27 August 2008

Georgia vs. Russia, Reporting the Conflict

Back during our vacation, on August 14th to be precise, we received a very critical email from someone named Rita in Russia. Here is the full text:

“Hello, The Voice of Saakashvili! Do not waste your time and money transmitting your programs in Russia. I do not know anyone, who listens to them. I also won't do it any more. Every time I turn on the radio I hear nothing but "Saakashhvili said, Saakashvili says, Saakashvili is saying". Is he going to shut up and let us have some rest? You should change your name from "The Voice of America" to "The Voice of Saakashvili". It suits you better.
One of these awful Russians”

Well, first of all, we double-checked with our Russian Service and they confirmed they halted radio broadcasts on July 26, before the crisis. A senior editor in the service said he wasn’t completely surprised by the criticism, though, because, as he put it: “What we have found in the past is that people sometimes write to us about things that were actually aired on Radio Liberty…”

So we have to put the question back to Rita in Russia: Are you sure you weren’t listening to some other radio?

Our Russian Service is now fully web-based. And we just completed an on-line customer satisfaction survey on that site. What we found, based on more than 350 responses, was what an internal analysis described as “skepticism about our content.”

That said, the VOA Russian site received a high score (80 out of 100) when those who responded to the survey were asked if they would return to this site. That is a very positive sign.

VOANews.com has of course been paying a lot of attention to the situation involving Georgia and Russia. In addition to reports from our resident correspondent in Moscow, Peter Fedynsky, we have deployed reporter Peter Heilein to Tblisi. Heinlein is himself a former Moscow-based correspondent. Recent sample reports can be seen here and here.

But we also get regular reports with reaction to the crisis from our correspondents covering the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and the White House.

Those are the English-language reports. We also have full coverage in Russian (see a sample report here) and in Georgian (see the Georgian website here). VOA has also doubled its broadcasts in the Georgian language. (See the announcement here.)

Going back to Rita from Russia’s email criticism, we’d also like to note the reports we’ve seen, including one by correspondent Fedynsky in Moscow, about how the truth has been a casualty in some of the Russian and Georgian reporting on the conflict.

He notes in that report the case of the Tbilisi correspondent for Russia Today, Moscow's international English-language television service, who resigned --- this after the broadcaster refused to air his reports after he informed viewers on live TV that Russian warplanes had bombed the central Georgian city of Gori.

Fedynsky also notes Georgian media have appeared heavily one-sided with Russian troops compared to brutal Soviet invaders of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has also given numerous interviews to international media, prompting charges from Russia that western journalists favor the Georgian side.

26 August 2008

Drop Everything!

And get right over to our special new US election site! You can’t afford to miss it!

USAVotes2008 is an interactive site. In this election year of unprecedented international interest, this new online meeting place is THE PLACE for visitors to both learn more about the candidates and electoral process --- and to share their own experiences, comments, and questions.

So rush over there, browse the site and join the global community discussing the coming vote. Hey, even if you can’t vote, you can become a part of this fascinating and historic election by making USAVotes2008 a daily stop.

25 August 2008

Flashback! Conventions, Olympics and History

OK. We’re back after our News Blog vacation. And it’s time to once again go back in time to recall the words of a famous American:

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

If you need another clue, the speech we are quoting from is perhaps best known for the following line:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Of course, those are the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who delivered them from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963.

The reason we note this is that the Democratic National Convention is taking place this week in Denver, Colorado. It is the political event at which Senator Barack Obama will formally receive his party’s nomination as its Presidential candidate --- the first ever African-American to win the Democratic Party’s nod.

And Senator Obama will deliver his acceptance speech on August 28th --- exactly 45 years after Dr. King’s historic speech.

We certainly expect VOA’s coverage from Denver to take note of this coincidence.

But we have already had a series of reports by Chris Simkins and Jeff Young exploring the question of whether the United States is ready for a black President. You can see those reports here, here, here and here. We commend them to you if you haven’t already seen them.

Speaking of the past, during the News Blog’s vacation, we, like millions of other sports fans, watched the Olympics in Beijing. Now we will acknowledge most folks probably did not turn to VOA to watch events since we did not have the rights to transmit any actual sporting events.

But Olympic games are also socio-political events and this is the kind of reporting VOA excels in --- especially when the host country has been associated with such sensitive issues as human rights violations, media censorship, etc.

So we were surprised in looking back at the coverage of the stunning opening ceremonies that no one noted the absence of any mention of one of the most important figures in Chinese history: Mao Zedong. After all, as VOA Sports Editor Parke Brewer wrote about the ceremony: “The program mixed China's ancient history and culture with elements showcasing the modern face of the country.”

In fact, the only mention we could find of Mao (in English) on VOANews.com during the Games was a piece by reporter Mandy Clark that said “in place of the cult of personality that the Communist Party built around Chairman Mao, the Chinese are embracing a new cult: celebrity. (And) No Chinese person is more famous now than basketball player and NBA All-Star, Yao Ming…”

As our news file has noted in the past, the Chinese government officially discourages public discussion of the founder of modern China who, after all, pursued several disastrous social programs blamed for the deaths of tens of millions of people.

Still, just because Chinese authorities don’t want Mao mentioned, that doesn’t mean VOA and other news organizations should fall in line. Sometimes it is just as important to report on what isn't said and to ask experts to explain why.

08 August 2008

News Blog Vacation & Call for Comments

The News Blog is going to take a break for the next two weeks. During that time, we hope more of our many readers (and there have been over 60,000 of you from 159 countries since January) will join the few who have so far ventured comments on our posts.

We’d be especially interested in your views on what happens when the Great Internet Firewall of China is lifted and what that means about the peoples’ desire for free access to news and information.

Our Mandarin site is, by the way, currently running a poll asking whether readers think China will leave VOANews.com and other web sites open after the Olympics. As of this morning (Washington time), 80% of those responding believe the answer is no. (China is in the top 10 countries sending visitors to the News Blog, along with Iran and Russia as well as Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. For the record, the top European country sending visitors is Great Britain, Brazil is tops in South/Central America, Pakistan in Southwest Asia and South Africa for Africa.)

In the meantime, consider these comments on some of the features appearing on our main website.

Shafiq wrote us about VOA’s new Urdu (and English) TV production called “Muslims’ America.”

“Happen to watch your programme Muslims America which is a real eye opening and an informative serial. Admiration for the team for their hard work and research efforts. These sorts of series are the real time requirement for the Muslims of the world. The start was good and I hope it will continue with the same pace till its conclusion. Once again appreciations for the team.”

Then there were two comments about our efforts to explore the question of whether the United States is ready to elect a black President. (See this item.)

The first comment:

“The author missed the other side of the equation; which is that most blacks will vote for Mr. Obama just because he is black. I think it is sad commentary for any white or black to vote solely on the basis of skin color!"

Actually, had this writer waited a bit, he would have seen a second item examining African-American voter sentiment.

The other email on this question of whether America is ready for a black President:

“The topic of the piece today is laughable, at this point. I might expect a high school essay getting handed in on it but really, VOA? Sen. Obama…has been overwhelmingly accepted as a viable, engaging, credible presidential candidate. Write about the person, defined in terms pertinent to what they are trying to become.”

We want to draw your attention to a third item in this series which looks at the history of race and politics in the United States. It concludes that while many Americans may be ready to elect a black president, others aren’t so sure.

So, off on our break. Send in those comments. And we look forward to going through them on our return. Thanks.

06 August 2008

What Happens When China Lifts Internet Restrictions: A Surge in Visits

Since Chinese authorities lifted censorship of our VOANews.com website, there has been what VOA Internet Director Michael Messinger terms a "significant increase" in traffic originating inside China.

What an understatement!

For the entire site during the period July 1 - 5, before the lifting of Internet filters blocking VOANews.com, we recorded just under 6,000 visits from China.

In the first five days of August, after China lifted the filters on August 1st, we recorded 155,520 visits --- an increase of 2,502%.

For our Mandarin site, the comparable figures are: July 1-5: 1,535 visits; August 1-5: 138,089 visits --- an increase of 8,896%.

And sometimes we hear people are no longer interested in the news?

04 August 2008

Soldiers Masquerading as Journalists, Revisited

A month ago, we asked on the News Blog: “Isn’t anyone out there concerned about the potential hazard posed to real reporters when soldiers masquerade as journalists?”

We raised the issue because we hadn’t seen any expressions of worry from major journalists’ organizations since it was revealed that Colombian special forces who took part in a dramatic hostage rescue pretended to be both aid workers and a TV crew.

So we were delighted to see last week that the Committee to Protect Journalists has written Colombia’s Defense Minister to say:

“We fear that such impersonations could endanger the work of the already beleaguered Colombian media… By posing as journalists, security forces undermine the role of the free press and bring mistrust to the profession, ultimately damaging the public good.”

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon went on to say the impersonation of journalists was especially troubling at a time when reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan were being kidnapped and accused of being spies.

Colombia’s government has so far sought to minimize the issue. Like CPJ, we hope they give these expressions of concern serious consideration.

01 August 2008

China and the Olympics: Controls on the Internet

China appears to have relented in the face of complaints from journalists’ groups over media controls imposed ahead of the Olympics in Beijing. The latest complaints dealt with the blocking of Internet access to selected websites at the main press center for the games.

According to VOA correspondent Stephanie Ho in Beijing, a colleague at the main Olympic press center reported today that he was able to access previously blocked websites for VOA and Amnesty International. The French news agency AFP reported the previously barred websites of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle were also accessible.

But many other sites were still blocked, they said, including those linked to Chinese dissidents, the Tibetan government-in-exile and sites with information on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Still, correspondent Ho in Beijing notes another Internet improvement outside of the Olympic press center. She says the VOA news website and all its contents are now fully accessible. Until today VOANews.com could be opened but readers were unable to navigate to any links for stories or language pages, including Mandarin.

Here is an updated list of the changes in Internet access as noted today by our Beijing office:

Unblocked websites:

Voice of America—www.voanews.com
Articles, as well as multimedia now available in English and Mandarin
Amnesty International—http://www.amnesty.org
Can download PDF and html versions of new Amnesty International report “Olympics Countdown-Broken Promises”
Radio Free Asia—http://www.rfa.org
Can navigate articles in English and Mandarin
Can now access entries on Tibet, Dalai Lama, Tibetan People, Uyghur People

Several Taiwan News Outlets were also accessible, the Taipei Times, China Post, Apple Daily and Liberty Times.

Reporters Without Borders—http://www.rsf.org
Can navigate website in English
Human Rights Watch—http://www.hrw.org
Can navigate website in English

Blocked sites:

Our office in Beijing reports that websites still blocked include Amnesty International’s “China Debate” section, multimedia material on Radio Free Asia and various Tibet-related websites, including the website of the Dalai Lama.

Complaints about blocked Internet access at the Olympics had come from groups like the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which called such controls contrary to the free reporting environment promised by the hosts and the International Olympic Commission. As the group put it in a statement: “Thousands of visiting journalists will now get to experience the censorship that reporters and other internet users in China have to put up with every day.”

Reporters Without Borders had also complained as had the Committee to Protect Journalists.

We hope the improved access remains in place after the Olympics.