BBG Watch Editorial
Voice of America bashing Israel and Netanyahu
A column on U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) English News, voanews.com, website bashes Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without any counterpoint challenge or any adequate explanation as to whom the writer represents, her employment status with VOA or whether U.S. taxpayers are paying for such content. The VOA column accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “eagerness to milk the Paris tragedy,” calling it “unseemly.”
There is no disclaimer of any kind on the Voice of America website that these are only the writer’s subjective, value-laden personal views. The lack of such a disclaimer or even a clear “personal opinion” label (non-native English speakers may not know various meanings of the word “column”) may easily lead many foreign audiences to believe that the author is speaking with some authority on behalf of the Voice of America, the Obama Administration and Americans in general.
The writer, who is identified as Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East, made a number of value judgements designed to influence the thinking of foreign audiences. She got her anti-Iraeli views distributed worldwide at U.S. taxpayers’ expense in a column posted on the Voice of America website:
BARBARA SLAVIN ON VOICE OF AMERICA: “Another government that was quick to express support for France was that of Israel. While Israelis have certainly suffered grievously from terrorist attacks, there was something unseemly about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to milk the Paris tragedy to try to boost European support for Israel and encourage European emigration to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu suggested an equivalence between France and Israel that does not exist, given Israel’s nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank and continued control over Gaza, where a war last summer killed a disproportionately large number of Palestinian civilians.”
Like most Americans, we see nothing sinister or hypocritical in Prime Minister Netanyahu paying respects to the families of the victims of Paris terrorist attacks. VOA certainly did not reflect our views in Ms. Slavin’s column. Israel is a democracy. Many of the other counties Ms. Slavin lumps together with Israel are not. We saw her criticism of persecution of journalists in some of those countries simply as an excuse for her anti-Israeli rant.
Ms. Slavin also wrote this in her column on the Voice of America website:
BARBARA SLAVIN ON VOICE OF AMERICA: “The U.S. invasion of Iraq, the egregious behavior of some Americans at the Abu Ghraib prison, the war in Syria and the public diplomacy debacle of detentions at Guantanamo Bay will continue to provide pretexts for other young Muslims and converts to Islam to embrace jihadist ideology.”
Was it courage on the part of Voice of America executives to give an open platform to a controversial writer trying to find “pretexts” for terrorist acts in which innocent people are killed and who also has a point of view highly hostile toward Israel?
Not really, in our view. We would applaud them if they also had the courage to post highly controversial opinions for the other side and refrain from practicing censorship of Voice of America news. There was nothing in the Voice of America column about the widely reported controversy over President Obama’s absence in Paris while Prime Minister Netanyahu was criticized for being there by the author.
VOA executives, who are U.S. federal government officials, have not arranged, as far as our search revealed, for posting a column praising Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu. We could not find on the VOA website an exclusive column by any neo-conservative American bashing President Obama’s policy towards Israel.
Charlie Hebdo Cover Cartoon
This has nothing to do directly with Ms. Slavin or her column, but Voice of America executives told VOA journalists Tuesday that “VOA websites serving predominately Muslim audiences should not include the image [of the cover of the next edition of Charlie Hebdo] on their websites.” They also announced to the staff that “VOA will NOT air on television the cover of the next edition of Charlie Hebdo.”
Other than declaring it banned outright in the Muslim world and on VOA TV and video, senior management told Voice of America journalists that “VOA websites may carefully and sparingly use the photo of the cover.”
It’s also ironic that VOA director David Ensor while lampooning our watch dog website during a supposedly humorous skit at a recent holiday party for VOA employees at the government building in Washington did not think twice about also making fun of the American religious magazine, The Watchtower, which is published by Jehovah’s Witnesses religious movement.
VOA MANAGEMENT: The actual photo, embedded as an infographic in the page, will be on an all-black background with white text saying “WARNING: This image may offend some viewers. Please click if you wish to see it.” The caption of the embedded photo should read “Cover of latest Charlie Hebdo edition.”
“VOA websites that wish to use the story and the image MUST adhere to the above conditions for the English site.”
“They’re [VOA executives] sure not going to get nominated for any ‘courage in journalism’ awards,” one inside observer noted.
It’s OK for VOA executives to allow posting of articles bashing Israel to be seen by the whole world, but few Voice of America audiences will be allowed by VOA management to see a cartoon making fun of terrorists. We found the cartoon far less offensive — in fact, remarkably non-offensive even though it showed prophet Muhammad — than the strident anti-Israeli comments from Ms. Slavin.
Charlie Hebdo magazine image is clearly in the news. VOA Charter mandates presenting accurate and balanced news. Not showing the cartoon in video and on TV, banning it for audiences in Muslim countries, is a form of press censorship. It misleads foreign audiences about how most Americans and most American media outlets respond to and handle such news. Washington Post carried new Charlie Hebdo cover depicting prophet Muhammad. The Wall Street Journal posted the image. The Boston Globe posted the cartoon. The New York Times did not, but it provided an outside link and was honest about its longstanding guidelines. Outside France and the U.S., Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine, Corriere della Sera in Italy and the UK’s Guardian are among publications to show the cartoon. Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) is showing the new front page of Charlie Hebdo. BBC is not. Russia’s RT also does not seem to have it.
Very few outlets in the Middle East and North Africa have shown the image.
We are quite certain that the vast majority of Americans would not find the cartoon offensive at all and would not stand for this kind of censorship by taxpayer-supported VOA. We also could not find the Charlie Hebdo cartoon posted in a news report on the Alhurra TV Arabic website managed by the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), a non-federal, grantee U.S. media outlet for the Arab world, which like VOA also reports to the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
It is possible that VOA executives got their marching orders from somebody else. If they did, they still did not have the courage to resist censorship.
Balance and Attribution
Just as news censorship by VOA management distorts the reality of international and U.S. news, Ms. Slavin’s poorly labeled and unchallenged columns on the VOA website also give the world a highly distorted view of the United States, U.S. policies and American society.
As journalists, we are not against reporting on and exploring highly controversial issues. We are all for it if it is done right to give foreign audiences a realistic view of America. We insist, however, on VOA adhering to its Charter. It calls for balance, a clear distinction between facts and opinions, as well as a statement of attribution and affiliation of any reporter, newsmaker or opinion writer, especially when highly controversial views are presented.
We believe the VOA Charter also requires an overall balance in VOA content when opinions on a given issue are more or less evenly or even unevenly divided. If opinions represent a small minority of views in the United States, VOA has a journalistic duty to alert foreign audiences to this fact.
If VOA is going to post columns bashing Israel and Prime Minister Netamyahu, it should also post a column defending Israel and its democratically elected leader. This should be in addition to any balanced news reporting. VOA should also explain more clearly why only Ms. Slavin, who has a particular personal view on Middle East issues, can have her own columns dealing with Iran on the main VOA English news website, but apparently nobody else can. That’s all we ask.
To further confuse international audiences, the image next to the bio says “Barbara Slavin Reports.” Is she a VOA reporter or an independent paid or unpaid commentator? We really don’t know. Some of her articles on the VOA website are not even labeled as columns. According to senior VOA staff domestic and foreign correspondents, the column label appeared only after they protested to the upper management that the presentation of her personal views was highly misleading to foreign audiences and violated the VOA Charter.
We would prefer if the Voice of America would offer news consumers in foreign countries opinions of American experts and newsmakers with wide name recognition and some political influence in the United States or abroad. But we don’t object to VOA using Ms. Slavin as a commentator with a particularly strong point of view in programs presenting various and contrasting opinions, in which her views can be challenged by VOA reporters and other commentators and described as marginal if they are marginal in the American political context, which we believe some of them are. We are all for dealing with a controversy in a vigorous online, radio or TV discussion in which different viewpoints are offered, but at the same time can be also easily compared, evaluated and challenged.
Should Voice of America have only one columnist on Iran?
As things stand now, international audiences are getting from Voice of America only one columnist and only one highly subjective viewpoint on issues dealing with Iran and Israel. Readers frequently have time to read only one webpage.
In November 2014 alone, we found four columns on the VOA English website by Ms. Slavin dealing with Iran and U.S. policy toward Iran, and not a single one on the site by anybody else discussing Iran. That looks to us like an exclusive platform for Ms. Slavin–an opinion monopoly on Iran for her on the Voice of America main English news website. Why should one individual in the entire United States be the author of all or nearly all the columns dealing with Iran on the VOA site?
There has been a Ms. Slavin column on the Voice of America website about nearly every issue in U.S.-Iranian relations that has come up in the news in the last several months. Is there no one else in America who can write an opinion piece for VOA about Iran and perhaps offer a different perspective?
How about putting several columns by different authors together on one “Opinion” page (it currently does not exist except for official VOA Editorials) that is clearly described as presenting personal views of newsmakers and experts who agree or disagree with each other?
Why not also allow VOA staff journalists to analyze and question these views next to these columns, including Ms. Slavin’s? It is not really clear from Ms. Slavin’s bio on the VOA website whom she represents: the Voice of America, the U.S. Government, Americans in general, some Americans or only herself? VOA does not say that “this opinion article was written by an independent writer and opinions and views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of the Voice of America or the U.S. Government, or the majority of Americans.”
In a recent VOA column, “Column: Cuba Shift Could Help Break Iran Deadlock,” Ms. Slavin argued for a rapprochement between the United States and the Iranian regime and cheered President Obama’s executive actions vis-à-vis Cuba. Some VOA correspondents have covered strong congressional criticism of President Obama’s new Cuba policy. Their reports can be found elsewhere on the VOA website if someone decides to search for them (they did not appear as related articles next to Ms. Slavin’s commentary), but only Ms. Slavin got to comment on the new Obama Administration Cuba policy at length in her own column offering her one-sided view which was not open to any challenge.
If VOA executives still want to give Ms. Slavin an exclusive platform for her personal views on Israel, which we believe most Americans do not share, and give her a near monopoly on punditry about Israel, Iran and Cuba on the Voice of America website, they should explain to VOA audiences, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and U.S. taxpayers why they are making this decision. We don’t think they can do this once they read the VOA Charter and comprehend what this U.S. law means and what it intended to achieve.
We fully agree with and applaud this U.S. reader who posted a comment under Ms. Slavin’s article.
John from: Georgia
January 13, 2015 01:57
“Excuse me for asking this, but when something appears as a ‘column’ on VOA, does it mean the reader should assume this is in whole or in part the opinion of the United States government, which my taxes go to support? I don’t see any sort of disclaimer noting that this is the opinion of this writer. Pretty shoddy of VOA to put stuff like this up on its site. VOA has some really questionable practices these days.”
Several current and former Voice of America journalists contributed to this editorial.