EXCLUSIVE: Voice of Taliban on VOA probed

EXCLUSIVE:

Complaints that the U.S. government’s Voice of America (VOA) interviewed a top Pakistani Taliban leader have sparked an investigation into VOA’s Pashto language service to determine if it has allowed itself to become a platform for terrorist propaganda.

In a letter obtained by The Washington Times, the State Department’s acting inspector general, Harold Geisel, said his office will conduct a review “to determine the effectiveness of their broadcast and editorial practices and policies.” The service broadcasts into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region that serves as a refuge for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The probe was spurred by concerns first raised by Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, an Illinois Republican who in the past had championed the Pashto-language service known as Deewa Radio. Mr. Kirk said he became concerned that American taxpayers were providing the Taliban a megaphone after he learned that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud had been interviewed by the service — and claimed responsibility for terrorist bombings in the Pakistani city of Lahore in March.

“The U.S. taxpayer should not be subsidizing free air-time for al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban leaders,” Mr. Kirk wrote in a May 5 letter to Mr. Geisel. “These broadcasts put the lives of American soldiers in danger and undermine the policies of the United States in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

VOA Director Danforth Austin said Deewa Radio was simply seeking to report the news in a way that was credible to listeners from the same ethnic Pashtun group as the Taliban.

He told The Times that the Taliban has threatened the families of his reporters and broadcasters and declared Deewa Radio “haram” — forbidden by Islamic law.

“We wouldn’t be threatened by the Taliban if we weren’t showing them up for what they were and in a way that is credible,” Mr. Austin said.

Nonetheless, the station at times has inadvertently served as an outlet for the Taliban to advance its military strategy by misleading Pakistani authorities. For example, a Taliban spokesman told the VOA service in an April 24 interview that militant fighters were withdrawing from Pakistan’s Buner province when they did not do so.

The investigation of VOA’s Pashto service is another example of the long-standing tension about the role of American-funded broadcasting.

The professional staff of VOA consider the operation akin to the British Broadcasting Corp. and other Western news outlets, Mr. Austin said. Hence, the correspondents from time to time interview Taliban leaders in the process of covering news from the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan and Pashtun areas in neighboring Afghanistan.

State Department policymakers, however, have recently bemoaned the absence of an effective operation to counter Taliban propaganda in the group’s Afghanistan-Pakistan stronghold.

Last month, Richard C. Holbrooke, the chief U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States lacked “counter-programming” to Taliban FM stations, which he likened to the Rwandan radio stations that broadcast ethnic Hutus’ propaganda against the Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.

“Concurrent with the insurgency is an information war. We are losing that war,” Mr. Holbrooke said. “The Taliban have unrestricted, unchallenged access to the radio, which is the main means of communication in an area where literacy is around 10 percent for men and less than 5 percent for women.”

Mr. Holbrooke added, “We cannot win the war, however you define win, we can’t succeed however you define success, if we cede the airwaves to people who present themselves as false messengers of the prophet [Muhammad], which is what they do, and we need to combat it.”

A U.S. official close to Mr. Holbrooke, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said the envoy believed that the information war was broader than Deewa Radio, whose annual budget for 2009 is $3.2 million, including both programming and transmission costs. The station is broadcast on the shortwave band and from FM transmitters on the Afghanistan side of the border. The State Department has failed to persuade the Pakistani government to allow VOA to broadcast on an FM frequency inside Pakistan.

Only 11 FM radio stations are officially sanctioned for the North West Frontier Province. The Taliban, on the other hand, produces dozens of unsanctioned FM broadcasts from the backs of trucks and personal homes.

Deewa Radio broadcasts 6 hours a day between 6 p.m. and midnight. The mix of programming on the VOA station ranges from political call-in shows, news digests and poetry, a popular oral tradition among the Pashtun.

The Pashto service is overseen by Spozhmai Maiwandi, VOA division director for South Asia. Ms. Maiwandi helped get an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. That interview, broadcast by VOA’s English language service, sparked controversy and calls from some lawmakers for the VOA leadership to scrutinize more closely the Pashto service.

Ms. Maiwandi defended her decision, noting that she asked Mullah Omar at the time whether he was willing to let all Afghans suffer by continuing to harbor al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“That is VOA’s job,” she said. “We are here to give the news. We are here to give balanced, accurate, objective news. It is the only way to get credibility.”

Robert R. Reilly, VOA director from 2001 to 2002, said, however, that it is possible to cover the Taliban “without giving them a platform with which to speak.” Mr. Reilly gave a directive when he was in charge forbidding correspondents from giving terrorists airtime.

“The Voice of America was created as part of the war effort for World War II,” he said. “It should today be just as much a part of the war against terrorism. That does not mean we have to compromise journalistic standards, and it does not mean we produce propaganda. It is precisely because the Afghan and Pakistani people are subjected to propaganda from the Taliban that these efforts are so badly needed.”

Mr. Austin said that Deewa Radio should not be confused with what the military calls psychological operations or strategic communications.

“I was in Army Psyops in the Vietnam War,” he said. “I have some idea of what those capabilities are. But that is not VOA’s job. We believe that by being credible we can have an impact on our audiences.”

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