27 October 2010

A Response from VOA’s Director

VOA Director Danforth Austin has a response to this week’s post in which a reader in Sweden proposed that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, in an effort to be more competitive in international TV markets, “try to finance an international channel produced by the (U.S.) Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and with PBS quality programming.”

Director Austin notes a decision was made long ago by U.S. government-funded international broadcasters “that Americans living abroad and English speakers in democracies that enjoy a free press are already well served by commercial television and don't require programming subsidized by American taxpayers.”

He goes on to say that at VOA, “we continually work to improve our television efforts--over 300 hours of original television are produced every week... These programs are in the vernacular language of the markets to which they're broadcast, and are often carried as part of a local affiliate's program mix.”

That said, VOA does offer English-language video, audio and text through our English-language web portal, which is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

26 October 2010

The Future of U.S. International Broadcasting?

Last week I asked for reader views on the challenges to U.S. international broadcasting. I received one very thoughtful response from Sten in Sweden that I would like to share with you all.

Sten notes there is no VOA presence in Northern Europe (save via the web) but he says the presence of other government financed broadcasts is, as he puts it, “quite impressive.”

“I have through my satellite dish a handful of free English language news channels… channels from Russia, France, Germany, Iran and UK and two mixed from Japan and Korea. Many of those channels can also be followed via Internet. The American alternative is CNN,” he writes.

“The TV broadcasts from Russia and Iran are good. It´s a shame to admit it, but they are often more interesting than CNN… And they are certainly not transmitting a positive picture of your country.”

Sten says in his satellite world there is only one authoritative broadcaster of American news and that is National Public Radio (NPR).

Sten’s proposal is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, should “try to finance an international channel produced by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS, the TV counterpart of NPR) and with PBS quality programming.”

Sten says he is convinced that there is demand in many countries for more quality television. And he believes the American origin of a broadcast “would not be a hindrance as long as it is PBS. So the audience would be there – probably worldwide.”

Thanks for sharing your views with us, Sten. We will run your thoughts by VOA and BBG management and see what they think.

25 October 2010

Internet Anti-Censorship: Circumvention Tools

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University has issued a new study on the use of circumvention tools that let users bypass Internet filtering aimed at blocking access to various types of content.

The key findings:

1. The study estimates that “no more than three percent of Internet users in countries that engage in substantial filtering use circumvention tools. The actual number is likely considerably less.”

2. “Many more users use simple web proxies than use either blocking-resistant tools or VPN (virtual private network) services.”

As the Berkman study notes, “The OpenNet Initiative has documented network filtering of the Internet by national governments in over forty countries worldwide. Countries use this network filtering as one of many methods to control the flow of online content that is objectionable to the filtering governments for social, political, and security reasons. Filtering is particularly appealing to governments as it allows them to control content not published within their national borders.”

If filtering is so pervasive, why is there not more use of circumvention tools?

The Berkman study offers this opinion:

“…It may be that there is just not as much interest in circumventing Internet filtering as widely believed for any of a number of reasons. For example, users in many filtering countries may simply prefer to access local content, written in their own languages about topics of local interest, despite the fact that the local content is subject to traditional government regulation and therefore highly censored. We note that three of the nations that have tens of millions of Internet users and who aggressively filter the Internet –China, Iran and Vietnam – have made significant investments in creating locally hosted alternatives to popular social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Our findings may suggest the logic of this approach – a large percentage of users in nations that aggressively filter the Internet either do not know how to conveniently reach these popular sites, or they have decided to use censored, local alternatives.”

VOA uses web-based proxy servers to distribute the latest news and information via the web to reach target audiences in countries like China and Iran, where the main VOA web sites are blocked. Since governments like these block access to proxies once they discover them, the addresses are replaced frequently and new ones sent out in email newsletter to allow users continued uncensored access to the web.

VOA also provides links to audiences in countries like China and Iran that enable them to download a special software called Freegate that users can install on their computers to permit them to have direct, uncensored access to the web without the use of special web-based proxies.

21 October 2010

Press Freedom Update

Reporters Without Borders has come out with its annual press freedom index. The 10 lowest ranked countries are: Rwanda, Yemen, China, Sudan, Syria, Burma, Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and, at the bottom, Eritrea.

At the top of the list are: Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand, Estonia and Ireland.

The United States is ranked 20th.

Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-Fran├žois Julliard said: “We must salute the engines of press freedom, with Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland at their head. We must also pay homage to the human rights activists, journalists and bloggers throughout the world who bravely defend the right to speak out. Their fate is our constant concern. We reiterate our call for the release of Liu Xiaobo, the symbol of the pressure for free speech building up in China, which censorship for the time being is still managing to contain. And we warn the Chinese authorities against taking a road from which there is no way out.”

Liu Xiaobo is the human-rights campaigner who just won the Nobel Peace Prize and is imprisoned in China.

In a statement, Julliard continued: “We are also worried by the harsher line being taken by governments at the other end of the index. Rwanda, Yemen and Syria have joined Burma and North Korea in the group of the world’s most repressive countries towards journalists. This does not bode well for 2011. Unfortunately, the trend in the most authoritarian countries is not one of improvement.”

The full report includes rankings for all countries as well as an explanation of how the index was compiled. VOA’s report on this year’s index is here.

20 October 2010

Challenges to International Broadcasting?

Later this month, I’ve been asked to speak to university students on the topic: “The Challenges to US International Broadcasting in the 21st century.”

I’m soliciting opinions from key managers here at VOA and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

But I’m also interested in hearing the views of our audience – that is, your views. So if you have some thoughts, please send them to the VOA Media Watch by October 27th at our email address: VOANewsBlog@gmail.com

19 October 2010


There was a good discussion at VOA last week on online freedom and national security. Much of the back-and-forth among the panelists dealt with such threats as cyber-crime, terrorist use of the Internet, surveillance needs, outdated laws and so forth.

But responding to an emailed question posed by “a guy from China”, Ambassador Philip Verveer, the U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy at the Department of State, voiced this opinion about the greatest threat to Internet freedom:

“There are a whole range of threats. The greatest threat, I think, to online freedom turns out to be administrations that attempt to use censorship and other means of repression to prevent the free flow of information, to prevent this quite remarkable institution from being able to function fully and freely.”

Aside from Ambassador Verveer, the other panelists were Richard McNally, an FBI counter-terrorism official; Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology; Martin Libicki, Senior Management Scientist at RAND; and Nancy Scola, Associate Editor, techPresident.com.

You can still watch the entire panel discussion here.

18 October 2010

Boboev Fined

A VOA Uzbek Service journalist, Abdulmalik Boboev, was fined more than $10,000 last Friday by an Uzbek court that convicted him of slander, insult and publishing information harmful to the public peace. A lawyer for Mr. Boboev, who pled not guilty and denied doing anything wrong, said his client is considering an appeal of the verdict.

According to a VOA statement, VOA Director Danforth W. Austin said, "We are reviewing the decision by the Uzbek court. We are pleased that Mr. Boboev wasn't sentenced to jail. However, we remain concerned that his work as a journalist has resulted in a substantial fine. We will continue to follow his case, and hope that he will be able to continue providing fair, comprehensive and accurate reports to our audience without fear of retaliation."

The 41 year-old Mr. Boboev was among several journalists summoned by the Prosecutor-General's Office last year for questioning about their journalistic activities.

After the judge’s decision Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent released a statement saying it was, “Concerned about the implications of this case for the state of media freedom in Uzbekistan.” U.S. officials had raised the case with the Uzbek government and sent American diplomats to observe the trial.

Over the last two years, Uzbekistan has jailed eight reporters.

13 October 2010

Threats Against The News Media: Update

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has voiced concern over the fate of Abdumalik Boboev, a journalist for VOA's Uzbek Service who is on trial in Uzbekistan for allegedly threatening public safety, slander, insult, and visa violations.

The Board issued the following statement today:

“The Broadcasting Board of Governors wishes to express its grave concern with the Uzbek government’s attempt to silence Mr. Boboev and his objective reporting for the Voice of America and the state of media freedom in Uzbekistan. Using the criminal justice system to punish journalists for freely expressed views is contrary to Uzbekistan’s international obligations and has a chilling effect on journalists throughout the country. The Broadcasting Board of Governors calls upon Uzbekistan to drop the charges against Mr. Boboev and cease all interference with the right of journalists in Uzbekistan to gather and report information freely.”

12 October 2010

Chilean Mine Rescue: The World Is Watching

The planned rescue of 33 miners trapped underground for more than two months in northern Chile will undoubtedly dominate the world’s news media in the coming hours. The New York Times reports more than 1,400 journalists are at the mine site. Time Magazine describes it as a “media circus.”

Why does such a story command media attention?

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a study in 2007 analyzing two decades of American news preferences. In a list of broad news categories including conflict, politics and money, disaster news ranked first:

“The index reveals that Disaster News -- reports about catastrophes, man-made or natural -- garners the greatest interest.”

The study found such stories simply engross audiences – in part because “the outcome remains suspended in doubt.”

The international mix of reporters in Chile covering the mine rescue suggests Americans are not alone in their interest in disaster stories. So too does the global mix of comments posted beneath the latest VOA news story. They’re worth reading.

10 October 2010

Accuracy, Credibility, Citizen Journalism and the Internet

Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer prize winning columnist, stirred an on-line controversy this past week with a commentary in the Miami Herald in which he said: “I do not believe in citizen journalism.”

Pitts acknowledged the Internet has “opened the public square to more voices, and you can't complain about that.”

But he maintained that “journalism -- like any profession worthy of the name -- has standards and ethics, and if you don't sign on to those, I can no more trust you than I can a doctor who refused the Hippocratic oath or a lawyer who failed the bar exam.”

“You cannot be a journalist -- citizen or otherwise -- if credibility matters less to you than ideology,” he added.

Columnist Sharon Grigsby, writing for the Dallas Morning News, followed on Pitts’ comment in a supporting post of her own arguing that it simply isn’t true that anyone can do journalism.

Here is how she put it: “Without real journalists -- whether they be working digitally or in print, in new operations or traditional ones -- our country would marinate in an increasing brine of ignorance.”

I bring these opinions up in part because they dovetail with some personal concerns I have expressed here about the depressing growth in the number of on-line outlets in which individuals simply choose to ignore the facts and disseminate inaccurate information, and then use that erroneous information to make some kind of point.

But the main reason I bring the topic up is this: we here at VOA are deeply appreciative of some of the citizen journalists out there and want to keep working with them. Take for example VOA’s Persian News Network. During last year’s disputed elections in Iran and the ensuing protests, PNN relied on user-supplied content, not just information but video.

Importantly, none of it was simply slapped on the air or on-line. Instead, all of it was verified as best as possible by professional journalists and put into proper context. If there were doubts, the material simply wasn’t used.

Walter Isaacson, the new Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, in a recent speech, described this type of collaboration as “a new form of journalism in which user-generated content and great journalistic insights and credibility are wedded together…”

In his remarks, Isaacson went on to say he believes there may be a future role for VOA and the other U.S. international broadcasters in building on-line communities focused on issues of mutual interest and then not just disseminating news but facilitating conversations and sharing information.

It won’t be an easy task. Like commentators Pitts and Grigsby, the new BBG Chairman is concerned about on-line accuracy and credibility. While those are watchwords here at VOA, they are, as Isaacson says, “not at the moment the strong suit of the Internet.”

07 October 2010

Correcting An Error About VOA's First Broadcast

We’ve always believed, as our website states, that VOA’s first broadcast took place on February 24th, 1942.

But now we have to ask, where did that date come from? Because detective work by two men with past ties to VOA, Walter Roberts and Chris Kern, suggests the first broadcast was actually on February 1st, 1942.

Mr. Roberts lays out his evidence in a web article on “Origins and Recollections” of his time at VOA.

To sum it up briefly, he says the February 1st broadcast “was sent via radiotelephone to London early in the morning New York time from whence it was broadcast by the BBC over seven medium wave transmitters at 14:15 GMT.”

Chris Kern followed up on Mr. Robert’s research and recently posted his own report.

His search at the National Archives turned up a script from February 3, 1942, “but it is clear that wasn’t the first Voice of America program because at one point the script calls on one of the announcers to refer to something he said “yesterday.” The reference to the previous day’s program obviously means there had been a broadcast on Monday, February 2.”

The key evidence turned up by Roberts and Kern was a script like the one shown here with a Roman numeral typed under the title. As Mr. Kern writes, “at the top of the February 3 script, just under the title Stimmen Aus Amerika and the date, was a Roman numeral III.” Under the script for February 11 was the Roman number XI. Based on this, they concluded the script with the numeral III was the third, placing the first on February 1st.

VOA is preparing a statement on the anniversary issue. Stay tuned. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, in accordance with standard correction policy, VOA decides to say something like this:

The Voice of the America first went on the air on February 1, 1942, not February 24. We regret the error.

06 October 2010

Threats Against the News Media: Update

State Department spokesman Michael Tran has issued a statement on the impending slander trial in Uzbekistan of VOA stringer Abdumalik Boboev:

"We are deeply concerned by the arrest and impending trial of Mr. Boboev, as well as its implications for media freedom in Uzbekistan. Mr. Boboev has been an independent journalist for Voice of America for more than five years, and his indictment cites articles that he wrote during this period.

"We have been in contact with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, we have raised the issue with the Government of Uzbekistan, and will monitor the case closely."

VOA issued a statement last month expressing deep concern over Boboev's fate. VOA Director Danforth Austin said, "Mr. Boboev, like all VOA journalists, is required to present accurate and balanced reports, and he should not be penalized for doing his job."

05 October 2010

Ignoring The Facts: A Dangerous Habit

To continue a theme from last week, (but in a more serious vein than UFO’s and aliens,) I am increasingly distressed by the number of writers, reporters, analysts and/or commentators who simply choose to ignore the facts and disseminate inaccurate information, and then use that erroneous information to make a point.

The latest example to catch my attention involves VOA.

A blogger named Javad Rad, writing on the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy blog, claimed the reason President Obama recently chose to give an interview to BBC Persian TV and not to VOA’s Persian News Network was audience size.

Rad wrote: “Obviously VOA has not been able to reach a sizable audience inside Iran.”

Obviously? Hardly. This is simply untrue – and begs the question of whether Mr. Rad conducted any research whatsoever before writing.

Because it wasn’t particularly difficult to ascertain that:

According to a BBC news release earlier this year, “BBC Persian has an estimated 3.1 million viewers in Iran.”

And drawing on survey data compiled by InterMedia, VOA researchers estimate the VOA TV audience in Iran to be around 9 million. Even if this audience were only half as big as that estimate, it would still be higher than BBC 's own published estimate for their audience.

Any chance of a correction, Mr. Rad?

04 October 2010

A Notable Quote on International Broadcasting

From Walter Isaacson, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors:

"It’s sometimes said that our international broadcasting is in a difficult position because by law and by tradition it’s tasked with two separate missions that might conflict: first of all, covering the news with the highest journalistic standards and secondly, being a part of America’s public diplomacy by accurately conveying its policies and values to the world.

"Let me say to you, my fellow journalists, that I will stress and we will stress the primacy
of the first of these missions, our mission of being credible journalists, because it is the best – in fact, it’s the only way to carry out the second mission. You can’t do it unless you’re credible and telling the truth, and in the end, the truth is on our side. Credibility is the key to all that we do."

Mr. Isaacson spoke last week in Washington at a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of Radio Free Europe. The Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees VOA, RFE, Radio Free Asia, Radio/TV Marti, Radio Sawa, and Alhurra TV.