- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

The senior Bush administration official at the Voice of America radio network has proposed closing five overseas bureaus, prompting an outcry from VOA staffers who say the cuts are to fund a new station targeted at Iran.

Details of the plan to cut the bureaus in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Tokyo, Brussels and Geneva were given out to VOA employees Wednesday, said one staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

According to the Nelson Report, an online newsletter covering Washington politics, "At last month's Voice of America board meeting in Prague, VOA Director Bob Reilly offered to find the $1 million needed for a new Iranian popular culture program by shutting down bureaus in Asia, Latin America, and Europe."

Mr. Reilly declined to comment.

But VOA spokeswoman Tish King confirmed that a proposal was on the table to remove the bureaus.

"This would in no way represent a diminution of VOA's news coverage, and no correspondents would be withdrawn from the region," she said. "The plan was targeted at eliminating overhead costs."

The VOA staffer said that he and colleagues believe "the news cuts are in part a vendetta by some Bush administration officials against the VOA over its broadcast of its interview with [former Afghan Taliban leader] Mullah [Mohammed] Omar."

The Bush administration had sought to ban the broadcast of the interview, but VOA went ahead and put it on the air.

The interview was apparently recorded after September 11 but before the United States began its air campaign to oust the Taliban.

The VOA staffer said he was especially concerned over plans to eliminate the Hong Kong office.

"Abolition of the Hong Kong bureau would constrain efforts to obtain news from Chinese-speaking sources, which are already constrained to begin with," the VOA staffer said.

"Hong Kong was a window into Chinese news."

Plans by VOA to open a Farsi-language service coincide with a recent shift in Bush administration policy toward Iran by focusing on Iranian dissidents instead of on so-called reformists in Iran's government.

It was not clear yesterday whether Mr. Reilly's plan to restructure VOA was part of the new policy toward the country President Bush named as part of an "axis of evil."

Ms. King said the proposed bureau cutbacks were to cut costs and not to fund any Farsi-language station.

The changes would require congressional approval.

Ben Barber contributed to this report.

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