Voice of America Imperilled
For Arabic broadcasting, this development is rather as if the government abolished National Public Radio and replaced it with Mr. Pattiz’s Westwood One pablum and top 40 list. Americans should please communicate with their members of Congress about this fiasco in American public diplomacy.
Radio, if it is to serve and survive, must hold a mirror up to the nation and the world. The mirror must have no curves, and be held with a steady hand.”
—Edward R, Murrow
Murrow’s statement as warclouds gathered over Europe in the late 1930s might well apply today to the nation’s largest overseas network, the Voice of America (VOA). The situation at the Voice is deteriorating quickly, despite steadfast efforts on the part of its professional staff to retain its place as a globally respected source of news and information about Middle East, U.S. and world events.
VOA News Director Andre de Nesnera was transferred from his position to senior diplomatic correspondent of VOA July 1 by VOA Director David Jackson. This was no routine personnel move. De Nesnera is an award-winning journalist who had been a steadfast shield against efforts of the presidentially-appointed director over the past two years to second guess VOA news copy, particularly on Iraq. No VOA chief executive has taken such a hands-on approach to the newscasts in at least half a century.
De Nesnera’s removal occurred just four days before 450 employees of the Voice (managers, journalists, producers and engineers—about half its staff) circulated a petition on Capitol Hill calling for an investigation of the Voice’s oversight board, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG since 2002 has:
–Closed VOA Arabic and replaced it with Radio Sawa, a 24/7 pop music service aimed at youth, rather than intellectuals, government leaders, educators and movers and shakers in Arab society,
–Reduced VOA’s global English service from 24 to 19 hours a day, with more cuts to come next October on the eve of the U.S. presidential election. VOA can barely be heard in the Middle East in English as a result of these cuts and it will get worse: there will be only 14 hours on the air daily next winter.
–Abolished ten VOA language services to central and eastern Europe last February 14: Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian,
Bulgarian, Czech, Slovak and Slovene.
The inevitable consequence of these reductions (some of which were made to reprogram funds for the Board’s new Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV services) is to weaken significantly the Voice of America’s reach around the world.
In technical as well as programming terms, VOA is being reduced to a shadow of its former self — especially in the Middle East. Board member Norman J. Pattiz, chairman of its Middle East subcommittee, wasted no time after Sawa went on the air on March 20, 2002 in ordering reallocation of VOA frequencies in the region to enhance his pet project. He directed the powerful 500-kilowatt Kuwait and Rhodes medium wave relay stations to serve only Sawa in Arabic, 24/7. That meant that VOA English, Persian, and Kurdish had to rely solely (at least for nearly a year) on less accessible shortwave transmissions to reach their listeners. This was also the case on the Kuwait facility for RFE/RL’s Persian Service and its in-depth Arabic language program, Radio Free Iraq. In 2003, however, a much weaker medium wave transmission (105-kilowatts) was added in Kuwait to broadcast parts of VOA Persian, VOA English and Radio Free Iraq.
The Board, meanwhile, abolished RFE’s widely listened to Persian Service (Radio Azadi) on December 1, 2002, and replaced it with a Persian language pop music sibling of Radio Sawa named Radio Farda. Farda also was given a place on the weaker Kuwait medium wave frequency, and has gradually been able to increase its substantive news content. But unlike the old RFE Persian Service, it was given a 24/7 schedule on shortwave which still consists of about two thirds music. (The Board decided, in launching Farda, to retain VOA Persian, but only three hours daily — strengthened a year ago with daily hour long TV transmissions including call-in programs to Iran.)
Now, the Board is abolishing Radio Free Iraq, the U.S. government’s last really substantive radio voice in Arabic to the Arab world. RFI will go off the air on September 30, at a time of great uncertainty in Iraq’s transition and three months before the deadline for holding the first elections there.
It is true that VOA Arabic used to be on what Pattiz has called “scratchy shortwave” as well as medium wave facilities before the service was abolished in 2002. The big (and costly) innovation has been in leasing terrestrial FM facilities in the Arab world to get Sawa’s signals out there in FM and medium wave — much more popular among listeners than shortwave. VOA Arabic was on the air 7 hours a day. Sawa is on 24/7. VOA Arabic cost the taxpayer $4 million dollars in its final year; Sawa cost $34 million in its first year. Most surprisingly perhaps, Pattiz insisted on the reallocation of many of those “scratchy shortwave” frequencies to Sawa, which devotes about three quarters of its airtime to pop music. The Board also negotiated a contract for a 500-kilowatt medium wave transmitter in Cyprus, greatly enhancing Sawa’s reach during nighttime hours into Egypt. (Egypt, unlike Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Djibouti and many of the Gulf emirates, so far has refused to permit Sawa to broadcast on a local FM frequency.)
In terms of expenditures though, these radio initiatives are dwarfed by Pattiz’s investment in U.S.-originated satellite TV in Arabic. The Board launched Alhurra TV last February 14, entering a field of more than 170 mostly indigenous channels in the Arab world. The first year cost of Alhurra (The Free One, in Arabic) exceeds $100 million, including $40 million from a Department of Defense supplemental. Thus, in the current budget year, the Board is spending more than a fourth of its total budget for worldwide broadcasting on Sawa and Alhurra-TV.
The early returns on Alhurra are mixed. Although e-mails and some surveys have been favorable, there also have been criticisms of its professionalism in the region and in the West. As one Lebanese-American editor in Washington noted: “The training wheels came off when Alhurra carried cooking and fashion shows during live coverage by Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and others of violence in Fallujah and during the Israeli assault on Rafah. It’s ridiculous,” the editor added, “and Alhurra was not being taken seriously during a recent visit I made to the region. There’s nothing worse than not being taken seriously when you are a journalist.”
Small wonder, then, that the VOA staff has called for a Congressional investigation of the Board and its oversight of the Voice. That seems overdue. In the post 9/11 world, with anti-American sentiment at its peak, the nation has not a moment to lose in getting its international broadcasting to the Arab and Muslim worlds right. It can do so by reinforcing— rather than destroying—the time honored principles of timely, accurate, objective and comprehensive reportage and programming to reformers in those countries yearning for a brighter day.
Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former VOA deputy director and author of “Voice of America: A History” (Columbia University Press, 2003)’