BBG Watch Commentary
A press release from the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) about the VOA-hosted panel on young American Muslims did not have a single reference to any direct condemnation of terrorism or religious fanaticism. Instead, the VOA press release included factual statements, some of which were untrue, and subjective opinions, which were both controversial and unsupported by facts. They tended to minimize the religious and cultural origins of fanatical terrorism in Muslim communities.
Some of the controversial statements and opinions from young American Muslims quoted in the VOA press release appeared to show equivalency between Islamist terrorist attacks and mass shootings committed by non-Muslims and to convince the public that the media focuses too much on Muslim terrorists and not enough on terrorists who are not Muslims.
“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,” the VOA press release quotes Morsal Mohamad, president of the Afghan Students Association at The George Washington University, as saying during the VOA-hosted panel.
This statement is not challenged in the VOA press release, even though a simple Google search shows that Adam Lansa, a non-Muslim mass shooter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in in Newtown, Connecticut, who in December 2012 killed 20 young children and six adults, has 63,600 Google search results in the news category, while Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim U.S. Army major sentenced to death for killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 others in the Fort Hood mass shooting in November 2009 in the name of jihad has only 16,500 Google search results in the news category, even though his terrorist act was three years earlier.
Another unchallenged statement in the VOA press release is attributed by VOA to Mohamed Hussein, executive director of the Somali American Youth Foundation, who also appeared on the panel.
He is quoted as saying that “A lot of these people who give a bad name to Islam don’t even come to the mosque.”
According to news reports and first-hand accounts, the vast majority of countless suicide bombings and other killings of innocent civilians are in fact carried out by devout Muslims, albeit fundamentalists and extremists. The vast majority of them seems to be highly motivated by religion according to their interpretation of Islam. Vidal Hasan regularly prayed at a mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The VOA press release did not present these facts or correct any of the misleading information presented in the press release. Judging by its press release, VOA failed to initiate a much needed discussion on challenging dangerous beliefs rooted in religion and culture. One can only conclude that the VOA press release on the Voice of America Panel on Young Muslims in America, because of the lack of substance and wrong information about the United States, would amount to disinformation if it is to be read abroad.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett and BBG CEO John Lansing heavily promoted the Young Muslims in America panel to the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) bipartisan board which is charged by legislation to provide direction and oversight for VOA and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media entities.
“We’ve heard from pundits, we’ve heard from experts, we’ve heard from political figures about what Muslim Millennials feel, think, need and want,” the press release quotes VOA Director Bennett as saying after the panel discussion. “Through this panel discussion with these Muslim Millennials themselves, we were able to understand the tensions they feel and the hopes they have,” Bennett added.
At the earlier BBG meeting, Bennett redefined the VOA mission by saying “I think is an equally important if not more important, that is becoming an authentic voice of America’s diaspora communities, both enabling us to link back effectively with the countries where these people have come here from, and also telling one of America’s most compelling stories, and that is the stories of the people who make up this country.”
While this additional definition of VOA’s mission does not necessarily violate the VOA Charter, the 1976 law passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Gerald Ford, a former VOA executive and manager of numerous VOA foreign language services expressed concern that VOA programs about diaspora communities require top-rate management at the service level as as well as at the senior levels to make sure they comply with the Charter. A program focused on a single ethnic community can be both risky and misleading if some of its members hold controversial views which are not being challenged.
Part 2 of the VOA Charter is quite clear that “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society [Emphasis added.], and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
Judging from the VOA press release, the VOA Panel on Young Muslims in America focused on only one group and included many controversial opinions and untrue statements which the VOA press release failed to refute. Foreign audiences were presented with a quite distorted and false view of American life.
A few days before the panel, the Voice of America posted a video to its English language website and Facebook poorly questioning what constitutes terrorism by Islamic extremists. Former BBG Governor Blanquita Cullum condemned the video as “flawed and dangerous.”
As did some of the participants of the VOA-hosted Panel on Young Muslims in America, the earlier VOA video also tried to draw an equivalency between numerous terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, with thousands of victims, and relatively rare terror attacks by non-Muslims in America.
Cullum noted that the VOA video failed to include the endless list of brutal attacks by Islamic extremists in Europe and the Middle East and the horrific conditions it imposes on populations in territory it controls. She provided a long list of such attacks. Herself a veteran broadcaster and journalist, Cullum warned that the death of freedom is caused by “compromised, flawed and politically correct journalists and journalistic entities who denigrate the truth based on political bias and not facts.”
Cullum asked: “Do VOA Director Amanda Bennett and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Lansing find this piece acceptable for a U.S. Government website funded by the American taxpayer?”
Judging, by the latest VOA press release, Bennett and Lansing, both of them new to their government jobs, could benefit from expert advice. Neither of them has prior experience in government service, public diplomacy, foreign affairs or managing journalists working for foreign language media.
On the basis of their personal and professional background, Lansing and Bennett also appear not to have much experience with ethnic communities in the United States. On this and other issues, they have not received good advice from the BBG and VOA staff. The panel was poorly organized and poorly managed. It will have a negative impact abroad for the United States and it will damage VOA’s reputation in America and abroad.
What Ms. Bennett should have done instead was to host a panel discussion with both young and older members of the Muslim community in America and a few distinguished outside experts. Such a panel would need a neutral moderator capable of correcting obvious errors and asking sharp questions. It appears that the panel held by VOA has done nothing but to provide a platform for gripes and excuses.
An inclusion of a couple of senior Muslim leaders and perhaps one or two American imams could have resulted in a program that would challenge much of the conventional thinking in many Arab and other Muslim countries. This kind of discussion could have had an impact, experts on the Middle East have told us, because of it would come across as being challenging, authoritative and comprehensive, which the VOA panel was not. We have seen a commentary by an Egyptian TV anchor woman who actually courageously refuted some of the strongly held but misguided opinions among the Egyptians on some of the same topics discussed superficially at the VOA-hosted panel. The views this brave young Egyptian journalist exposed as false were very similar to some of those which VOA has presented in its video and later during the Panel on Young Muslims in America.
We re-post below the VOA press release, the VOA Charter, and the VOA Journalistic Code. This portion of the VOA Journalistic Code is especially worth noting with regard to the VOA press release:
VOA JOURNALISTIC CODE: “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. This applies to all programs and program segments, including opinion or press roundups, programs discussing letters, listener comments, or call-in shows. In the case of call-ins, views of a single party must be challenged by the interviewer if alternative opinions are unrepresented.”
VOICE OF AMERICA PRESS RELEASE
Moderator Akmal Dawi (L) with panelists (from L to R) Oya Rose Aktas, Mohamed Hussein, Morsal Mohamad and Othman Altalib
What is it like to be a young Muslim in America?
“It definitely is a struggle — not only being a Muslim, not only being a Muslim American — being Somali, being black, being young — there’re a lot of identities that you have to reconcile,” said Mohamed Hussein of the Somali American Youth Foundation in Virginia, one of the panelists in a discussion broadcast by the Voice of America on Tuesday from the Newseum in Washington.
“Being Young and Muslim in America” was moderated by the VOA Afghanistan Service’s digital managing editor, Akmal Dawi in the wake of the carnage in Orlando that has left lingering questions about how young Muslims are assimilating into the American mainstream. “We’ve heard from pundits, we’ve heard from experts, we’ve heard from political figures about what Muslim Millennials feel, think, need and want,” said VOA Director Amanda Bennett. “Through this panel discussion with these Muslim Millennials themselves, we were able to understand the tensions they feel and the hopes they have.”
“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.
“I think that oftentimes people try to split it [i.e., the Muslim community] into moderate Muslims and conservative Muslims, but there is a lot of diversity past that. And I think that that’s one of the nuances that gets lost in discussions about Islam in the U.S.,” said Oya Rose Aktas, a recent college graduate of Turkish background living in Washington, D.C.
“I also think that focusing on cyber radicalization kind of loses sight of the bigger picture,” Aktas added. “You have to focus more on community groups; you need to focus more on human interactions; you need to focus more on making sure that people are living fulfilling, satisfying lives outside of the Internet.”
Othman Altalib, a board member at the ADAMS Center, one of the largest Muslim organizations in the United States, said that most U.S. Muslim groups have not been able to effectively counter the Islamic State’s appeal to disaffected youth. “Let’s get our youth involved in the community,” he said. “We should lead by example,” added Mohamad, citing the need for Millennial Muslims and Muslim leaders in the United States to serve as “examples to follow.”
Hussein noted that the U.S. Muslim community is diverse and that each person brings a different experience based on his or her country of origin. He said mosques and Muslim community centers engage worshipers in conversations about democracy in America, and added that they approach voting as the best way to express free will and preserve freedoms. “We don’t tell them who to vote for,” he said.
“Our common American experience is what unites all of us living in this country,” said Akbar Ayazi, director of VOA’s South and Central Asia Division. “No matter what god we believe, what faith we follow; no matter what background we have, no matter where we come from — we have one thing in common and that’s our humanity. We all pursue the same ideal, which is the American dream.”
The event was streamed live on multiple VOA language platforms, reaching audiences around the world. More than 67,000 people watched on the VOA Central News Facebook page alone. In addition, #YoungMuslimVOA trended on Twitter throughout the broadcast.
Through its eight services on radio, television and the Internet, VOA’s South and Central Asia Division broadcasts news and information about America and the world to regions that are vulnerable to extremism and terrorism. The division’s Afghanistan Service reaches roughly 40 percent of the country’s adult population with programming in Dari and Pashto. The Azerbaijani Service reaches audiences in Azerbaijan and neighboring provinces in Iran. The Bangla Service serves Bangladesh and the Bangla-speaking Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura as well as several Arab and Muslim countries. VOA Deewa broadcasts to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, where more than 50 million Pashtuns live. The Urdu Service serves Pakistan and diaspora communities. The Kurdish Service reaches more than 30 million Kurds living in the Middle East and Eurasia. Turkish Service programming is vital to a nation where press freedom increasingly is restricted. The Uzbek Service reaches audiences in Uzbekistan, Central Asia and Afghanistan. And the newly established Extremism Watch Desk also supports VOA’s mission by enhancing the agency’s in-depth coverage of extremism around the world.
To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford. It reads:
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:
- VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
- 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.
- VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)
For more information on the Charter, visit our VOA history page about the 1960s and 1970s.
Since 1942, the Voice of America has built a global reputation as a consistently reliable source of news and information. Accuracy, balance, comprehensiveness, and objectivity are attributes audiences around the world have come to expect of VOA broadcasters and their product. These standards are legally mandated in the VOA Charter (Public Laws 94-350 and 103-415). Because of them, VOA has become an inspiration and information lifeline to nations and peoples around the world.
Adhering to the principles outlined in the Charter, VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government. They accept no treatment or assistance from U.S. government officials or agencies that is more favorable or less favorable than that granted to staff of private-sector news agencies. Furthermore, VOA professionals, careful to preserve the integrity of their organization, strive for excellence and avoid imbalance or bias in their broadcasts.
The Voice of America pursues its mission today in a world conflict-ridden and unstable in the post Cold War era. Broadcasting accurate, balanced and complete information to the people of the world, and particularly to those who are denied access to accurate news, serves the national interest and is a powerful source of inspiration and hope for all those who believe in freedom and democracy.
All staff who report, manage, edit, and prepare programming at VOA in both central and language services therefore subscribe to these principles:
VOA news and programming must be rigorously sourced and verified. VOA normally requires a minimum of two independent (non-VOA) sources before any newswriter, background writer, political affairs writer, correspondent, or stringer may broadcast information as fact in any language.
The only exceptions to the double-source requirement are facts directly confirmed by a VOA journalist, or significant news drawn from an official announcement of a nation or an organization. In those rare instances when a secondary source offers exclusive significant news (e.g., a verified news agency exclusive interview with a chief of state or prominent newsmaker), this story is attributed to the originating agency by name.
Accuracy and Balance
Accuracy and balance are paramount, and together, they are VOA’s highest priority. Accuracy always comes before speed in VOA central service and language programming. VOA has a legal obligation to present a comprehensive description of events, reporting an issue in a reliable and unbiased way. Though funded by the U.S. government, VOA airs all relevant facts and opinions on important news events and issues. VOA corrects errors or omissions in its own broadcasts at the earliest opportunity.
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. This applies to all programs and program segments, including opinion or press roundups, programs discussing letters, listener comments, or call-in shows. In the case of call-ins, views of a single party must be challenged by the interviewer if alternative opinions are unrepresented. In interviews, points of possible discussion are submitted in advance if requested by an interviewee of stature (e.g., a chief of state). However, VOA journalists always retain the right and responsibility to pursue newsworthy angles, including entirely fresh lines of questioning, during such interviews.
Whenever VOA reports a charge or accusation made by an individual or a group against another, or presents one side of a controversial issue, a response and/or balancing information will be included in the first use of a news item or feature containing that material. If the balancing information cannot be obtained by the program deadline, or the subject of the charge declines to comment, that will be made clear in VOA’s account, and the balancing material will be broadcast as soon as it is available.
VOA has, in the words of the Founding Fathers, “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” VOA is required to present a full and fair account of events. VOA broadcasters evaluate information solely on its merits, rejecting incitements to violence, sensationalism, personal value judgments, or misleading emphases. Attributions are specific and complete.
VOA journalists (including correspondents, news and language stringers, political affairs writers, and program hosts) avoid at all times the use of unattributed pejorative terms or labels to describe persons or organizations, except when the individuals and groups use those labels to describe themselves or their activities.
In news, features, and current affairs programming, VOA broadcasters will meticulously avoid fabricating, distorting, or dramatizing an event. If sound at an event illustrates the reporter’s account of that event and is edited for time, the remaining sound effect reflects what occurred in an accurate and balanced way. If there is a risk of misleading the audience, no use will be made of sound effects not actually recorded at the event being described.
Context and Comprehensiveness
VOA presents a comprehensive account of America and the world, and puts events in context. That means constant vigilance to reflect America’s, and the world’s, political, geographical, cultural, ethnic, religious, and social diversity. VOA programming represents the broadcast team’s best effort to seek out and present a comprehensive account of the event or trend being reported.
VOA broadcasters will avoid using announcing or interviewing techniques that add political coloration or bias to their reportage or current affairs programming. Music will not be used to make editorial statements. VOA journalists and all those preparing news and feature programming avoid any action or statement that might convey the appearance of partisanship.
When performing official duties, VOA broadcasters leave their personal political views behind. The accuracy, quality, and credibility of the Voice of America are its most important assets, and they rest on listeners’ perception of VOA as an objective source of world, regional, and U.S. news and information. To that end, all VOA journalists will:
- Always travel on regular, non-diplomatic passports, and rely no more and no less than private-sector correspondents on U.S. missions abroad for support, as set out in the guidelines for VOA correspondents.
- Assist managers whose duty is to ensure that no VOA employee, contract employee, or stringer works for any other U.S. government agency, any official media of another state, or any international organization, without specific VOA authorization.
- Adhere strictly to copyright laws and agency regulations and always credit the source when quoting, paraphrasing, or excerpting from other broadcasting organizations, books, periodicals or any print media.
- In addition to these journalistic standards and principles, VOA employees recognize that their conduct both on and off the job can reflect on the work of the Voice of America community. They adhere to the highest standards of journalistic professionalism and integrity. They work to foster teamwork, goodwill, and civil discourse in the workplace and with their colleagues everywhere in the world, all to enhance the credibility and effectiveness of the Voice of America.