- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

The Saharan guerrillas drove their Land Rovers under some scrub trees after a day's ride across the stony desert, and under the brilliant stars they tuned a transistor radio to the Yankee Doodle theme music that begins each Voice of America (VOA) newscast.
A few years later, on the other side of the world, the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot then hiding in jungles near the Thai border heard on VOA newscasts that the government was close to capturing him.
Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, shortly after his November 1997 release from prison and expulsion to the United States, praised VOA for piercing the "bamboo curtain" of media control in China: "To get the truth in China, one has no choice but to become a faithful listener to the Voice of America."
Created 57 years ago as Nazi Germany swallowed Europe and imperial Japan moved on Asia, VOA began beaming short-wave radio broadcasts of U.S. news, views and propaganda into Western Europe, Asia and Africa.
It continues to broadcast around the globe in 53 languages. But with the defeat of Nazism, and then Soviet communism, its goals have evolved with the emergence of the post-Cold War world.
With a congressional mandate, it supports young democracies, free markets, ethnic tolerance and other American values and interests for a global audience estimated at 91 million.
From Albania to Zambia, VOA beams news and commentary daily into deserts, jungles, cities and war zones. Until recently virtually anyone, anywhere could tune in even in the United States, where the VOA is virtually banned.
The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 bars the federal government from spending taxpayer money to broadcast information and propaganda within the United States, the fear being that an administration would use it to influence the American electorate for political gain.
But with new technology, especially the Internet, changing the way VOA reaches listeners, Americans can now listen to the service that helps define the United States for much of the world.
VOA Director Sanford J. Ungar pointed out with a wry smile that it is illegal for him to advise Americans to log onto the VOA s Web site.
"I'm not supposed to give out the Internet address," said Mr. Ungar a former correspondent in Africa and France for United Press International and Newsweek and a former host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
However, at the Web site (www.voa.gov), Americans can bypass the ban and tune in to news broadcasts in most of the 53 languages sent out daily over short wave transmitters.
Click on the "News Now" icon and the listener can hear a five-minute newscast of the hour's top stories followed by in-depth features on topics such as Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's trips abroad or the Russian war in Chechnya.
The sound comes through crystal clear, without the static, fading, interference and a forest of competing, scratchy voices that typically bedevil short-wave broadcasts.
VOA's move to cyberspace follows its geographic evolution over time.
As broadcasts to Denmark, Holland, Italy and Japan were dropped after the end of World War II, new countries took their places such as Ethiopia, Nepal, Afghanistan and Rwanda.
VOA's mission has been to defend America's national interests by "telling America's story," say longtime officials and broadcasters with the service.
When the war against fascism shifted to the Cold War against communism, VOA targeted its programming to audiences in the new battlegrounds of Eastern Europe and the developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
After the Cold War ended, a task force appointed by President Bush reviewed the need for VOA and concluded it would remain useful for U.S. interests.
"When we began our deliberations, we were told by some witnesses that 'the time has come to scale back American international broadcasting, due to both budget and geopolitical concerns,'" said the task force report in 1991.
"We believe that is wrong. The opposite is true. As much as ever, these unique tools of public diplomacy can serve the nation."
Freedom House, a public policy group, said in 1998 that 42 percent of the world's people live in countries with governments that severely control or suppress print and broadcast news.
Some issues tackled by VOA reporters and commentators include nuclear proliferation, Asia's economic woes and the crisis in Kosovo.
The VOA is also adding programs about basic medical care, sanitation, women's issues and other topics largely ignored by radio stations of the Third World, many of them owned and operated by the government.
Ironically, in countries that demonize the United States such as Iran and Afghanistan, more people listen to Voice of America than any other foreign radio service, according to surveys in 1998 and 1999 by the VOA Office of Research.
Some 91 million people each week listen to VOA worldwide, an increase of 5 million over 1998, the VOA reports.
Half the listeners are concentrated in five countries: Nigeria, Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. The next five countries, in terms of numbers of listeners are Iran, Burma, Tanzania, India and Ukraine.
The VOA has sometimes been accused of favoring one side or another that are in conflict the Albanians over the Serbs or the Palestinians over the Israelis.
A VOA spokesman said e-mail messages and letters of complaint flow into VOA headquarters just as they do to newspapers and broadcast stations everywhere.
However, VOA faces the additional onus of being labeled "the government media," and some even question the objectivity of its reporters. Sometimes U.S. government officials expect VOA news reports to automatically support government policies.
In one such case, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1997, fearing an angry response from the Chinese government, attempted to block the airing of an interview with Mr. Wei, the newly released dissident, over VOA's Mandarin language service.
David Burke, then chairman of the appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors, and Evelyn Lieberman, then VOA director, refused to cave and the program was broadcast.
"This is the first time anything like this has happened," Mr. Burke said at the time.
"It's disgraceful to put pressure on these journalists instead of coming to the board. It's taking advantage of people," he said. "If it had succeeded it would have been awful."
In Bangkok, some years ago, a U.S. official embarrassed a VOA reporter at a press conference after the journalist asked whether U.S. demands for Thai compliance with a trade agreement would create an anti-American backlash.
"Who do you work for the Thais or us?" the official asked.
In the past, U.S. embassies assisted VOA reporters in obtaining housing, and they held diplomatic passports services that have been eliminated in an effort to distance reporters from the appearance of American government control.
Some critics at home and abroad fault the VOA for giving too much of an American view in a world where many countries have cultures and levels of economic development that are vastly different from the United States.
One VOA broadcast, heard by a reporter during a trip to Africa, included a long feature on a American in a Midwestern state who had been collecting model trains all his life.
This report was broadcast to a nation where few people have seen a real let alone a model train; and the cost of a toy engine would equal half a year's income for many.
Another problem for VOA has been making sure that the overseas broadcasts in all 53 languages do not spread ethnic, political or religious prejudices.
Most of the news stories are written from correspondents' reports and wire services in Washington and then translated.
But, as one VOA staffer put it, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
Editors must be alert, for example, that Hausa-language reports on Nigeria do not disrespect that nation's other main ethnic groups, the Yoruba and Ibo. Or that Amharic-speaking journalists do not insult Ethiopia's other ethnic groups such as the Oromo or Tigrayans.
"This is a common question we get," said VOA spokesman Joe O'Connell. "How do you remain objective when you don't speak all 53 languages?
"The real answer is that you hire people you can trust and put enormous responsibility in the hands of editors."

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