The ultimate persuaders: VOA's truth seekers in the trenches
Wednesday, August 29th 2012
“Truth and personal integrity,” legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow once said, “are the ultimate persuaders of men and nations.”
So it is today at the nation’s largest and only global publicly-funded international network, the Voice of America. The sacrifices of frontline VOA journalists barely rate mention in the mainstream press --- even though these centurions of truth daily fulfill Murrow’s charge.
By reporting the news, they often take great risks. VOA reaches 141 million people every week via radio, TV, and a broad array of new media. That’s three quarters of all audiences to U.S government overseas broadcast networks.
What is the fate of these journalists in their unrelenting search for the truth, whatever their dateline of the moment? A sweep of the world --- east to west --- helps tell their story:
- February 27, 2011, Beijing, China --- VOA correspondent Stephanie Ho and her VOA China Branch associate Ming Zhang were roughed up and manhandled by uniformed and plainclothes police at a pro-democracy demonstration in the heart of the Chinese capital. They were covering the event not far from Tiananmen Square. It was the start of a crackdown by Chinese authorities against the so-called jasmine revolution, an attempt by opposition figures to ignite awareness in their own country of the Arab awakening unreported in PRC media. Stephanie was shoved and pushed into a small store and then hustled away in a police van. Ming was grabbed and dragged into a side street and all his pictures and audio recordings were deleted. But Stephanie’s video was untouched and you can see it at http:///www.voanews.com/english/nes/Chinese-Police-Deter-Anti-Government....
- January 13, 2012, Douma, Syria --- VOA Cairo bureau chief Elizabeth Arrott got a rare permit from the Syrian government to visit a Damascus suburb, where forces of President Hafez al-Assad attacked residents after darkness in the city. Despite the presence of a government minder accompanying Arrott, citizens she interviewed were surprisingly candid. One resident told Arrott that government forces “just shoot at random”, without trying to avoid targeting elderly men and women.” A shopkeeper told Arrott: “You can see for yourself… there is as much madness as you want.”
- January 17, 2012, Shabqadar, Northwest Pakistan --- VOA Radio Deewa reporter Mukarram Khan Aatif was murdered by Taliban militants while attending evening prayers in a mosque near his home. An aide to a Taliban commander in a nearby tribal area claimed responsibility for the attack, saying: “All reporters of the Voice of America are our targets and should resign --- otherwise we will kill them.” At a moving memorial ceremony at the network’s Washington headquarters, VOA Director David Ensor said that Mr. Aatif had been threatened many times, but he refused to stop doing what he believed in.” The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Mr. Aatif “had been watched for some time… but like many other local journalists, he was not ready to give up his right of free expression.” In Pakistan from 2006 to 2011, the CPJ reported, 29 journalists died in Pakistan and the organization’s research showed that Pakistan was among the worst countries in the world in bringing killers of journalists to justice.
- May 25, 2012, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia --- VOA correspondent Peter Heinlein was picked up by Ethiopian authorities at a local mosque where he was reporting on a dispute between Ethiopia’s Muslim minority and the government over the leadership of the Muslim community. Heinlein was held overnight in an unfurnished cement cell in Addis Ababa’s New Maekelawi prison. He was interrogated, “picking up a few bumps and bruises along the way.” In the end, thanks to interventions by VOA, the CPJ, and the American embassy, Heinlein was released, charges of “illegal reporting” were dropped, and Heinlein’s recording equipment was returned.
- August 5, 2012, Gao, Northern Mali --- VOA reporter Malick Maiga was viciously beaten inside a local radio studio by Islamists who objected to his reporting of the factional violence in the troubled region. His attackers broke into a studio to attack the reporter, then on the air. They struck Maiga with rifle butts, then they stomped on him until he passed out. They then hauled his unconscious body to a nearby cemetery and left him for dead. Remarkably, local residents heard the assault, live, on the air, recognized what was happening, and launched a widespread citizen search. They found Maiga lying in the cemetery. He recalled hearing one of his assailants say: “He’ll never speak to VOA again!” It was Maiga’s third beating by Islamist gangs in the area, where he had been reporting nearly daily since a March coup in Mali. The coup had triggered a humanitarian crisis in which tribal warfare erupted after years of relative calm and hundreds of thousands of refugees were displaced. CPJ has condemned what it called “these brutal and senseless acts of violence.” Maiga has since flown to Mali’s capital, Bamako. Recovery from his injuries in a hospital there is nearly complete and at last report, he planned to return to Gao soon to resume his reporting.
- August 11-25, 2012, Northern Syria --- VOA Jerusalem bureau chief Scott Bobb traveled across Turkey’s southern border with Syria to such civil war-ravaged communities as Azaz, Marea, Tal Rifat, and the predominantly Kurdish city of Afrin. In Azaz, Bobb filed an eyewitness report of the Syrian air force MIG bombing a building three blocks away, killing 50 civilians, wounding at least 100 others, and shattering the windows of an office where Bobb was speaking with representatives of the Syrian Free Army. Bobb later interviewed Azaz civilian Mahmoud Ghreire, who lost a dozen relatives near the central market, including his uncle’s entire family. As Ghreire put it, gesturing beside a devastated apartment building captured on video: “There were children dead here. There were children dead there. There were kids inside that building. And we found body parts of a boy there.”
Every so often, VOA learns about the impact on its own national security of these courageous acts:
- A little girl in a Kurdish refugee camp in northern Syria reacted spontaneously a few weeks ago to the startup of special broadcasts in her own language to that troubled region by holding up a poster saying simply in English: “Thanks, VOA.”
- National Public Radio quoted a farmer in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe who said there’s no way he can trust national media there. Every night at 6 p.m., he tunes in to VOA “to hear the truth.” It’s a risk, he added, that he and his father are willing to take.
- In the tense Caucasian region, VOA’s stringer in the Georgian town of Gori, Nino Dalakishvili, tracks events across the border in Russia-dominated South Ossetia. Her sources are closely watching signs that Russian military exercises are imminent. Similar activity triggered the Russia-Georgia war of 2008.
- A leading U.S. international broadcasting scholar, Kim Andrew Elliott, recently commented on the value of accurate, objective, reliable reporting from datelines around the world. “Well informed publics,” he said, “make it more difficult for dictators, terrorists and other international miscreants to commit mischief… by giving audiences the information they need to form their own political opinions.” He added that this benefits not only the listeners, but the United States as well.
- And some years ago, a listener in Haiti, Pierre R.P., summed it up: “The Creole program of the Voice of America is like an “IV” that gives us hope. It’s like a light in a dark tunnel. Even where there is nothing but lies, the truth shines. The Voice of America is like a light that can put out all darkness.” There’s no better testament to public diplomacy than that.
Timely, value added, in-depth reportage on transistor radios, on video screens and via Facebook, Twitter and other social media --- these along with solid content will redeem the risks VOA’s frontline journalists face each and every day. Managed wisely with sufficient resources to do the job, they will remain the Voice’s strong suit --- Murrow’s successors in the digital age, centurions of truth.