BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Panel on Young Muslims

News reports, commentaries and press releases put out by U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) and its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG – $777 million FY 2017 Budget Request) are often lacking objectivity and balance, or at best are highly confusing for foreign audiences and those Americans who can read them online. Confusing VOA news reporting leaves an information gap which the Russian propaganda channel RT and other Kremlin controlled state media exploit by spreading disinformation.

Some VOA reports, which omit critical facts, can be outright dangerous and may put lives of American and foreigners at risk.

While VOA directors and BBG executives, past and present, continue to praise Voice of America terrorism coverage (one reporter even received a rare nod of approval from the White House which otherwise ignores the agency in statements on countering extremist propaganda), several experienced journalists and Russia experts, including former VOA English correspondents who have read one of the latest VOA reports, Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack,” have described it as “one of the most confusing” they have ever seen from VOA.

VOA writers and editors can say almost anything they want with such broad attributions as, “VOA sources in the Russian-speaking Muslim diaspora” and “a source inside the small North Caucasus Muslim diaspora in Turkey told VOA,” especially if there is no balancing information or countervailing viewpoints, as there often is not, or very little, in these VOA reports. If VOA director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara don’t pay close attention to such reporting and to attributions being used like this, there is no telling where things can go from here.

It is already bad enough, and as one former BBG member, American broadcaster and journalist Blanquita Cullum, observed about another VOA report on Islamist terrorism. A VOA video posted on social media and the VOA website after the Orlando terrorist attack was flawed and dangerous,” she said.

Spreading confusion, however, may be just one of the smaller problems with some of these VOA reports. A few of the other VOA reports on terrorism, including some of the most recent ones, have been disturbingly one-sided, lacking both balance and objectivity. Some have been speculative, heavily focused on terrorists rather than their victims, proposing false analogies, possibly creating sympathy for extremists, and repeating highly exaggerated and unchallenged claims of discrimination against Muslims in America which play into the narrative put out by ISIS and other terrorist groups. There are, of course, ugly incidents and false broad accusations against Muslims that should be condemned at every opportunity, but they are not reflective of the whole American society, as some VOA reporting seems to suggest or imply.

Other flawed Voice of America reporting on terrorism may have been behind the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Information and Culture’s unprecedented statement, posted March 10, 2016 on its official website which was highly critical of VOA. It referred to accusations in the Nigerian media that the VOA Hausa Service news coverage is skewed in favor of Boko Haram terrorists. The Nigerian government’s statement urged VOA to correct the perception of biased reporting. Rather than pay close attention, VOA officials called these charges “unsubstantiated,” while a BBG official called them pretty absurd.” We don’t think they were absurd at all.

There are many examples of one-sided VOA news reporting. In this January 2015 report, In Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, a Search for Justice and Closure,” on the Boston Marathon bomber’s trial, the Voice of America reported factually unsupported claims without any effective challenge, balance or context:

VOA: The trial portends renewed grief not only for the victims of the bombing. For the refugees of the Chechen wars and oppression, who came to the New England over the past two decades, settling in the United States was a chance for them to rebuild a semblance of peace and prosperity. The Boston Marathon bombings shattered that dream.
Upon reaching the United States, “for the first time in my life I felt that I, my kids, my family – that we are safe and happy here. I prayed for America every evening,” said Madina Khadzhimuradova, the Tsarnaev family friend.
“Now it is all gone. I am living in fear again, just like in the old times in Chechnya. We spoke about moving somewhere else, but where can we go? There is no place for Chechens on this Earth.”

The comment, left unchallenged and without any balance in a report heavily focused on the terrorist and his family and friends, made the United States look like a country where the Chechens are being hunted down. In reality, the vast majority of Americans would not be able to recognize a Chechen man or a Chechen woman standing in front of them and would have no desire, if they did knew they were Chechens, not to treat them with courtesy like any other law-abiding American or foreign resident. Of course, there are some bigoted Americans, and some media reports about Muslims, particularly from bloggers, are outright nasty, but the vast majority of Americans is opposed to such a behavior, a point rarely made in some VOA reports.

The Voice of America often fails to present America as it is, in accordance with the VOA Charter, when it focuses on a single story or a particular ethnic group and fails to exercise good editorial judgement. At the end of the Boston Marathon bomber’s trial, VOA went native to such an extent that it was almost openly rooting for no death penalty with its speculative reporting and ultimately wrong headline, Boston Marathon Bomber May End Up in ‘Alcatraz of Rockies’.”

While outlandish claims from interviewees and discussion panels may reflect deeply-held and sincere beliefs among some individuals in a particular ethnic community — it is not clear how many within an ethnic group feel the same way — one-sided, unchallenged statements, which most Americans would disagree with — keep reappearing in Voice of America reports and press releases even now under new VOA director Amanda Bennett with stunning regularity despite the VOA Charter‘s requirement that “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.” The VOA Journalistic Code also says that “VOA is alert to, and rejects, efforts by special interest groups, foreign or domestic, to use its broadcasts as a platform for their own views.”

To her credit, Ms. Bennett has put her foot down on biased election coverage of Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s campaigns by some VOA reporters by ordering them to undergo anti-bias training. She has to do much more.

As one observer has noted: “To put it more bluntly: Voice of America is manufacturing the fear issue. There is no evidence that I am aware of that supports this assertion: no survey data, no anecdotal evidence (which would be spotty at best), no reports of hate crimes targeting Chechen refugees. There may be instances where segments or individuals are being monitored by the FBI, but a blanket assertion regarding the community as a whole [‘I am living in fear again, just like in the old times in Chechnya.’] is not supported by/or in the story.”

To say in a VOA report that life of the Chechens in America is just as dangerous as it was in Chechnya and to leave it unchallenged is fairly ludicrous.

And yet, VOA’s own press release of June 29, 2016, Voice of America Hosts Panel on Young Muslims in America had more of similarly unchallenged claims:

VOA PRESS RELEASE: “When a Muslim does something like that [i.e., carryout a mass shooting like the recent attack in Orlando], it’s all over the media. But when a Westerner does the same thing, it doesn’t have the same impact,” said Morsal Mohamad, president of the Afghan Students Association at The George Washington University.
“A lot of these people who give a bad name to Islam don’t even come to the mosque,” said Mohamed Hussein, executive director of the Somali American Youth Foundation, who also appeared on the panel.

These claims repeated in a VOA press release and left unchallenged are not supported by facts. Some mass shootings in the U.S. committed by non-Muslims have received far more media attention than some of the terrorist attacks carried out by Muslims. Islamist terrorists are highly religious. A single group discussion panels can be misleading for a foreign audience and present a distorted view of America. In many cases, especially if not properly moderated, they will inevitably violate the VOA Charter.

VOA, however, has gone one step further. It seeks out and reports at length on statements from terrorists and their groups, also without providing sufficient balance, objective context, and critical information to allow audiences to make their own judgement.

The most recent example of such flawed coverage is the VOA report of July 2, 2016, Taliban Chief Warns Jihad Against US-led ‘Occupation’ to Continue.” VOA editors probably meant to write “threatens jihad,” rather than “warns jihad,” but that is the least of this report’s many problems.

The Taliban leader could not have asked for better publicity without anyone at the Voice of America doing much to counter his tirade against the United States and the Afghan government in this VOA report paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

We’re not saying that VOA should not have reported on the latest accusations and threats from the Taliban leader, but VOA should have done a much better job of reporting them objectively, comprehensively and with balance, as required by the VOA Charter. VOA provided absolutely no response from the Afghani government to the accusations made against it by the Taliban leader and only a short comment from a U.S. spokesman. It was unclear in the VOA report whether this comment was in response to the latest Taliban threats. Furthermore, as with VOA’s Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack,”, report, VOA’s Taliban Chief Warns Jihad Against US-led ‘Occupation’ to Continue.” report left many questions unanswered.

VOA should have clarified the mystery how it obtained the Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada’s statement and why it gave it such extensive billing without much balance or similarly extensive direct responses from U.S. and Afghan government officials.

Voice of America caption: A photo circulated by the Taliban of new leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada. VOA did not say how it obtained the photo.
Voice of America caption: A photo circulated by the Taliban of new leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada. VOA did not say how it obtained the photo.

The Voice of America also posted what it calls a “courtesy photo” of the new Taliban leader. The caption under the VOA-posted photo says: “A photo circulated by the Taliban of new leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada.” Perhaps VOA could explain how it obtained the photo and the statement. Was the Taliban leader’s statement emailed to VOA and repeated almost word for word? VOA has done that before.

We can assure current VOA and BBG executives, editors and reporters that during World War II VOA did not seek out and and did not report extensively on statements from the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels or used his recordings. As far as we know, he did not send telegrams with his comments to VOA in the hope of having them read almost word for word. Later, during the Cold War, VOA was seeking out East European and Soviet human rights activists and dissidents for interviews, not communist regime spokesmen. VOA reported on some of the statements made by communist officials, when they were newsworthy, but it did so always in conformity with the VOA Charter and tried to counter their lies and distortions with facts.

Commenting on the confusing VOA report, Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack report, one former senior VOA journalist said: “it comes across to me as the Voice of America aiming to stir controversy with the GITMO angle and wanting to appear as if the story is some Earth-shaking special. I’m sure BBG will include it in the weekly highlights as some major journalistic accomplishment.” In reality, the VOA report answers very few questions and raises and leaves many more unanswered.

Here are some quotes from the VOA report that call out for more explanation:

VOA: Airat Vakhitov, a k a Salman Bulgarsky, is actively involved in social media campaigns that are often described as aid groups for the Syrian people, who are suffering in the cross hairs of the Bashar al-Assad regime and IS. However, his social network activities are systematically limited by the network’s security, forcing him to frequently change his Facebook and Twitter nicknames and open new accounts.

“…social media campaigns that are often described [sic] as aid groups for the Syrian people…” Who describes social media campaigns as “aid groups for the Syrian people”? What do these campaigns consist of? Who ultimately runs them? Why are Facebook and Twitter shutting them down?

VOA: “Salman Sever, spokesman for the Association of the Russian-Speaking Mujahidin in Turkey, which also goes by the name Union of Honor (Soyuz Chesti) and to which Vakhitov belongs, confirmed Vakhitov’s arrest in an interview with VOA via Skype.”

What is the Association of the Russian-Speaking Mujahidin in Turkey? Are these “Mujahidin” from the Soviet-Afghan war? When was the group founded and by whom? Who funds it? Who controls it. The big unanswered question: is the organization operating legally or illegally in Turkey?

VOA: “However, in 2005 — a year after his release — Vakhitov was arrested by the special operations group of the Russian Federal Security Service, then was released without charges after almost two months in detention.”

This is an interesting piece of information. “Once freed, Vakhitov left Russia and received asylum in the Middle East, renouncing his Russian citizenship. Information on his country of citizenship is not publicly available,” VOA reports next. “According to VOA sources in the Russian-speaking Muslim diaspora, Vakhidov lived in Istanbul in recent years, but frequently traveled,” we read further in the VOA report.

The obvious unanswered question is who is he working for now and who has been funding his travels and his activities?

VOA: According to VOA sources in the Russian-speaking Muslim diaspora, Vakhidov lived in Istanbul in recent years, but frequently traveled.

Did the “sources” say where he traveled? Did he go back to Russia at any time? Shouldn’t VOA have asked the Turkish government for information before posting this report?

VOA: On Tuesday, the Kremlin-appointed head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, posted on his Instagram account the names of 13 Chechens, demanding their extradition from Turkey. Kadyrov calls them terrorists.

Was there a response from the Turkish government? Did VOA try to find out? This VOA report may leave an impression that perhaps Turkey is shielding Chechen terrorists.

VOA: For the last decade, Turkey has become a place of asylum for the rising number of Russia’s Muslim immigrants who escape Russia to seek refuge in a “less hostile” country, the International Crisis Group reports.
ICG estimates the Russian-speaking Muslim diaspora in Turkey at around 7,000 people. Some of them are experienced in fighting against Russian forces in the ongoing conflict in the North Caucasus region.

These two suggestions next to each other may suggest that Turkey is offering a safe haven for Russian Muslims who are now “fighting against Russian forces in the ongoing conflict in the North Caucasus region.” Is that indeed the case?

VOA:Vakhitov later spoke about Guantanamo in a series of YouTube videos, in which he discussed the “American torture” in a mocking tones, comparing the methods with those used by Russian security. In one video, Vakhitov said the Americans tortured him and other detainees with “temptation,” sending “exceptionally beautiful women” as interrogators. In the video, he said Russian torture is more physical and rough.

Has VOA tried to obtain a response from U.S. military officials or any other U.S. government officials about Vakhitov? What do the U.S. authorities have to say about him? Isn’t VOA supposed to be the authoritative source of U.S. official and non-government news?

This confusing, incomplete Voice of America report is very similar to VOA’s earlier haphazard coverage of the Boston Marathon bomber’s trial which received high praise from Voice of America and Broadcasting Board of Governors executives and was mentioned in BBG and VOA press releases. A former VOA senior journalist who described it as “one of the most confusing” ever seen from VOA may also be right in speculating that VOA and BBG executives “will include this report in the weekly highlights as some major journalistic accomplishment.”

We can only say that in our view, BBC, DW, mainstream U.S. news media outlets, or Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) before it fell under the mismanagement of the BBG, would not have posted such a news report without much more research, more information, more comments from additional sources, better writing, and far more editorial scrutiny and editing.