Why Voice of America Should Not Have Ignored Religious Freedom Message from President Obama to Orthodox Christians in Egypt

BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of AmericaTuesday, January 7, BBG Watch reported that the English-language website of the Voice of America (VOA), a U.S. taxpayer-funded news organization charged by Congress with informing the world about international and American news and US policies, failed to post any news about Orthodox Christmas Eve and Christmas celebrations in the United States and abroad on Monday and Tuesday.

Orthodox Christmas – ignored by Voice of America English News, noted by some VOA language services, BBC, RFE/RL, BBG Watch, Jan. 7, 2014. (RT – Russia Today – also reported extensively on orthodox Christmas celebrations.)

Today, January 8, BBG Watch reported that the Voice of America has also failed to report to the world about President Obama’s religious freedom message on the celebration of Coptic Christmas. The statement issued on January 7 included wishes for a joyous Christmas to Coptic Orthodox Christians in the United States and around the world from President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama.

Voice of America fails to report on President Obama’s Statement on Coptic Christmas, BBG Watch, Jan. 8, 2014.

Here are our 10 reasons why the Voice of America should not have ignored this statement from President Obama and should have reported on Orthodox Christian celebrations in the United States and around the world, especially his message to Coptic Christians in Egypt.

1. Connection with Current News Events

It was more than a routine White House statement since it included a reference to ongoing news events, specifically violence against Christians and members of other religious groups in Egypt and around the world. Coptic Christian churches in Egypt were attacked and burned in recent months and a number of Christians were killed in these attacks.

Orthodox Christians are the majority in Ukraine were pro-freedom Christmas demonstrations took place. The Patriarch of Constantinople issued a special message to the people of Ukraine.

Russia, a country with the largest number of Orthodox Christians experienced a few days ago two deadly terrorist attacks. The Patriarch of Russia made reference to them in his Christmas message.

Persecution of Christians, including Orthodox Christians, has been in the news in recent weeks and days.

The VOA Charter (Public Law 94-350) says: “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”

2. Lack of Religious Freedom in Countries Served by Voice of America

Had Voice of America News reported on President Obama’s Orthodox Christmas and religious freedom message, it could have been reported in 45 languages used by VOA. In many of the countries to which VOA directs its news programs, including Iran and China, various religious groups are persecuted, with new acts of violence and new restrictions on religious freedom reported almost every day..

3. Voice of America Required by Law to Both Report News and Explain U.S. Policy

The VOA Charter, which is public law in the United States, requires VOA not only to report news but also to report on U.S. policies. A statement on religious freedom from the President of the United States, in which he specifically mentions one country — Egypt — and refers in general to other countries where there is religious persecution, qualifies for news reporting under the VOA Charter.

The VOA Charter (Public Law 94-350) says: “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”

4. Media in US and Abroad Could Have Picked Up A VOA News Report on Religious Freedom Had It Been Posted

Had VOA reported on President Obama’s Orthodox Christmas and religious freedom message, media in other countries, including Egypt where Christians are still threatened, could have picked up a VOA report and spread it to a much larger audience.

5. Persecuted Minorities Find Encouragement in VOA Reporting on U.S. Statements in Their Defense

U.S. Congress and American taxpayers expect that VOA news reporting will go beyond what commercial U.S. and international media report and the news will benefit some of the most oppressed and disadvantaged groups around the world.

6. Support for Perpetrators of Violence May Diminish Thanks to VOA Reporting

VOA reports on U.S. statements against religious violence may diminish public support for extremist groups. Such reporting may also generate local media interest in these issues.

7. Much of VOA’s Audience Consists of Persecuted Minority Groups

It is a good policy for any news organization to cater to the interests and needs of its audience.

BBC and RT (Russia Today) reported extensively on Orthodox Christmas and related issues.

8. Over 5 Million Orthodox Christians Live in The U.S.

Over 5 million Orthodox Christians live in the U.S. and pay taxes which pay for Voice of America programs. VOA reports from time to time on Muslim and other religious holidays.

Orthodox Christians in the U.S. and other religious and ethnic groups are deeply interested in religious freedom and violence in countries from they or their ancestors came from. They pay VOA’s bills.

The VOA Charter (Public Law 94-350) says: “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”

VOA British Royal Wedding FeastAmericans would much rather see and pay for VOA to post at least one report on President Obama’s message on the importance of religious freedom around the world and his Orthodox Christmas wishes than to see and pay for 27 separate VOA reports on the royal British wedding and five separate reports on the British royal baby christening, which the Voice of America had posted on its English website with dozens more on various VOA language websites under the current leadership of VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch and VOA Director David Ensor.

9. Administration and U.S. Congress Focus on Religious Freedom As Important Goal of U.S. Foreign Policy

The Voice of America is not required to be a mouthpiece for the Administration or the Congress or to actively engage in public diplomacy abroad on behalf of the United States, but it is required by law to report news as well as to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.”

VOA has not been doing this under its current leadership and has ignored and under-reported statements on major foreign policy issues from President Obama, Vice President Biden and Senator John McCain, a chief Republican Party spokesman on foreign policy, and ignored opinions of many other influential Americans.

This latest news reporting failure by the Voice of America is likely to raise concerns among members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. CSCE chairman, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and CSCE co-chairman, Congressman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), have been strong supporters of religious freedom issues.

In July 2011, CSCE held a hearing “Minority at Risk: Coptic Christians in Egypt,” which focused among other things on violent attacks targeting Coptic Christians and their churches and reports of disappearances, forced conversions and forced marriages of Coptic Christian women and girls in Egypt.

While critics charge that religious freedom does not appear to be a top priority foreign policy goal for the Obama Administration, it is still very important, especially for many members of Congress and certainly for VOA’s current and potential audiences. It was important enough for President Obama to issue his statement.

The U.S. State Department has the Office of International Religious Freedom with the mission of promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. The position of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom was created by the U.S. Congress the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. Suzan Johnson Cook had served as President Obama’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom until her resignation in October 2013.

Congress also created in IRFA the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Established as an independent, bipartisan, federal government entity, USCIRF monitors the status of freedom of religion or belief abroad and provides policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

In December 2013, USCIRF Commissioner Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser testified before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations and the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a hearing entitled “Human Rights Abuses in Egypt.”

VOA English News did not report on his testimony:

“Following President Morsi’s ouster from office on July 3, 2013, there was another increase in violent attacks against Copts and other Christians. Since August 14, the day the Egyptian military and security forces dispersed pro-Morsi protesters, violent religious extremists and thugs launched a coordinated and unprecedented series of attacks against churches throughout the country. In August, at least seven Copts were killed and more than 200 churches and other Christian religious structures, homes, and businesses assaulted. In October, four Copts were killed, including two sisters aged eight and 12, when gunmen on motorcycles opened fire at a wedding party outside a church near Cairo.
The inability to protect Copts and successfully prosecute those responsible for violence targeting the Coptic community continues to foster a climate of impunity, especially in Upper Egypt.” – USCIRF Commissioner Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser

State Department Fact Sheet says:

“The Obama Administration has prioritized integrating religious freedom and religion writ large into the U.S. Government’s broader foreign policy objectives. Specifically, the Department of State has emphasized freedom of religion and protection of religious minorities by: 1) encouraging accountability for religious-based violence and ensuring the protection of citizens and places of worship; 2) urging governments to adopt legal protections for religious freedom and minorities and to amend or rescind restrictive laws; and 3) promoting societal respect for religious freedom and diversity.”

10. If Voice of America Does Not Follow Its Charter, Congress May Stop Its Funding

David Ensor

David Ensor

Steve Redisch

Steve Redisch

If Voice of America executives David Ensor and Steve Redisch think that a VOA report on ancient Romans eating giraffe meat is more important than a report on President Obama’s statement on religious freedom and persecution of Christians and other religious groups, especially in the Middle East, they are threatening the future funding of this very important institution. Whatever they think, they allowed such news judgements to happen. The giraffe story was three to four days old and yet it was presented in the day’s top news lineup. These executives are ultimately responsible for the failure of the entire VOA news reporting system, dismal employee morale, and news mishaps too numerous to list, especially in the area of human rights, U.S. foreign policy, and general U.S. news.

The Voice of America has many talented journalists who are highly dedicated, have great ideas and want to work according to the VOA Charter. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should step in immediately and force personnel and management changes at the executive level to allow VOA to return to its former high journalistic standards.

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Voice of America did not report to the world on this religious freedom message from President Obama on the celebration of Coptic Christmas.

Voice of America did not report to the world on this religious freedom message from President Obama on the celebration of Coptic Christmas.

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