By Alan Heil
To those who follow and admire America’s five government-funded international broadcasting networks, June 14, 2017 — Flag Day in the U.S. — will be long remembered as an extraordinary and unique memorial celebration.
On that day, the Broadcasting Board of Governors held a bimonthly meeting. The largely unrecognized danger its reporters face in hour-by-hour coverage of the world’s most dangerous hotspots was explicitly spelled out during that meeting and in a ceremony dedicating a BBG Fallen Journalists Memorial immediately afterwards. Both events occurred at the BBG and Voice of America headquarters in southwest D.C.
The five networks are:
— Two federal units, the largest of the networks, VOA, and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba, and
—Three privately incorporated but fully government-funded BBG grantees, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network Inc. in Arabic.
Chairman Kenneth Weinstein opened the BBG meeting by calling for a moment of silence in honor of those American innocents killed or wounded earlier on June 14 — including the House of Representative’s deputy ranking member Steve Scalise (R-LA) — in an attack by a deranged gunman in nearby Arlington, Virginia. He then turned to the current challenges confronting today’s BBG reporters overseas, including those in Cambodia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Venezuela, Angola, Armenia, and the Peoples Republic of China.
“Last month in Cambodia,” Chairman Weinstein reported, Prime Minister Hun Sen called journalists ‘foreign servants.’ Then just a week later, a member of the Cambodia National Assembly accused VOA and RFA of seeking to destroy the reputation of the country’s leadership. Likewise, in Russia,” the chairman continued, “lawmakers accused the Russian-language services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and VOA, also CNN, of ‘engaging in propaganda and sowing confusion in the Russian political process’ during last year’s parliamentary elections.” Russian officials, he added, block RFE/RL freelancers from official events, “using lack of accreditation as an excuse.”
In Azerbaijan on May 12, Weinstein added, a court in Baku provided legal justification for the government’s censorship of RFE-RL’s Azerbaijani website which began March 29 this year.
Of great concern, the chairman said, is that three BBG journalists today remain imprisoned in Crimea (RFE/RL’s Mykola Semena), in Turkmenistan (RFE/RL’s Saparmamed Nepeskuliev) , and in Vietnam (Nguyen Van Hoa). Finally, Stanislav Aseyev, a blogger from Eastern Ukraine who contributes to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, has been missing since June 2nd. Chairman Weinstein said it is believed that he was seized in Donetsk and is being forcibly held by Russian-controlled separatist forces controlling the region. “Again,” he concluded, “we call for the immediate release of these journalists and demand that harassment of all journalists comes to a stop.”
Are USG-funded international journalists ineffective in their reporting from distant lands? Not so. Last year, the five U.S. taxpayer funded TV, radio and on line networks each week reached a record 287 million souls hungry for the latest news about America and their own neighborhoods. That reach has expanded exponentially since U. S. international broadcasting began 75 years ago. Accurate, in-depth, credible reporting is a major contributor to that success. The concluding ceremony at the June 14th BBG meeting was held dedicating the BBG Fallen Journalists Memorial in a first floor corridor outside the VOA News Center. CEO John Lansing began that ceremony, with an appeal for a moment of silence honoring FOURTEEN U.S. international broadcast journalists who have lost their lives reporting from the frontlines over the last five decades.
The compelling stories of some of those killed over the years:
—1954 — Abdulrachmann Fatalibey, chief editor for RFE/RL’s Azeri Service in Azerbaijan and based in Germany. After he failed to report for work one day, colleagues found his apartment empty. His body was discovered later in Munich. He had been beaten and strangled to death.
—1978 — Georgi Markov, a reporter and expert on Bulgaria for RFE/RL who occasionally appeared on VOA. Mr. Markov died in London after being stabbed in the leg on the street with an umbrella tipped with the lethal poison ricin.
—1995 — Ricardo de Mello, who was shot in the head near his apartment in Luanda, while covering the Angolan civil war for VOA. A local journalists’ union said that de Mello was killed because of his coverage of high-level corruption and the Angolan government’s role in the war.
—2005 — Abdul-Hussein Khazal, a reporter for the Middle East Broadcasting Network’s Alhurra TV, and his three-year-old son Muhammad, were shot and killed as they left their home in Basra, Iraq. A group calling itself The Imam al-Hassan al-Basri Brigades claimed responsibility.
—2006 — Ogulsapar Muradova, an RFE/RL reporter covering human rights issues in Turkmenistan. She was arrested on June 18, 2006, and sentenced to six years in jail for alleged illegal possession of ammunition. She was tortured in prison and died from blows to the back of her head.
—2007 — Alisher Saipov, VOA correspondent in Krygyzstan and contributor to RFE/RL, shot and killed while waiting for a taxi outside his office in southern Krygyzstan. He had been reporting on government corruption and human rights violations and had been targeted by security services in neighboring Uzbekistan.
—2012 — Mukarram Khan Aatif, a reporter for VOA’s Radio Deewa Pashto service to Pakistan, was taking part in evening prayers at a local mosque near his home when two masked men rode up on motorcycles and shot him in the head and chest before riding away. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
—2016 — Almigdad Mojalli, a master photojournalist, reported on humanitarian issues in Yemen, and was killed in a Saudi-led bombing near the capital, Sana’a. Mr. Mojalli was filming the aftermath of the airstrike. He left behind a wife, young son and five others in his family.
Portraits of the 14 BBG journalists were unveiled to conclude the historic June 14 events. The same day, statements of two former U.S. presidents were published on VOA75.com by two retired American presidents commemorating the Voice’s 75th anniversary:
— Jimmy Carter: “We know that VOA broadcasts have encouraged generations of human rights defenders all over the world… giving voice to oppressed and marginalized people everywhere. VOA is “a good model of a robust, independent press.”
—George W. Bush: “I used to spend a lot of time with leaders, reminding them about the importance of a free press. VOA is a realistic voice for peace. People are taking great risks by listening to it… deep in peoples’ souls, VOA is a reminder of the desirability of freedom and its benefits.”
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More