BBG Watch Commentary
Even strong critics of Donald Trump among current and former Voice of America (VOA) journalists are appalled by one-sided VOA’s U.S. election campaign coverage, particularly of Trump, but also of other presidential candidates during the current 2016 run for the White House.
In what appears as a violation of its congressional charter (VOA Charter – Public Law 94-350), U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America has posted a one-sided report about Burmese Americans which is highly critical of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and full of emotionally-charged accusations against him but offers no response or balance. The VOA report quotes highly critical comments about Trump, comparing him to military dictators, while also quoting comments praising Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The VOA report does not include any statements or comments from any of Trump’s supporters among Burmese Americans or any other ethnic groups in the United States.
While Americans, including current and former VOA reporters, may disagree on Donald Trump and some may strongly dislike him, the Voice of America should not show such dislikes in its program content or engage in one-sided political reporting. VOA is in fact required by law to be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” A few VOA English service reporters and writers have been posting anti-Trump comments and memes, some of them highly offensive, on their personal Facebook pages. These personal pages, where some of them self-identify as Voice of America U.S. government employees, can be seen by anyone worldwide.
Many Americans have negative views about Mr. Trump, but there is no denial that millions have voted for him in the primaries and continue to support him. Some Americans also have strongly negative views about his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. In previous decades, the Voice of America followed strict policies to ensure that its coverage of U.S. politics remained neutral and objective. This is no longer the case
Since Voice of America reports, which lack balance, are now easily available on the Internet in the United States and are sometimes reposted by American ethnic press and social media sites, VOA is in the position to affect the election outcome through its biased reporting paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Hillary Clinton should be just as concerned as Donald Trump or as Bernie Sanders’ supporters were concerned earlier about VOA’s biased coverage. In 2013, as Secretary of State and ex officio BBG Board member, she herself called the Broadcasting Board of Governors “practically defunct.”
“The Voice of America apparently no longer follows its Charter, which is the Public Law” said one former VOA Russian Service broadcaster who is not a Trump supporter but is concerned about VOA’s effectiveness and reputation.
“Posting such one-sided, emotional, and unbalanced reports is dangerous,” the former multilingual VOA broadcaster added after reading the VOA report.
Chaos and confusion continue at the Voice of America under top leaders of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), VOA’s oversight federal agency, and VOA executives who lack substantive experience in government operations, intercultural communications, U.S. foreign policy, and public diplomacy. The agency executives were rebuked this year by BBG’s federal employees who in the annual Office of Personnel Management (OPM) all-government Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) gave BBG and VOA leaders even lower marks in leadership and engagement than in the previous year, placing the BBG at the bottom of federal agencies of similar size. A Washington Post columnist described the Broadcasting Board of Governors as “another regular bottom-feeder that oversees the Voice of America and other government broadcasters.” “BBG is going backward” the columnist added. “It scored two points better last year [in Engagement Index Trends]”
Contradicting her own earlier advice to VOA journalists when she urged them to avoid political bias in their reporting on the U.S. election campaign and even ordered anti-bias training, Voice of America director Amanda Bennett in an e-mail she sent to staff on July 8 hailed a Spanish Service video report, which in a clear violation of the VOA Charter, presented only one side of the highly controversial illegal immigration issue in the United States. The report included strong criticism of Donald Trump but offered no response or balance of any kind.
As in the latest VOA report about Burmese Americans, in the earlier report no one from the Trump camp was asked by VOA to respond to the charge from an illegal immigrant quoted as saying that Donald Trump’s immigration plan one of “hate and prejudice.” A few days later, VOA director Bennett marked the 40th anniversary of the VOA Charter with the statement that “The VOA Charter has never been more important than it is today.”
“The world needs a reliable and authoritative source of news and information, which is what the VOA Charter intends us to be. It also states that we are to represent all Americans, not just a single aspect of American society. We are tasked with telling the truth and to tell it from all sides. That’s free press; that’s fair press. That’s the Voice of America,” said VOA director Amanda Bennett.
During this campaign season, the Voice of America has been posting biased and one-sided reports as well about the other two major presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Shadowproof website columnist Dan Wright defending Bernie Sanders from one-sided attacks in Voice of America programs observed that “VOA does not have the right to advocate for a particular candidate or even to attack one. That is not within its Charter, nor should any US citizen have to subsidize their own defamation.”
In the latest VOA report, “For Burmese Americans, Homeland Experiences May Impact Election Decision,” Trump is described by a Burmese American voter as reminding her of “a military-style leader” in Burma. The VOA report further described these leaders as “clumsy and oppressive military dictators.”
The VOA report provides no response from Donald Trump or any of his supporters. It offers instead a strong endorsement of Hillary Clinton from a Burmese American college student from California. The VOA report added that as secretary of state Hillary Clinton “helped encourage political reforms in the Southeast Asian country.”
Donald Trump has been meeting with representatives of other, much larger ethnic communities in the United States, but VOA failed to report on some of these meetings. During these meetings Trump attempted to clarify some of his earlier controversial statements on emigration and on U.S. commitments to the NATO alliance and its European members.
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. 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.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
Gerald R. Ford
President of the United States of America
Signed July 12, 1976
Public Law 94-350
Voice of America
September 29, 2016 6:00 AM
SAN FRANCISCO — When Phyu Phyu Hlaing looks at Donald Trump, she sees more than just the man she won’t vote for in November. For the Burmese American mother of two, the Republican presidential nominee brings up painful memories from her distant past.
“Coming from a country like Burma, Donald Trump reminds me of a military-style leader,” says Hlaing, who left her homeland, also known as Myanmar, in 1983 and watched it deteriorate under the rule of clumsy and oppressive military dictators.[REUTERS PHOTO NOT SHOWN IN THIS REPOSTNG]
(VOA FILE CAPTION – U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a sign supporting his plan to build a wall between the United States and Mexico that he borrowed from a member of the audience at his campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, March 9)
“He just wants to get rich, and he’s out to clean house,” adds Hlaing, a stay-at-home mother of two, who is active in the Bay Area of California’s small, but vibrant, Burmese community.
Hlaing, a U.S. citizen, last year had to reassure her fourth-grade daughter after school friends said Trump was planning to kick immigrants out of the country. Though an over-simplification of Trump’s views, the event left her shaken.
“The stuff he says, the things he does, it actually makes me worry that I might have to move back to Burma one day,” Hlaing says with a nervous smile that suggests she is only half-joking.
Such animosity towards Trump is not uncommon among Burmese Americans, a relatively small but growing diaspora dominated by recent arrivals.
According to State Department data, nearly 160,000 refugees from Myanmar have resettled in the U.S. over the past 10 years. That represents over half of the estimated 300,000 total Burmese living in the U.S.
For many of those who have recently arrived, there are more important concerns than U.S. politics, such as learning English or putting food on the table.
Voting for Myanmar
But among those who have become citizens and plan to vote, many say their homeland will impact their decision.
“I think it would be very helpful to have an American president who really knows Burma,” says Htet Wint, a college student from Fremont, California.
Htet, like many Burmese, expresses warm feelings towards Trump’s opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state helped encourage political reforms in the Southeast Asian country.
Clinton made a landmark visit to Myanmar in 2011, meeting with longtime democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had just been released from house arrest and is now the country’s de facto leader.[AP Photo of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi – NOT SHOWN IN THIS REPOSTING]
(VOA Caption: Aung San Suu Kyi, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton react after speaking to the press at Suu Kyi’s residence in Rangoon, Burma, December 2, 2011.)
As the country’s generals gradually became more open to democracy, Clinton was one of the main proponents of reengaging with and lifting the sanctions against them.
Clinton has occasionally touted Myanmar’s progress as one of the crowning achievements from her time as secretary of state. In her 2014 memoir, she devotes an entire chapter to her diplomatic efforts there.
Though the country still faces severe human rights challenges and is far from a model democracy, conditions have vastly improved, and many Burmese attribute at least some of that success to Clinton.
“[Clinton] was very open to the fact that the Burmese government wanted to express change and open up society,” says Htet. “She did play a major role in that.”
An achievement for Clinton?
But while Myanmar is clearly a crucial part of Clinton’s legacy as secretary of state, is it really such a clear-cut foreign policy achievement?
The reality is more complicated than that, says veteran Myanmar expert Lex Rieffel, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“I have a serious problem attributing or giving credit to any single person, country, or factor in situations that are very, very complex,” Rieffel says.
While the Clinton and Obama strategy of reengagement had a positive effect, the ultimate credit belongs “to the people of Myanmar and to some extent the military, which allowed this transition to start,” he says.
In any case, Clinton’s diplomatic approach to Myanmar is unlikely to weigh heavily on the minds of very many U.S. voters come election day, in Rieffel’s estimation.
For Burmese Americans, though, it could be a different story, at least to the extent that anecdotal evidence matters. In interview after interview, Burmese Americans told VOA they approved of Clinton’s experience with Myanmar, and especially her relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi.
In reality, though, it’s hard to know exactly what percentage of Burmese Americans support Trump or Clinton, since there hasn’t been a poll measuring their political opinions. The closest is a study on civic participation conducted this year by the Burmese American Community Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Interestingly, the study’s authors concluded the U.S. Burmese community is actually conservative on social and other domestic issues. That’s partly because most Burmese in the U.S. were members of religious or other conservative ethnic minorities that were persecuted in their home country, it said.
“They are more in line with Republican ideology,” says Elaisa Vahnie, BACI’s executive director. “But now with Trump, it’s a very difficult situation for them.”