplomatic blog on public diplomacy and international communication.” In a recent post, she wrote about the issue of American Islamophobia and “the damage this has done to the U.S. image abroad.”

She pointed to a VOA report about a candlelight vigil supporting the right of Muslims to build an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, characterizing it as an “attempted whitewash”. When I asked her why she thought it was a “whitewash”, she explained: “because it does not show all the hostility evident in the society, and emphasizes the 'support' that many show to Muslim Americans (while polls suggest that the majority - even if by a small margin - rather oppose the building of the Islamic Center).” She said she did not think the report was biased, just not comprehensive enough.

On the other hand, Trey Hicks, associate director of government relations at the American Enterprise Institute, claimed another VOA report “reinforced the narrative of those who wish to do us harm—that Americans are warring against Muslims.”

The report he cited began like this: “The controversy over plans to build an Islamic center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City has put many Muslims living in United States on the defensive. But despite a rash of anti-Muslim rhetoric and possible hate crimes, some Muslims see the mosque debate as an opportunity to reaffirm their place in American society.”

Mr. Hicks suggested there is no evidence to back up the references to “possible hate crimes” and “a rash of anti-Muslim rhetoric."

As for evidence of recent hate crimes against Muslims, Newsweek magazine just published an article noting that in a matter of days “a college student allegedly stabbed a New York City cabdriver after the cabbie confirmed he was Muslim…a California imam found his mosque vandalized with graffiti that referenced Ground Zero… (and) more news from New York: police arrested a man for entering a mosque and urinating on prayer rugs…”

Newsweek asks the key question: “are we simply paying closer attention to these sorts of incidents, or are they happening with greater frequency thanks to the mosque controversy?”

Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show reported hate crimes against Muslims have indeed dropped since their peak in 2001. But their latest data is from 2008. We will have to wait and see if there has been a resurgence in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2010. In the meantime, though, Newsweek quotes a spokesman for the Center for American-Islamic Relations as asserting anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. has skyrocketed as a result of the debate over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan.

It seems apparent both of the VOA reports in question could have contained additional material to make them more comprehensive.

But that is almost always true of any report. The fact is editors and writers have to constantly weigh how much information is enough and whether it is time to move a report to the audience or hold it back.

Journalists also believe this: if you’re being criticized by both sides, you must be doing something right.

14 September 2010

A Funding Question About VOA’s New Afghan TV Program

The other day VOA put out a news release about the launch of a new TV Program to Afghanistan called Karwan (Caravan). As the release noted, the half-hour dual-language weekly program, broadcast in both Dari and Pashto, intends to tackle “social and political issues, culture, health, education and other topics, highlighting what young people are doing in Afghanistan and the United States.”

A NewsBlog reader noted that the announcement disclosed the program is funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The reader asked: “On what conditions does VOA accept State funding? None, I hope. And that would imply that well informed Afghan youth is a sufficient goal for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.”

I spoke to Joan Mower, who is the Director of Development for VOA. She provided me a copy of the agreement between VOA and the State Department. While there are some minor requirements (like providing quarterly reports on the project and copies of the programs), there are no editorial conditions attached to the deal. As Ms. Mower put it, “we have complete editorial control over our product.”

The agreement provides VOA just over one million dollars for one year to produce the new show. It is one of several such agreements VOA has had with other government agencies, mainly the State Department. Some have involved funding for reporting on refugee issues, HIV/Aids and other health problems as well as some journalism training.

In all cases, Ms. Mower said, “there is a firewall between us and our funders” preserving the editorial integrity of these efforts.

And that is as it should be.

10 September 2010

Quran-Burning and News Judgment

What makes news? And how do editors decide whether to cover some events and not cover others? The plan, now suspended, by the leader of a small Christian church in Florida to burn copies of the Quran makes a good case study.

As the New York Times and other news outlets have noted, another fringe church, this one in Kansas, actually set fire to a Quran in 2008 and captured the event on film. But the news media ignored that incident.

What is the difference between then and now?

The Times offers this analysis: first, unlike 2008 incident, the planned Florida event coincided with a larger political controversy over the proposed building of a Muslim community center near the site of the September 11th terrorist attack in New York. Secondly, the pastor of the small Florida church benefitted from a traditional late summer news lull and the demands of a non-stop cable and Internet news cycle to promote his extremist views about Islam.

This raises a number of questions, among them this central one: should news organizations cover the Quran burning if it happens?

A senior executive at a Fox News, one of the major U.S. cable news networks, said in an interview that his organization would not cover the event.

Michael Clemente, senior vice president at Fox News, said this:

"He's one guy in the middle of the woods with 50 people in his congregation who's decided to try, I gather, to bring some attention to himself by saying he's going to burn a Quran if he gets the permit. Well, you know what, there are many more important things going on in the world than that. I don't know what they will be this weekend, but I am sure they will be more important than that."

Clemente said there will be no live coverage, "video" or "still pictures."

The Associated Press said it would cover the event, if it happened. But it said it would not distribute images that specifically show Qurans being burned.

AP executive Tom Kent explained in a statement that “AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend. In the past, AP has declined to provide images of cartoons mocking Islam and Jews. AP has often declined to provide images, audio or detailed descriptions of particularly bloody or grisly scenes, such as the sounds and moments of beheadings and shootings, displays of severed heads on pikes and images of hostages who are displayed by hostage-holders in an effort to intimidate their adversaries and advance their cause. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.”

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, said in an e-mail message that the newspaper had “no policy against publishing things that might offend someone — lots of people are offended by lots of things — but we try to refrain from giving widespread offense unless there is some offsetting journalistic purpose.” He added, “A picture of a burning book contributes nothing substantial to a story about book-burning… The freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.”

As for VOA News, which has been and will continue reporting on the story, VOA Director Danforth Austin has said it is “hard to imagine a circumstance under which running video or a photo of a Quran burning would be justified.” He said VOA would make a final decision only after viewing any video or photo that does become available.

Chris Cuomo, a news anchor at the U.S. ABC network, believes news organizations have made a big mistake by publicizing the event. He wrote: “I am in the media, but think media gave life to this Florida burning ... and that was reckless.”

If no one had reported the Florida pastor’s plans, would there have been any protests like the ones seen in Afghanistan or denunciations by U.S. and world politicians and religious leaders? Probably not.

But once a single news organization decided to report the planned event, could other news organizations ignore it? Think about it. Tell us what you think about the role and responsibility of the news media.

Eds Note: We apologize for the lengthy break since we last posted. We’ll try to do better in the future.

04 June 2010

26 April 2010

Final Response to An Iranian Editor

In our last post, I reported on the questions of a senior editor at an Iranian news website. I only responded to the first three and promised answers to the other questions later. Here now are those other answers.

Can any Iranian journalist enter the United States and report on what they consider as “the realities of US society” to their audience?

According to the State Department, an Iranian journalist who wishes to travel to the United States has to go to a U.S. consulate overseas (Dubai, for example) and apply for a media visa. The decision to issue the visa is made by consular officers. Six such media visas were issued in 2009. There are no quotas and no travel restrictions once the journalist is in the U.S. and they can report on whatever they like.

During the last summer and winter, the Persian service of the Voice of America broadcast a picture of an Iranian lady named Taraneh Mousavi and broadcast the story of her arrest, rape and setting fire of her body. Can Mr. Belida say what was the source for this news in VOA? Can VOA present just one more picture of her, any ID document, address of her school, workplace or house, a neighbor, family of this person?

We reported news of her death based on information from multiple Iranian sources. And we subsequently reported the official denials of her death as carried by Iranian media. Later we reported on the fact that Iranian media outlets themselves had contradictory reports on the woman’s fate. According to a senior editor of VOA’s Persian News Network, we do not know for certain if this woman is alive or dead. However the same editor says the contradictory official information could be easily interpreted as a cover up.

Why did VOA zoom in on last summer’s turmoil in Tehran and encourage its viewers openly or suggest to them to set fire to public properties and break the law? Are these actions considered media related work?

The demonstrations and disturbances in Iran following the disputed June election were news. We reported what happened. We did not (and do not) encourage, or suggest, that anyone break the law. It is possible the Alef editor believes that by advertising a link to which people could send videos of police shootings or other forms of brutality, VOA was asking people to break the law. Like other news organizations, we were merely trying to get access to information and images the Government of Iran was trying to suppress. We in fact advised people who were considering sending us video not to endanger themselves or violate laws.

Why did the Voice of America introduce Abdolmalik Rigi as "the leader of popular Iranian resistance movement" while interviewing him?

Rigi was head of a group known officially as Jondollah or the People’s (or popular) Resistance Movement of Iran.

I was extremely pleased to see the spirited comments sent in after the last posting.

A couple weren’t satisfied with my response to the Alef editor’s first three questions, suggesting the answer that all three questions were absurd was flippant. So let’s try again. Here were the original questions – and some new responses:

Can Mr Belida and his colleagues release any news which is against the national interest of Israel?

If the question means “can VOA and especially its Persian service report news that is critical of Israel or critical of Israeli government policy”, the answer is yes.

When the US government closed the case for the September 11th attack in an unfinished way and with no conclusion, which American journalist protested against this decision? What was the conclusion of this possible protest? What was the answer of US government to revelations made in this regard in the 9/11 documentary made by Michael Moore?

Again, the question is a bit confusing (journalists don’t protest, they report) but I’ll take a stab at it. There are, as one of the other comment contributors pointed out, numerous websites and publications that continue to challenge official conclusions about the events of 9/11. Take a look at 911truth.org for example. And filmmaker Michael Moore’s movie and personal views on 9/11 continue to generate discussion that can be followed on-line. Take a look at his site michaelmoore.com.

Can any journalist in the west question the holocaust and present documents to deny the holocaust?

Yes, and non-journalists as well. That few do suggests most people accept the holocaust as a historical fact. VOA’s Persian News Network, on the program “Straight Talk”, recently reported on the holocaust denial issue and profiled five prominent holocaust deniers. The show went on to debunk Iranian misinformation about whether individuals in the west can discuss and conduct research into the holocaust. They can, even in Israel.

By the way, we attempted to get Iranian officials and others allied with the government to participate in that show. They declined, including an editor at the Alef website who called the show’s host “a traitor.”

Might I suggest that as a first step toward greater understanding that journalists like the editors of Alef drop the attitude of confrontation and harsh rhetoric. As one of our recent comment contributors noted, that “just feeds insecurity and suspicion.”

14 April 2010

An Iranian Editor Fires Back

When I wrote a reply to the editors of six Iranian news websites who had complained about international news coverage of Iran, I wasn’t sure whether they would respond. Well, now the senior editor of one of those websites, Alef, has fired back. He, and I’m only assuming it’s a he, isn’t happy.

For example, the Alef editor suggests I had no business commenting on the joint letter because VOA is “the Official Media of the Government of the United States, a country that has done cruelty to Iran for the past 60 years.” (He also accuses me of “pride and arrogance,” suggesting this is an American trait and the reason why “all the efforts to improve the ties” between the United States and Iran “have not worked.”)

The editor then responds to the three questions I posed.

1. Are Iran’s domestic media free and able to report objectively, accurately and comprehensively on the country’s affairs?

Alef senior editor: “It depends on their professional capacity and facilities. In most cases, within the framework of law the answer is yes.”

2. Are western journalists allowed unrestricted access into Iran and freedom of movement after their arrival?

Alef senior editor: “If they don’t break the law the answer is yes. But there are numerous records of breaking the laws by journalists and western spies in the cover of journalists in Iran. These records obviously have made the Islamic republic of Iran very pessimistic about western journalists working in Iran.”

3. Do Iranian authorities allow citizens to cooperate with foreign media –including providing western news outlets with news and pictures? Are they allowed to have access to them?

Alef senior editor: “Within the framework of the law, yes. Employees and cameraman of some news agencies and western TV networks in Iran are usually Iranians. About the second part of the question, if the western news sources are not against the Iranian laws, access to them is free, as many of the thousands of western news sources are accessible in Iran. But the misuse of this freedom by some of the western media has made the Islamic republic to be very pessimistic about the honesty of these media and make limits regarding the access to them.”


Thus, we learn that in Iran, muzzling the press is fine as long as it is done “within the framework of the law.”

But the Alef editor wasn’t finished there. He had new questions for me:

1. Can Mr Belida and his colleagues release any news which is against the national interest of Israel?


2. When the US government closed the case for the September 11th attack in an unfinished way and with no conclusion, which American journalist protested against this decision? What was the conclusion of this possible protest? What was the answer of US government to revelations made in this regard in the 9/11 documentary made by Michael Moore?


3. Can any journalist in the west question the holocaust and present documents to deny the holocaust?


4. Can any Iranian journalist enter the United States and report on what they consider as “the realities of US society” to their audience?


5. During the last summer and winter, the Persian service of the Voice of America broadcast a picture of an Iranian lady named Taraneh Mousavi and broadcast the story of her arrest, rape and setting fire of her body. Can Mr. Belida say what was the source for this news in VOA? Can VOA present just one more picture of her, any ID document, address of her school, workplace or house, a neighbor, family of this person?


6. Why did VOA zoom in on last summer’s turmoil in Tehran and encourage its viewers openly or suggest to them to set fire to public properties and break the law? Are these actions considered media related work?


7. Why did the Voice of America introduce Abdolmalik Rigi as "the leader of popular Iranian resistance movement" while interviewing him?


I’d like to focus in this post on questions 1, 2 and 3. And here is what I want to say: in the U.S., journalists can and do ask all sorts of questions, even when the questions are, well, absurd. (Can the same be said of journalists in Iran -- assuming of course that they ask questions "within the framework of the law"?)

As for the other questions, let me do some research and address them in another post. This isn’t to suggest the questions have any more merit than the first three but they are quite specific and I want to be precise. Stay tuned.

30 March 2010

Ethiopia and the Art of the Outrageous Statement

We are all accustomed to hearing political figures, especially from authoritarian countries, make outrageous statements.

But I think Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi may have uttered the most outrageous statement of all this past month when he compared Voice of America broadcasts to Ethiopia to the broadcasts of Radio Milles Collines, the infamous “hate radio” blamed for inciting the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Here is what Ethiopia’s state-run news agency quoted Meles as saying:

“We have been convinced for many years and that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as the Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda, in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism, and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.”

Meles’ opposition to VOA broadcasts is being used as justification for Ethiopian jamming of VOA broadcasts. It now appears his government is expanding its censorship effort by blocking VOA’s website.

The U.S. government recently fired back at the Ethiopian leader. Acting State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid says Meles may disagree with the news carried by VOA but jamming VOA signals contradicts Ethiopia’s public commitment to freedom of the press. He says it also is in conflict with the country’s constitutional statement that all citizens have the right to freedom of expression “without any interference” and that this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, “regardless of frontiers.”

As for that vicious comparison between VOA and Radio Milles Collines, Duguid said this: “Comparing a respected and professional news service to a group that called for genocide in Rwanda is a baseless and inflammatory accusation…”

I only wish Duguid could have been even stronger in his response.

19 March 2010

Response to the Response to the Iranian Editors

Our response to the editors of six Iranian websites has elicited a number of comments – most of them on the Farsi-language link. In case you haven’t gone there, here are some of the English-language comments:

“When thousands of people have eyewitnessed Neda's death, you (VOA) have reported it. What is wrong with that? When (opposition Presidential candidate) Mr. Karoubi, and the parents of the people who were raped in Kahrizak (prison) have protested, you have reported it as well. What is wrong with that? When people of Iran are complaining for 30 some years, you are reporting it. What is wrong with that? And etc, etc, etc.”

“The fact that these sites (the six Iranian websites) have not been closed yet indicates that either they represent the government or have accepted to play the game by the current government rules. Consequently, they are not independent by any means. In my opinion, the conservative hardliner rulers of Iran have done more damage to our country than any other enemy we have had in our 3000 years of history.”

“Thank you very much for your short and efficient response to enemies of Iranians who struggle (against) the brutal regime ruling Iran.”

“Great answer, short and to the point. Keep up the good work.”

I have asked my colleagues to look for some critical comments that take issue with the response. Hopefully we will be able to post some of those soon.

11 March 2010

A Reply to the Editors of Six Iranian News Websites

A joint letter from the editors of six Iranian news websites came into the office the other day. It raised several critical questions about the way international news organizations have covered recent events in Iran. It specifically charged that western news reporters and reports are not “honest and professional.”

Why? Well, the editors note a case in which western media picked up an Iranian blog report on the death of a young Iranian woman, who was allegedly sexually abused while in custody after protesting the 2009 election. The editors’ complaint: “Do you think it is professional to spread such far-reaching news through an unknown blog?”

Then they cite the case of Neda Agha Soltan. The Iranian website editors voice suspicions about a young doctor seen in videos of her death. They ask: “Why did he travel to Iran five days before Neda's death from UK [Britain] and a day after the event he leave Iran to UK” where he was interviewed by the BBC. Iranian media have suggested the doctor was the killer, not security forces. Again the editors question the professionalism of western journalists for failing to look into alternative explanations for the young woman’s death.

The letter goes on to accuse BBC Persian and the Voice of America of allegedly encouraging anti-government protesters in Iran – a frequent complaint of Iranian officials. It specifically complains about VOA interviewing an Iranian terrorist, now in custody in Iran, who the editors claim was treated as a hero.

Now here is where the letter gets interesting. The Iranian web journalists say they wrote their letter “to defend the current realities in Iran, not [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad; you must note that most of us are among the critics of Mr.Ahmadinejad’s government.” They call on western news organizations to re-evaluate whether they have “been fair and impartial or not” in covering Iran.

It is signed by the editors of:

- Alef
- Farda
- HamshahriOnline
- Jahan
- KhabarOnline
- Tabnak

What’s interesting is that none of these organizations have been shut down by Iranian authorities, while several other media outlets inside Iran have been closed and some journalists arrested.

And this raises the question: are these editors trying to do the government’s work in a professional media guise? One could easily imagine a government official summoning the editors to a meeting and “suggesting” it would be in their interest to issue such an open letter to western media.

Because the facts simply don’t support their arguments or their contentions.

So let us throw back some questions at our Iranian editors:

1. Are Iran’s domestic media free and able to report objectively, accurately and comprehensively on the country’s affairs?
2. Are western journalists allowed unrestricted access into Iran and freedom of movement after their arrival?
3. Do Iranian authorities allow citizens to cooperate with foreign media –including providing western news outlets with news and pictures?

Of course, we know the answers are, in order, no, no and no. We would suggest the Iranian editors who wrote the open letter ought to get their own internal information house in order first before presuming to counsel their counterparts in the west.

We don’t minimize the difficulties any responsible journalist in Iran faces today in trying to survive professionally. But all journalists should ask themselves how far can they go and still preserve their self-respect. We note for the record many Iranian journalists have elected to leave their own country. We commend them for the sacrifices they have made to remain true to their principles.

Eds Note: a Farsi-version of this commentary is available on the web here.