- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

After a decade of not-so-benign neglect and the search for a mission, U.S. international broadcasting is in the spotlight again. Not since the fall of communism has the United States faced an implacably ideological foe, but we are facing one now in radical Islam. Nor have we seen hatred of the United States as rampant abroad as it is currently in the Muslim world. A recent Gallup poll conducted in nine Muslim countries shows what kind of odds we are up against.

According to the poll, 61 percent did not believe that Muslims had anything to do with the terrorist acts of September 11. A great many believe that Americans asked for it anyway, and a lot that Jews were behind the attack. The U.S. attack on Afghanistan's Taliban government has been widely resented, and Israel's attempts to defend itself against Palestinian suicide bombers inflame tempers far and wide. Obviously, this is an appropriate environment in which to revive the ideological tools used so effectively during the Cold War when the United States Information Agency was revitalized by President Ronald Reagan in defense against the Soviet propaganda machine. Congress has appropriated an additional $20 million for Voice of America's (VOA's) part in the war against terrorism, of which newly appointed VOA Director Richard Reilly is in charge.

Early in the war, the United States moved to establish a public information office in Islamabad, Pakistan, to present the American side of the military action in Afghanistan to counter the spin put out by Arab television news. This was the right thing to do. Facilitating the flow of information and getting out the facts is what this should be all about. In February, the Pentagon got itself into hot water with its plans to set up a secretive Office of Strategic Influence. This caused a firestorm of media criticism because its purpose came across in leaked news reports as disinformation. Needless to say, the mere idea brought back images of Soviet disinformation campaigns. Not good.

There are inevitable dilemmas involved when the government gets into the news business. When the VOA first went on the air to wartime Berlin in 1942, announcer William Harlen Hale told the audience, "The Voice of America speaks. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth." For a lot of people around the world, an audience of an estimated 91 million people speaking 53 different languages, VOA obviously does just that, providing a window to the truth denied them by their own governments.

Covering the war on terrorism, however, has been no easy assignment for VOA or the other broadcasting services funded by the U.S. government. In one sense, the broadcasts do carry the government's imprimatur. This is dangerous territory when its news services attempt to present the views of the opposing side in a war. The concept of a Radio Free Afghanistan, which was proposed by Rep. Ed Royce, is widely seen at VOA as implicit criticism of its Pashto and Dari services, which Afghans complained were too biased in favor of the Taliban.

As President Bush himself noted on the occasion of VOA's 60th anniversary, Feb. 24, he wants "an atmosphere of truth," but also commented that VOA is not "neutral between America and America's enemies, between terrorism and those who defend themselves against terror, between freedom and tyranny." The news media in general face similar judgment calls every day as stories on the war are assigned and reported the difference being that they are not owned by the U.S. government and therefore cannot be accused of being paid for carrying its brief.

As detailed recently in these pages by Steven Munson, political director for VOA, one of the most notable recent cases in the war on terrorism involved an interview in September with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former head of Afghanistan's Taliban government. The question was whether, in the interest of newsworthiness, a U.S. agency should broadcast the views of an enemy leader. Would doing so amount to aiding and abetting the enemy? Or conversely, would not doing so amount to U.S. government censorship of its journalists? How do you avoid being used? In the event, only small portions of the interview were broadcast.

Add to this dilemma the fact that political pressure is brought to bear by governments who do not appreciate the intrusion of U.S. broadcasters. Working in the republics of the former Soviet Union has been an important but difficult endeavor for VOA and Radio Liberty. Most recently, proposed broadcasts to Chechnya were scuttled owing to Russian pressure on the Bush White House.

Furthermore, as the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl so tragically showed, American journalists are targets in this war, and the ruthlessness of the enemy knows no bounds. The Czech government has taken that fact to heart and asked that the offices of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty be moved out of Prague, where they have been headquartered only since 1995, when Czech President Vaclav Havel begged the U.S. government, as a symbolic gesture, to move the radios from their long-time home in Munich. To say the least, this request has left a bad taste in the mouths of those who advocated the inclusion of the Czech Republic in alliances and institutions of the West.

Clearly, public diplomacy very much has to be part of the war on terrorism. It is an investment and a commitment well worth the effort. Still, getting it right is not easy. And getting it wrong will play into the hands of those who wish us harm.


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