Voice of America messaging for the Taliban is a result of poor leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and the lack of safety for VOA journalists who should have been evacuated from Afghanistan, says former VOA acting associate director and USAGM Watch co-founder Ted Lipien.

USAGM Watch Commentary

Voice of America Messaging for Taliban Endangers Afghan Women

By Ted (Tadeusz) Lipień

On August 17, 2021, the Voice of America (VOA) primary English-language news website, VOANews.com, showed at the very top a large photograph of several Taliban leaders and the following headline:

Taliban Vow to Respect Women’s Rights ‘Within Islamic Law’

The lead sentence in the report reads:

ISLAMABAD/KABUL – The Taliban vowed to respect women’s rights “within Islamic law” and form an “inclusive Islamic” government as the radical movement consolidates its hold over the war-torn country.

I was in charge of Voice of America broadcasting to Poland in the 1980s when the independent Solidarity trade union led the ultimately successful struggle for democracy against Soviet-supported Polish Communists.

After a long and rewarding career, I no longer work there, but the Voice of America is still a taxpayer-funded news operation for overseas audiences within the federal U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) which has an average annual budget of about $800 million.

The prominently displayed VOA headline is disturbing in many ways, both factually and visually, not only because its obvious falseness is not immediately or effectively challenged but also because it is dangerous for Afghan women by giving them a false hope for the rule of law and at least a limited security and job opportunities under the Taliban rule. VOA had on its website other reports from outside of Afghanistan which contradicted this message, albeit not very strongly, but the Taliban’s deceptive narrative received the top billing.

Perhaps, USAGM executives and VOA’s top managers and editors thought that they were offering some protection to VOA journalists in Afghanistan by giving the Taliban’s narrative a full and largely unquestioned display on the Voice of America website and in the VOA report. The amount of wishful thinking in the VOA report based largely on statements of Taliban leaders is truly astounding.

In my view, the senior leadership of the Voice of America and the U.S. Agency for Global Media should be blamed for keeping VOA reporters in Afghanistan instead of getting them out to safety days, if not weeks ago. They put these reporters in a dangerous situation in which they have very little choice but to repeat what the Taliban says while being prevented from presenting the whole truth by a very real concern about their own safety and trying to stay alive.

Those of us who had worked as journalists in countries ruled by violent extremists — whether they are Communists, Fascists or religious fanatics — know that most reporters cannot tell the whole truth when the guns are pointed at them. Telling the whole truth if you are inside a lawless country means prison, torture or death. If reporters still remain in these countries and try to do their jobs, what usually happens is that they will censor themselves and even become convinced that what they do is still good and useful journalism. They tend to look for and find fake “moderates” within the ruling elites and start messaging for the oppressors who in turn may allow them to stay depending on how much self-censorship they practice. Reporters working under these conditions tend to deceive themselves and their audiences. In a country like Afghanistan, it is extremely dangerous, both for them and for the Afghans, particularly the Afghan women.

I was deeply shocked and disappointed by the VOA headline and the VOA report. In my former role as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) [the former name of the U.S. Agency for Global Media] Eurasia Regional Marketing Director, I was in Kabul in 2002 to negotiate and sign the first agreement with the post-Taliban Afghan government to build FM and AM radio transmitters in Afghanistan with U.S. funding and to rebroadcast Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) radio and TV programs in English, Dari and Pashtu. This and some other VOA reports paint a dangerously naive picture of the current situation in Afghanistan. What is even worse is that it may convince some Afghans, including women, to make wrong decisions which could undermine their immediate safety and longterm wellbeing. The VOA report quoted without any effective challenge Taliban spokesman as saying that women “will be given all their rights within Sharia “the Islamic laws.” VOA also quoted him as saying that “if women work in line with Sharia they can work freely in media.”

I don’t particularly blame the journalists on the ground, who should have been ordered evacuated by the management in Washington when it was still possible to get them out of the country quickly and safely. I blame the senior USAGM leadership and senior VOA mangers who have failed to take these actions in a timely manner and now allow prominent displays of the Taliban’s propaganda and disinformation on the tax-funded Voice of America website for the whole world to see.

The rule of law message has always been a favorite one among Communist and Nazi propagandists. The leaders of the Taliban are no different. They cleverly used it and VOA fell for it and repeated it without much of a challenge. VOA reporters could have been already outside of Afghanistan at a safe location from where they could report without self-censorship, especially if they do not have any family members inside the country. They could broadcast under different names and use various means for getting information from Afghanistan without exposing themselves or their sources to undue risks.

During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which were and still are also funded by U.S. taxpayers and for which I also worked, could not get visas for their reporters to travel to communist block countries. Rather than making their job more difficult, the communist visa ban made these organizations more effective. RFE and RL reported without fear. There were sporadic assassinations of their reporters by communist agents, but these attacks only happened in the West and did not lead to self-censorship. When later in the Cold War some communist regimes realized that they could deceive their own populations and Western public opinion through the Voice of America, they gave a few short-term visas to VOA reporters, most of them native-born Americans who were only English-speakers. There was always a price to pay for being allowed to enter a communist country. Most VOA news reporters then would not self-censor; a few did to a limited degree. But I can say with full confidence that during my tenure at the Voice of America from 1973 to the fall of communism in East-Central Europe in the early 1990s, a headline reading, “Communists Vow to Respect Human Rights Within Communist Law,” would have no chance of being written.

Ted Lipien is a journalist, writer, and media freedom advocate. He was Voice of America’s Polish service chief during Poland’s struggle for democracy and VOA’s acting associate director. He also served briefly in 2020-2021 as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president.

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