Different perspectives on U.S. help for Yazidi refugees in Iraq, Voice of America role

BBG Watch Commentary

Social MediaNBC News and Fox News provided remarkably different perspectives of the American Yazidi community views on what the Obama administration is doing or not doing to help the Yazidis and other ethnic and religious groups under attack by Islamist ISIS militants in Iraq.

Voice of America journalist Dakhil Shammo Elias, also identified as “a Yazidi activist” by NBC News, gave a somewhat optimistic assessment of the White House response in an interview with Meet the Press on August 15. He repeatedly stressed that the Obama administration is taking various steps to address the humanitarian crisis.

It is not unheard of, but rare, for VOA journalists with special area expertise to be consulted by the U.S. government, including the U.S. Congress, NGOs and academic institutions because of their special knowledge and to be interviewed by U.S. media or asked to speak in public to various community groups during times of international crises. The former VOA Albanian Service chief was often interviewed by U.S. media during the Balkan crisis, as were other VOA journalists with special area expertise.

The past Voice of America practice, however, was for VOA journalists to point out clearly at the beginning of an outside media interview that they are speaking for themselves and expressing their private views rather than representing or speaking on behalf of the Voice of America or the U.S. government.

It is also not unusual for VOA journalists to be active in various U.S. community organizations, although the past Voice of America practice was that they would not hold leadership roles in these organizations. Another past Voice of America practice was that they would not report on events in which they themselves participated in any role other than as reporters. This and other rules were meant to ensure that VOA news reports would be perceived always by audiences as accurate and objective. It is not clear whether all of these rules are still being consistently followed by VOA journalists under VOA’s current management, described by critics as dysfunctional.

Generally speaking, however, Voice of America journalists do not give up their 1st Amendment rights of free expression and free association, nor should they, just because they work for a news organization in which they are U.S. government employees or government contractors.

On the other side of the spectrum, however, a high-level VOA official and U.S. government employee of the U.S. taxpayer-funded agency charged with supporting media freedom tried unsuccessfully to get the UN to withhold a UN press accreditation for an independent American journalist Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press because of a private dispute with a VOA staffer.

VOA English News reported on August 13 that Dakhil Shammo Elias, a Washington-based journalist with VOA’s Kurdish Service, has been part of several small contingents of American Yazidis invited to meet in recent days with representatives of the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But in an interview with Fox News on August 19, Yazidi American community leader Elias Kasem expressed fears that not enough is being done by the Obama administration to save the Yazidis in Iraq from genocide. The tone and the presentation of the facts by in interviews on NBC News and Fox News are quite different, which is again not an unusual phenomenon in American media today.

A VOA English News report by Ayesha Tanzeem, posted on Aug. 13, provided a balanced look at the Yazidi American community views. VOA reported: “The demonstrators [in the U.S] chanted thanks to the U.S. for airstrikes against the militants, which began last weekend, and for air-drops of food, water and blankets to the refugees on Mount Sinjar.” “But they also chanted, ‘USA do more … Save minorities’,” VOA also reported. Despite working under the management described by critics as “defunct,” individual Voice of America journalists are still doing often a fine job of news reporting when they can manage to do it.

But sources told BBG Watch that the management of the Voice of America and the agency in charge of it, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), were themselves deficient in their initial lack of emergency response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, as they were and are still deficient in many other instances, including the Ukraine-Russia crisis.

Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) told the Broadcasting Board of Governors on August 13 that the management of the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) failed to provide the VOA Kurdish Service with leadership and resources to update its website, Facebook and Twitter pages while Kurdish-speaking refugees were fleeing for their lives.

Ann Noonan appealed to the BBG to take immediate steps to address “a breakdown of leadership, management and editorial controls at the Voice of America.”

Ann Noonan also noted that BBG and IBB officials, including the Board’s Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Radio Broadcasting headed by BBG Governor Matt Armstrong, wanted to end VOA Kurdish shortwave radio broadcasts even while the refugee crisis in Iraq was unfolding. Ultimately, shortwave VOA Kurdish radio broadcasts were not cut but other shortwave radio broadcasts to nations without free media or well-developed and unblocked Internet were cut or are still scheduled to be cut.

CUSIB supports BBG broadcasters and U.S. media outreach to nations without free press. Some of CUSIB members offer help to BBG Watch.

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MEDIA REPORTS

Yazidi Activist: People are Facing Genocide in Iraq – NBC NEWS – Aug. 15, 2014

MEET THE PRESS

Voice of America journalist and Yazidi activist Dakhil Shammo on the situation in Iraq between Yazidi faithful and ISIS militants.

Published August 15th 2014, 3:58 pm.

Yazidi activist angry over possible ‘genocide’ in Iraq – FOX NEWS – Aug. 19, 2014

Aug. 19, 2014 – 5:49 – Yazidi community leader Elias Kasem fears not enough is being done.

American Yazidis Seek US Help for Iraqi Peers – VOA NEWS – Aug. 13, 2014

Watch video by VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem

Ayesha Tanzeem

August 13, 2014 11:33 AM

Over the last week, the plight of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority has captured the world’s attention. Thousands of Yazidis fleeing violent Sunni militants called Islamic State have been stranded on a mountain in northeastern Iraq without food or water or shelter. The militants have overrun their homes, demanding that the Yazidi, Christians and others convert to Islam or die.

American Yazidis, seeking U.S. help for imperiled relatives and friends, have been expressing their concerns in demonstrations and in meetings with Obama administration officials.

Khalid Haider and dozens of other Kurds demonstrated outside the White House recently, waving signs calling for help to “Free Kurdistan” or “Prevent Genocide Against Kurds, Yezidis, Christians.”

VOA-Map-Iraq

Haider’s brother, with his wife and children, was among those stranded on Mount Sinjar for a week. He spoke by phone with a niece, Haider said. “She was saying, ‘I want you to come and help me. I want you to take me and hold me,’ because that is what I used to do and play with her. She’s trapped with the rest of the kids.”

The demonstrators chanted thanks to the U.S. for airstrikes against the militants, which began last weekend, and for air-drops of food, water and blankets to the refugees on Mount Sinjar.

But they also chanted, “USA do more … Save minorities.”

The U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes against the militants have opened a few narrow escape routes. Some 31,000 Iraqis – most from Mount Sinjar – already have walked or driven to safety in Iraq’s Kurdistan region via Syria, according to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

American Yazidis consulted

Dakhil Shammo Elias, a Washington-based journalist with VOA’s Kurdish service, has been part of several small contingents of American Yazidis invited to meet in recent days with representatives of the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Dakhil Shammo Elias

The American Yazidis came not only from the Washington area but from communities in Arizona, Nebraska and Texas, said Elias, a founder of the Kurdish Community Center D.C.

In the various meetings, “we asked for military action – air cover to attack [militants’] bases – and to deliver humanitarian assistance,” said Elias, who comes from the Iraqi town of Shehain, about 40 kilometers north of Mosul, near where militants have taken control of a critical dam.

Elias, 52, has been in the United States since 1998, after Iraq’s civil war forced him out of the country and into a U.N. refugee camp in Syria for four years. He has no immediate family left in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northeastern Iraq, but “we’re all brothers,” he said of the Yazidis.

Elias said Tuesday that his hometown had been evacuated, “but now after several days of U.S. airstrikes, people are returning – those who have no kids.”

Yazidis with children or other especially vulnerable people are keeping their distance, the journalist said. He and others in the American Yazidi delegations told administration officials that “we were getting reports that thousands of young girls and women are getting captured” by Islamic extremists and taken to a jail south of Mosul.

Elias said he and others have heard from multiple sources that “there was a market established to sell them in Tel Afar,” a town controlled by the Islamic State extremists.

Longer-term requests

Airstrikes and humanitarian aid constituted the American Yazidis’ urgent requests, Elias said. In the longer term, he said the various delegations asked the administration “to find a formula, a mechanism, so people can be protected by the United Nations, Americans or another power.”

Elias was part of a group that met Friday evening at the White House with Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser. Rhodes assured the American Yazidis that President Barack Obama was committed to helping them.

“What we understood is that he will not stop until our community is safe and protected,” Elias said. “We requested faster action.”

Elias said Sarah Sewall, undersecretary of state for human rights, told his American Yazidi delegation that the State Department would work with Turkey and other countries in the region to establish Iraqi refugee camps and provide material assistance.

He said he and other American Yazidi are in close contact with relatives and friends in Iraq, even those still on the mountainside. Some have been able to charge their cellphones in their cars; others have gotten fresh batteries air-dropped as part of British humanitarian aid.

Among “all the people I talked to, no one wants to come back even if it’s ‘safe,'” said Elias. Sources told him the Kurdish regional government’s peshmerga militia, praised as skilled and resolute fighters, simply left when Islamic State militants reached areas where Yazidis live.

Yazidis, Elias said, “don’t trust anyone anymore.”

US supplies light weapons

The administration acknowledged Monday that it has started providing light weapons to the peshmerga.

But the administration is hesitant about giving them heavier arms, said Justin Logan, director of foreign studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

It worries “about arming non-state groups inside of Iraq and the influence that could have on the viability of the central government that has already taken a beating in recent weeks,” Logan said, citing what he said was “long-standing” U.S. support for a united, centralized Iraq.

Many Kurds have demanded independence from Iraq; they’ve built a semi-autonomous region in the northeast, with Irbil as its seat of government.

Haider, one of the demonstrators at the White House, thinks Iraq has already fallen apart.

“Kurds are on one side, ISIS in the middle, Shia from the South,” he said. “And now who’s paying the price for it? Minorities like mine. People like the Christians.”

Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Pentagon spokespeople – all have repeatedly said the administration is constantly assessing the situation and adjusting its response.

Logan noted they’re all adamant about one thing: not putting American troops back on the ground in Iraq.

That’s viewed as “a slippery slope,” Logan said. “The idea [is] that once you get troops on the ground, there’s a greater probability that some of them could be injured or killed in the fighting and that that could lead to further entanglement, whereas the United States has pretty significant insulation from risks from the air.”

American NGO criticizes lack of Voice of America management support for VOA Kurdish Service – CUSIB’s ANN NOONAN: management meltdown at the Voice of America – BBG Watch – Aug. 15, 2014

Ann Noonan

Ann Noonan

Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent NGO, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), speaking as a member of the public at the BBG meeting in Washington on Wednesday, called for urgent management reforms at the Voice of America. She mentioned VOA English News failure to report on the House Foreign Affairs Committee testimony last week by a former Syrian Army photographer about evidence of killings and torture by the Syrian regime. A meeting Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes had with the former Syrian Army photographer who documented crimes in Syria was not reported by VOA English News.

Noonan also said that VOA English News had only one sentence on the meeting Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes had last week at the White House with members of the Iraqi Yezidi community to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in northern Iraq, particularly as it impacts the Yezidi community and other ethnic and religious minority groups, including Christians, Turkmen, and Shabak. [Update: It took VOA English News several days to issue a full-length report on the White House meeting.]

She also said that VOA was not updating its Kurdish Service website, Facebook and Twitter last week, sometimes for up to 11 hours, while tens of thousands of Kurdish speaking refugees were being pursued by the Islamic fighters, stranded without food on a mountain, and being supplied by the U.S. military in one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of recent years.

Noonan also said that it took VOA Kurdish Service a few hours to report last Saturday online on President Obama’s major statement on the humanitarian situation in Iraq — and when it did, it had only four short sentences.

“How could VOA and IBB management allow this to happen?,” CUSIB Executive Director Ann Noonan asked at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) open meeting attended (through a video link) by Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Ben Rhodes. Rick Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was at the meeting.

Ann Noonan also mentioned inaccurate Voice of America English News reporting on the UN report on casualties in eastern Ukraine that tended to boost the Kremlin’s dubious propaganda claims.

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STATEMENT BY COMMITTEE FOR U.S. INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ANN NOONAN

Link to BBG video on YouTube.

AUGUST 13, 2014

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I’d like to start by asking why the BBG’s legal department has still not complied with its requirement to provide the remaining pages for our FOIA request of September 19, 2013, which asked for copies of all of former IBB Director’s emails about a former BBG Governor. Can the Governors please let CUSIB know when these documents will be provided?

The Broadcasting Board of Governors should immediately do something about the management meltdown at the Voice of America.

How can VOA not update its Kurdish Service website, Facebook and Twitter for up to 11 hours while tens of thousands of Kurdish speaking refugees are being pursued by the Islamic fighters, stranded without food on a mountain, and being supplied by the U.S. military in one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of recent years?

How could VOA and IBB management allow this to happen?

Let me also point out that as late as two weeks ago, the agency’s bureaucracy talked about and wanted to cut ALL VOA Kurdish shortwave transmissions — the only link now to these refugees, without food and electricity, but perhaps some with battery operated radios.

VOA’s senior executives are not in touch with their language services and are not helping to guide them and provide them with resources at critical moments for international audiences and for the United States. It took VOA Kurdish Service a few hours to report Saturday online on President Obama’s major statement on the humanitarian situation in Iraq — and when it did, it had only four short sentences.

VOA English News had only one sentence on the meeting Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes had last week at the White House with members of the Iraqi Yezidi community to discuss the dire humanitarian situation in northern Iraq, particularly as it impacts the Yezidi community and other ethnic and religious minority groups, including Christians, Turkmen, and Shabak.

Every day, there are examples of VOA News failures, such as not reporting at all on the House Foreign Affairs Committee testimony last week by a former Syrian Army photographer about evidence of killings and torture by the Syrian regime. A meeting Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes had with the former Syrian Army photographer who documented crimes in Syria was not reported by VOA English News.

In another incident, VOA interrupted live radio transmission to Africa of President Obama’s major speech about Africa and failed to report on critical comments on U.S. Africa policy from key members of Congress, including Senator Menendez and Congressman Royce.

Just two days ago, VOA English News reported inaccurately on the UN report about casualties in eastern Ukraine and gave a boost to propaganda from the Russian government by its inaccurate reporting.

This is happening at VOA again and again. There is a breakdown of leadership, management and editorial controls at the Voice of America and the BBG must take immediate steps to address this situation.

Thank you.

VOA PRESS RELEASE

VOA Partners with NRT TV in Iraqi Kurdistan – VOA Public Relations – Aug. 8, 2014

VOA Kurdish Service broadcaster Dakhil Elias hosts the weekly TV show Kurd Connection, now airing on NRT-TV in Iraqi Kurdistan

VOA Kurdish Service broadcaster Dakhil Elias hosts the weekly TV show Kurd Connection, now airing on NRT-TV in Iraqi Kurdistan

August 08, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C.—

Voice of America’s Kurdish-language TV program is now airing on NRT TV, one of the most popular channels in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The VOA Kurdish Service’s first-ever TV affiliate, NRT TV, will broadcast its weekly program Kurd Connection on Sunday evenings, with a rebroadcast the following day.

VOA is also providing NRT TV with ad-hoc live coverage. A VOA Kurdish reporter appeared on NRT TV’s evening prime news hour Thursday for a 10-minute live Q & A, acting as the station’s “U.S. bureau,” providing Washington’s reaction to the latest developments in Iraq. The service provided another live cut-in Friday about the increasingly tense situation in Iraq.

“Our journalists are able to provide the U.S. perspective on the ongoing conflict in Iraq to an audience that is underserved by traditional media outlets,” said VOA Director David Ensor. “This new affiliate agreement allows us to better reach audiences on the platforms they prefer.”

VOA is the only government-funded international broadcaster with a Kurdish service, and reaches its audience on radio, television and the Internet.

In addition to the new TV affiliate, the Kurdish Service recently launched an enhanced digital strategy, nearly doubling traffic for both the Sorani and Kurmanji language sites this week . A social media push immediately following President Obama’s address Thursday has resulted in a spike in Web traffic and Facebook likes.

VOA Kurdish radio programs are broadcast by shortwave and AM, as well as on FM affiliates in several cities in Iraq, including Arbil, Sulaimania, Kirkuk, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra.

VOA Kurdish programs target more than 30 million Kurds living in the Middle East and Eurasia, and audience research indicates that the broadcasts are popular among listeners in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

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