Briefing: VOA

At Voice of America, changes prompt concerns about independence and credibility.
By Frank Smyth

VOA management has denied the charge, saying it remains committed to objective and authoritative news coverage

The 450 VOA journalists submitted the petition July 6, accusing management of “dismantling” existing news services while creating formats open to political pressure. The petitioners, who represent nearly half of the agency’s 1,000 employees, have asked for a Congressional inquiry into the actions of VOA’s Board of Governors, which is appointed by the president.

VOA’s new formats are targeted at the Middle East. They include Radio Sawa, which recently replaced VOA’s longtime Arabic service, and al-Hurra, a satellite-fed Arabic television service. The petitioners say the entities were not established under VOA’s traditional charter, which ensures the agency provide “a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news” that is “accurate, objective and comprehensive.” The charter, enacted in 1976, is also designed to prevent government interference with VOA content.

VOA officials confirmed that Radio Sawa and al-Hurra were not established under VOA’s traditional charter. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of VOA’s Board of Governors, said in a statement that the new Middle Eastern news services will “have professional standards similar to those of the 1976 VOA Charter.” They will be governed, he said, by the International Broadcasting Act of 1994, which requires the “highest professional standards of broadcast journalism,” and news that is “consistently reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective and comprehensive.”

Radio Sawa offers a mix of news and entertainment, including Western and Arabic music designed for a young audience. Al-Hurra mixes news and talk shows, but emphasizes commentary over breaking news.

Employees took their petition to Congress five days after VOA reassigned its award-winning news director, Andre de Nesnera. Although the transfer was not mentioned in the petition, several VOA employees told CPJ the leadership change helped fuel the petition drive.

VOA Director David S. Jackson, who was appointed in 2002 by VOA’s Board of Governors, ordered the reassignment. Eight of the nine board members are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate; the ninth is the current Secretary of State. On July 1, Jackson informed de Nesnera that he was being reassigned to the new position of “chief diplomatic correspondent.” In an e-mail announcing the change to VOA staff, Jackson said he was making the move to “take full advantage” of de Nesnera’s “extensive international reporting experience.”

But VOA journalists told CPJ they believe that de Nesnera was pushed out of top management because he resisted putting pro-U.S. slants on VOA reports.

“They removed a dedicated journalist who was interested in maintaining the integrity of the Voice of America and complying with the VOA charter,” said Timothy Shamble, who represents VOA newsroom employees as president of Local 1812 of the American Federation of Government Employees. “As head of the news division, Andre de Nesnera was making sure VOA produced balanced and accurate news.”

“Every day we walk a fine line between being a government agency and a credible news organization,” added Gary Marco, who represents VOA radio technicians as president of Local 1418 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We have political appointees from either party at any time calling the shots.”

VOA spokesman Joe O’Connell said de Nesnera, who ran VOA’s central newsroom for more than four years, “served with great distinction.” He told CPJ that political pressure had nothing to do with the reassignment, pointing out that de Nesnera ran VOA’s newsroom longer than most other news directors.

Jackson, in his memo to staff, said the reassignment was one of many changes being made “to strengthen” VOA’s “ability to more effectively cover the diverse peoples and cultures to which we broadcast.”

Two years ago, U.S. Foreign Service officers honored de Nesnera with the Tex Harris Award for Constructive Dissent. The award from the American Foreign Service Association recognized de Nesnera for standing up to political pressure from State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher and other U.S. officials after VOA ran excerpts of a 2001 interview with the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The same story earned de Nesnera a Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon. “VOA aired the story in the face of strident opposition from the U.S. National Security Council and senior State Department officials,” according to the University of Oregon’s newsletter.

De Nesnera declined to comment to CPJ on his reassignment. But in a departing e-mail to staff, he wrote: “Our strength and steadfastness come from our charter, which requires us to present the news in an objective, balanced, and comprehensive manner. To do anything less is self-deception and our audience will perceive it as moral cowardice.”

Theodore A. Iliff, who has the new title of “associate director for central programming,” has replaced de Nesnera.

Iliff, who worked for more than 12 years at CNN and CNN International as an executive editor and executive producer, most recently served as the general manager of the U.S.-funded Iraq Media Network in Baghdad.

Iliff became associate editor at VOA earlier this year and has worked closely with Jackson. According to a VOA e-mail obtained by CPJ, Jackson instructed VOA staff covering the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib Prison to consult with “Ted Iliff [who] will be the first point of contact for information on which pictures can be used.” In the same May 11 e-mail, Jackson cautioned that some pictures should not be shown on VOA “in consideration of our responsibilities” to our “diverse, global audience.”

Frank Smyth is CPJ’s Washington, D.C. representative.