As a crisis watcher for more than a half century, I’m used to hearing alarm bells as serious conflicts appear in various regions of our planet.
Today, the principal crisis-prone area in the world is the Arabian peninsula. One can’t miss noticing in daily headlines the threat of war between Iran and the United States. Particularly worrisome is fear of an accidental incident in the Persian Gulf between vessels of the two countries that might trigger a wider conflict with global consequences.
In a recent roundtable at George Washington University, Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett noted that:
- International multimedia networks have a unique role in providing up to the minute breaking news to a curious world via TV, radio and on line media, in times of peace or war. Current surveys of VOA’s global reach indicate that it reaches 275 million users (TV, radio and online media) each and every week.
Ms. Bennett was addressing a monthly roundtable organized by the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), the Public Diplomacy Association of America (PDAA), and the University of Southern California Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.
VOA is the largest of five networks under the U.S. Agency for Global Media, USAGM, formerly named the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The other networks are: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE-RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcast Network in Arabic, (MBN) and Radio-TV Marti to Cuba in Spanish.
The threat of an Iran-U.S. conflict that might expand to involve other countries is prominent in the 24/7 reportage of all five networks. Altogether, they reach 345 million people globally every week, equivalent to nearly 14 and a half billion users a year.
In these days of war talk especially, what really counts is dependable, independent media those countless millions cherish. An example: 70 million people worldwide have been forced from their homes into refugee camps or vacated them due to oppression or severe tornado or weather damage.
All five U.S.-funded networks rely on objective free, TV, radio and on line media they can trust for lifesaving alerts and news.
VOA Director Bennett cited a host of examples at her GWU roundtable and illustrated the value of Western international multimedia with Voice film excerpts that transported viewers to the frontlines in refugee camps or other locations where they now live. She especially noted the impact of multimedia Voice transmissions to Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia and refugees girdling the globe. VOA and RFE/RL joined forces three years ago to formally inaugurate a Russian language around-the-clock programming stream in Russian called Current Time.
In southeast Asia, more than a million Burmese Rohingyas fled their homes to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017 as Myanmar troops drove them from their villages or burned their dwellings to the ground. They joined several hundred thousand other Rohingya who’ve fled Burma to escape government repression there since the late 20th century.
Last September, a Voice of America documentary team led by VOA’s Greta van Susteren visited the crowded Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In addition to food, water, and shelter, their greatest need was up-to-the-minute information from the international broadcasts and the possibility of learning enough English to get jobs outside Cox’s Bazar and several other Rohingya refugee camps should that someday be possible.
Viewing gem: Brief excerpts from the 40-minute VOA documentary may be seen here.
While filming that documentary, Displaced, the VOA reporters noticed that most of the refugees spoke only Rohingya. As shown in these documentary excerpts, refugees in the camps welcomed a chance to learn the most widely used world language, English, a possible passport to employment in other nearby countries or even some far removed from Burma.
The addition of Rohingya to VOA’s other 45 languages was unique for a startup service. Much of that broadcast will consist of English lessons in Rohingya, a first in international broadcasting. An estimated 5,000 English-speakers have been identified to teach English to refugees in the Bangladesh camps.
One of the most moving stories during Amanda Bennett’s presentation was that of VOA’s Africa Division Director Negussie Mengesha, born in Ethiopia and now managing 17 languages broadcast to his native Africa from Washington. Mr. Mengesha was denied access to Ethiopia under dictatorial regimes for nearly 40 years before it was finally safe enough for him to travel there and interview newly-elected pro-democracy reformer President Abiy Ahmed last Fall.
Viewing gem: Mengesha’s account of the visit including a conversation with President Ahmed is available here.
Referring to the current serious crisis in the Middle East, VOA Director Bennett estimated that 14 percent of Iranians are now “digitally skilled.” A new joint VOA- RFE/RL around-the-clock Persian language program formally launched earlier this year is called VOA 365. It’s especially active on weekends, providing on-line digital TV programming produced by the two networks to at least a million users in Iran.
Summing it all up, Mrs. Bennett observed that Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders in their latest annual reports noted a global decline in media freedom for the past five years. She added: “At VOA, we’ve just formed a special desk to cover press freedom around the world, including issues of digital technology.” Mrs. Bennett also announced that the Turkish Services at the BBC, Deutsche Welle and VOA are joining forces to expose efforts to muzzle media freedom and jail journalists in Turkey, a member of NATO. That NATO country was identified in 2016 as the world’s leading jailer of journalists, 89 altogether — a third of all those imprisoned worldwide
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More