Sun, Jul 06, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Journalists fight for Voice of America’s editorial independence

A bill before the US House of Representatives stands to enforce active support of US policy by the public broadcaster

By Ron Nixon  /  NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Journalists for the Voice of America (VOA) broadcasting service who are fighting to maintain what they say is their editorial independence are now at odds not only with the US Congress, but also with their own union.

The union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, recently endorsed a bill that would change language in the charter for the 72-year-old news agency and require it to actively support US policy. That came as a surprise to some Voice of America employees, who said the legislation would make them mouthpieces for government policy. They want the union to withdraw its letter of support.

“A lot of us would welcome change and reform, but not at the cost of undermining VOA’s journalistic credibility,” said Jim Malone, a senior national correspondent at the government-financed news agency who is not a member of the union.

In its letter, union leaders said the agency’s managers had lost sight of their mission and were trying to turn the “VOA into something they envisioned as a global variant of CNN.”

“In the end, some of the currently entrenched senior management represent a far greater threat to VOA’s journalistic independence, indeed to the very existence of the VOA,” the union wrote.

The danger, American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812 president Tim Shamble said, is that the government could withdraw its financial support if the agency continued its course. The federation represents about 40 percent of all Voice of America workers and 11 percent of the journalists in the central news division.

Even journalists who are not members of the union, like Malone, are lining up against it.

“Union leaders blundered by ignoring legitimate concerns that the bill would turn journalists into policy promoters,” he said.

The bill was approved in April by the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee and is sponsored by the panel’s chairman, Ed Royce, a Republican, and its ranking member, Eliot Engel, a Democrat. The full House is scheduled to vote on it after the Fourth of July recess. The Senate is working on a similar bill to overhaul the VOA and four other government-financed broadcasters like Radio Free Europe.

The House bill would revise the language of the Voice of America charter to state explicitly that the agency has a role in supporting US “public diplomacy” and countering propaganda from countries like Russia and China. The charter, signed in 1976, now states that the “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.” However, it adds, “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinions on these policies.”

Voice of America programs — more than 70 for TV and 200 for radio — are broadcast in 45 languages and the broadcaster has affiliates around the world.

The issue has been building for some time and the changes included in the bill are supported by some prominent journalists like Walter Isaacson, a former chairman of CNN and editor of Time magazine who once led the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has said the board — which has jurisdiction over Voice of America and the other government-financed agencies — was dysfunctional. A recent audit found numerous problems with the board’s use of contractors, along with US$3.5 million in questionable costs. The agency’s budget is about US$200 million annually.

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