A new voice of America in Middle East

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One of the most difficult and rewarding assignments of my U.S. Foreign Service career was a two-year (1977-79) stint as chief of Spanish-language broadcasting for the Voice of America in Washington, D.C. It was a daily challenge to supervise our programs and to manage some 40 proud and sensitive broadcasters and radio technicians from throughout Latin America.

The Voice of America first went on the air in 1942 to support U.S. foreign policy during World War II. VOA now broadcasts on shortwave, AM and FM frequencies in more than 50 languages to radio audiences around the world. These broadcasts are particularly important in times of crisis as a way to deliver accurate news, essential information and clear statements of U.S. policy to key foreign audiences, including young people.

A personal anecdote: During my time at VOA, the U.S. and Panama were negotiating a phase-out of the contentious Panama Canal treaties, which granted us control over Panamanian territory "in perpetuity." President Jimmy Carter and his administration wanted to deliver the Canal to Panama; among those leading the opposition was then-Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt. Each day, the VOA Spanish Branch prepared an audio "package" on the latest developments in Canal negotiations for broadcast to Panama and the rest of Latin America. Sen. Laxalt frequently irritated the Carter crowd by referring to the Panamanian leader, Gen. Omar Torrijos, as a "tinhorn dictator."

Our daily programs on this sensitive policy issue were so even-handed -- we always tried to cover both sides of the debate even though we were a U.S. government station -- that Panama's national radio network began rebroadcasting them. We were proud to play a vital role in the "public diplomacy" effort that accompanied the Canal negotiations. Eventually, the U.S. ceded control of the Canal to Panama, and the rest is history. Today, however, a few influential Panamanians want us to take it over again, but that's another story.

Under a congressional charter, the Voice of America has two main objectives: 1) to serve as a "consistently reliable and authoritative source of news" that is "accurate, objective and comprehensive," and 2) to present "the policies of the United States clearly and effectively" together with "responsible discussion and opinion on these policies." That's a tall order and some VOA journalists have trouble coming to grips with Objective No. 2, which is to explain, defend and support U.S. foreign policy.

The built-in conflict between VOA's news and policy objectives intensified after the War on Terrorism was launched in response to the murderous terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The conflict finally became so divisive that ex-VOA Director Robert Reilly, a Bush appointee, resigned during a bitter in-house battle with his own News Division over an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. VOA's internal situation had begun to deteriorate three years earlier when the Clinton administration merged the Voice's parent organization -- the U.S. Information Agency -- into the sprawling State Department, and created an "independent" Broadcasting Board of Governors to supervise the VOA and other U.S. government stations like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcasts to Russia.

But the BBG really isn't independent because it's still loaded with Clinton appointees who don't share the Bush administration's foreign policy objectives in regard to the War on Terrorism and the Middle East. Many conservatives oppose what appears to be a BBG plan to emphasize music and entertainment on VOA broadcasts at the expense of news and commentary.

One example of what's going on is that the BBG has decided to pour all of its VOA Arabic broadcasting resources into a new station called Radio Sawa ("together," in Arabic) aimed at young audiences in the Middle East, where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30 -- a potential audience of 300 million listeners. Radio Sawa's programming is a carefully selected mix of Arabic and Western "pop" music punctuated at regular intervals by straight newscasts with occasional commentary and discussion.

Former VOA Director John Hughes asked two key questions about this new format: "Is Radio Sawa's audience tuning in just for the music?" Or is it also listening to the news and commentary designed to clarify U.S. foreign policy in that troubled region?

Although the jury is still out on those questions, Ferry Biedermann of Radio Netherlands International believes that young Arabs are listening to Radio Sawa "in a big way." "The station's mix of popular Arabic and Western music, interrupted by short news flashes, is unique and immensely successful," he wrote in a recent report. Yet, he added, "a station so closely identified with America will be met with distrust in the Arab world," a recurring problem in cross-cultural communications.

On the other hand, Radio Sawa's managers defended the new station. "I think Radio Sawa is really effective," said one Mideast correspondent. "VOA was very effective among the elite ... (but) now you have the masses listening to you, and they are also getting balanced, comprehensive and objective news." For that reason the BBG last week proposed spending $65 million on a televised version of the new Arabic radio station.

The success or failure of Radio Sawa will weigh heavily in determining the future thrust of our government's international broadcasting efforts. For now, I'm encouraged by the fact that Congress and the Bush administration were willing to invest $35 million in an innovative public diplomacy/radio experiment in the Middle East, where we need to convince regional public opinion that our war is against extremist Muslim terrorists rather than against Islam itself. Although Radio Sawa doesn't sound like the VOA that I knew 20 years ago, it's a risk worth taking and I hope it succeeds.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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