BBG Watch Commentary



Shirin Nariman @ShirinNariman who has posted a video apparently showing longtime Voice of America (VOA) contract commentator and program moderator Barbara Slavin and criticized her behavior, describes herself as a human rights activist, women rights defender, writer, former political prisoner in Khomeini’s era, who is “eager to see a Free Iran.” Nariman and many other Iranians living in the United States have been highly critical of VOA’s most frequent commentator’s on Iran issues of many years apparent use of the obscene finger gesture toward anti-Iran regime demonstrators in New York who were protesting the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister. “This is @barbaraslavin1 showing her fingers 2us. How professional!!,” Nariman tweeted.

After reports by Adam Kredo in the Washington Free Beacon and others about being caught giving anti-Iran regime demonstrators the finger earlier this week and calling them terrorists, Barbara Slavin @barbaraslavin1, Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, Washington correspondent for Al Monitor, and privileged commentator and program moderator for U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) hosted VOA broadcast of “Issues in the News” on July 21, 2017, which included a segment on recertification of Iran’s nuclear deal with the United States. Voice of America director Amanda Bennett, her boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing, and members of the oversight BBG Board — all of whom had been made aware of the incident — don’t seem to be concerned enough about the behavior of a well-connected Washington journalist to stop Barbara Slavin from moderating a VOA program dealing with Iran after such an incident. But when frontline VOA staff journalists, such as those working for VOA foreign language services are even suspected of professional violations, the Obama era appointed managers still in charge of the agency many months into President Trump’s administration and not yet replaced, immediately put VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters on administrative leave and launched an investigation. Such double standards and frequent violations of the VOA Charter have caused employee morale at the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors to be at all time low compared to other federal agencies.


Adam Kredo @Kredo0, a reporter for the Washington Free Beacon, picked up on earlier reports that “Barbara Slavin, an Al Monitor columnist and longtime Atlantic Council member viewed as sympathetic to the Iranian regime, appeared to flip off protestors earlier this week outside of a Council for Foreign Relations event featuring Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a chief architect of the landmark nuclear agreement.”

“Slavin was reportedly leaving the Zarif event when she came across a delegation of protestors opposed to Iran’s Islamic hardline regime. Slavin can be seen smiling while she raises two middle fingers in the protestors’ direction,” the Washington Free Beacon article says.

SEE: PHOTO: Pro-Iran Reporter Caught Flipping Off Iranian Dissident Protestors, Adam Kredo, The Washington Free Beacon, July 19, 2017.


Two days after the incident, Barbara Slavin apologized for her behavior in a tweet, but not for saying that anti-Iran regime demonstrators were representatives of a terrorist organization and nuts: “I apologize for losing my temper when confronted by demonstrators July 17. It was beneath the standards of discourse we need at this time,” Slavin wrote in a tweet. In an earlier tweet, Slavin wrote: “I am sorry I lost my temper but these folks are nuts.”



In addition to her work at the Atlantic Council and at Al Monitor, Barbara Slavin has been a frequent commentator for the U.S. tax-funded Voice of America ($221 million in FY 2017), as well as a program moderator for VOA. Critics, including current and former Voice of America staff reporters pointed out that during the Obama administration, as well as now when VOA is still managed by Obama era appointees, VOA director Amanda Bennett, her deputy Sandy Sugawara, and Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John F. Lansing, Barbara Slavin’s mostly one-sided commentaries in support of the Iranian regime and President Obama’s polices were often not balanced with opposing views, and her exact role at VOA was never fully explained to the VOA audience or to American taxpayers. For many years during the Obama administration and into the Trump administration, Slavin seemed to have had a virtual monopoly for commentaries on VOA dealing with Iran.

Dan Robinson, a former White House senior VOA correspondent who also served as VOA bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent, wrote this commentary slightly more than a year ago about Barbara Slavin’s unique and largely unexplained role at VOA:

DAN ROBINSON: Indeed, it’s not known how many freelance writers are contracted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors which runs VOA to pen editorials. Taxpayers, who are of varying political philosophies, would certainly be interested in this information.
Also interesting are connections Slavin has with current and former VOA management.
The Atlantic Council, where Slavin is based, was also the landing place of former VOA director David Ensor. Ensor’s tour at VOA began in 2010, about the time VOA journalists began to voice concerns about how her commentaries were being labeled on VOA’s website.
The Atlantic Council website briefly cross-promoted Slavin’s June 7th piece on Donald Trump. The new VOA director, Amanda Bennett, remains connected with Ensor. Slavin and Bennett are Facebook “Friends” on one of Bennett’s two accounts.
Long before Bennett joined VOA, for some VOA reporters, it has been unseemly for VOA to be providing someone with a constant platform in this way.
As BBG Watch asserted in a March 2015 article focusing on one Slavin commentary criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

“VOA executives apparently have not thought through what allowing unchallenged personal opinion columns on its websites means for what foreign audiences may think about this U.S. publicly funded media organization and what members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers may think about its adherence to the requirements of the VOA Charter for balance and objectivity.”


SEE: “Another no rebuttal Voice of America column attacking Netanyahu,” BBG Watch, March 21, 2015


SEE MORE OF DAN ROBINSON’S OP-ED: ROBINSON OP-ED: Questions About Conflicts of Interest at the Voice of America, Dan Robinson, BBG Watch, June 15, 2016.


Voice of America’s senior management has punished VOA foreign language service journalists for far less than showing the finger and calling demonstrators against authoritarian regimes terrorists. Several weeks ago, Obama administration holdover VOA director Amanda Bennett placed five VOA Mandarin Service frontline journalists, including VOA Mandarin Service chief Dr. Sasha Gong, on administrative leave with pay, allegedly for not following journalistic standards in interviewing a whistleblower and critic of the Chinese communist regime, Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui. Dr. Gong and others deny accusations of any journalistic malpractice and counter with accusations of being unjustly treated by VOA’s senior leaders for trying to keep a promise to the VOA audience in China to deliver a whistleblower’s revelations of corruption and spying in the U.S. by Chinese communist officials. The Washington Free Beacon reported earlier that “Congress is preparing to ask the State Department inspector general to conduct an investigation into the Voice of America and whether it was pressured by China to halt a live broadcast of an exiled Chinese businessman.” Reports of obscene Facebook posts by VOA English Newsroom staff reporters on their personal Facebook pages and their continued obscene references to President Trump in interactions with their VOA colleagues while at work also have not resulted in any reported administrative punishments.

Even though Bennett and her boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing, both Obama administration holdovers, were made aware of Slavin’s gesture toward the anti-Iran regime demonstrators, her contract with VOA seems to continue. Several days after the July 17 incident, Barbara Slavin moderated the VOA program “Issues in the News, which was posted online on July 21, 2017.”



Political activist, journalist and commentator Kenneth Timmerman, who is a frequent critic of the Voice of America’s Persian News Network (PNN), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) programs to Iran under Radio Farda, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ management of these entities, alluded in his criticism of Barbara Slavin to her work for VOA.



Other critics also tweeted about the Barbara Slavin incident, while one said “kudos for that barbara“:



Most other tweets and retweets were, however, not supportive of Barbara Slavin’s behavior.




M. Hanif Jazayeri @HanifJazayeri, a newswriter and human rights activist for a #FreeIran, tweeted:




Protesters against the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in New York did not appear to be terrorists. They were Iranians others living in the United States exercising their constitutional right of free expression. As stated on the BBG’s official website, “the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. The agency’s mission is reinforced by those of the individual broadcasters that are overseen by the BBG.” Unfortunately, those in charge of the BBG have not been enforcing journalistic standards that would make the agency advance its mission. As then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had observed already in 2013, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is “practically defunct.” Many members of Congress of both parties seem to agree.




In an indirect reference to U.S. public diplomacy, other critics have called the Barbara Slavin incident “middle finger diplomacy.”



Additional criticism of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Voice of America #VOA, Persian News Network, and Barbara Slavin can be found under the hashtag #ReformBBG.

In an earlier commentary, “Idea of Balance on Voice of America: A Double Attack on Trump Multiplied” (February 15, 2017), BBG Watch observed:

BBG WATCH COMMENTARY: We strongly believe in the Voice of America fully reporting on any political scandals, such as the current Putin/Russia/Flynn story, or any conflict of interest in any U.S. administration, including the current Trump administration. But when it comes to personal commentaries presented by VOA, Ms. Slavin has a particular point of view, shared by many but clearly not all Americans. We respect her views and the views of others who disagree with President Trump. We don’t deny her the right to express her strong opinions against Mr. Trump and the Trump administration, including in VOA programs, as long as they are properly labeled and presented with other views in accordance with the VOA Charter.
One could question, however, why the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America, as a general practice, should choose some individuals over others — none of them particularly very well known or influential in the United States — to have personal commentaries on the VOA website, whether they are in support or in opposition to any current U.S. administration.
But under any circumstances, the rules of good journalism, the VOA Charter, the VOA Journalistic Code, and the VOA Conflict of Interest Policy must apply. In our view, as a general proposition, personal commentaries do not belong in VOA program content unless they are presented in the same venue, at the same time, with at at least two or better yet four and more other such commentaries expressing a variety of views on any controversial topic. Even then, the use of specially-commissioned personal commentaries by a U.S. taxpayer-funded agency, in our opinion, is highly questionable.
While the VOA “U.S. Opinion & Commentary Page” includes quotes from both conservative and liberal U.S. media, which are more or less updated from time to time [that’s no longer the case], only Ms. Slavin seems to have quite the unique honor to be able to pen personal commentaries for the Voice of America on a regular and overwhelmingly abundant basis.

As of today, July 22, 2017, Barbara Slavin has a special bio page on the Voice of America website with a long list of her programs produced for VOA from 2013 to 2015.

A list of Barbara Slavin’s multiple commentaries for VOA since 2015, the last one dated March 6, 2017, “Trump Travel Ban 2.0: Still Harmful and Unnecessary,” and none of them balanced on the same VOA page with opposing views, can be seen on this VOA page.