Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, in a wide-ranging conversation Nov. 6 with American University students and public diplomacy advocates, reminded her audience that VOA “is all about a free press.”
- A VOA multilingual VOA team has been in Hong Kong to report pro-democracy demonstrations in that Chinese territory.
- Objective journalism IS public diplomacy, Ms. Bennett told the students. In her view, VOA’s around the clock accounts for Western relief missions and partnerships with international health and women’s rights organizations are examples.
Humanitarian Missions Designed to Help Those in Need
Recently, VOA became the first global network to broadcast in the Rohingya language. The program is designed to reach more than a million destitute refugees who fled from persecution in Burma to ramshackle camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
Many of the hastily-built tent camps there stretch over hills and beyond the horizon in several directions and are especially vulnerable in rainy seasons. Two of these mass settlements are near Cox’s Bazar and Kutupalong, municipalities in eastern Bangladesh.
Ms. Bennett shared several stories about VOA’s role in the camps. A VOA staffer initially met a group of Rohingya refugees and asked for a show of hands if they would be interested in receiving timely information about Burma and Asia generally. Not a single hand went up.
Then, the VOA team leader asked if Rohingya-to-English lessons would be of interest to their children. Every hand was raised. Director Bennett, among early Voice visitors to the Bangladesh camps, set about organizing the first-ever English-teaching half-hour daily broadcasts in their own tongue to the largely forgotten refugees.
As the parents among them already were aware, knowledge of English was a passport to jobs and freedom, because younger members of their families could gain access to jobs in nearby South Asian capitals or other large cities and escape the miseries of daily life in the camps.
Last July 29, VOA launched a five-day-a-week half-hour medium and shortwave radio program in Rohingya. More than 800,000 people have taken refuge at the Kutupalong camp, one of the world’s largest refugee settlements near the Bangladesh-Burma border. The program is entitled Lifeline.
Humanitarian aid agencies have or are recruiting 4,000 instructors to teach camp residents the rudiments of English. These reinforce VOA’s weekday Rohingya transmissions.
In surveys of more than 100 countries, according to Director Bennett, the Voice today reaches 86.8 million users a week via TV, 66.1 million via digital transmissions (including Facebook and Twitter), and 23.1 million via radio.
The AU conference was organized by Public Diplomacy Council President and AU professor Sherry Mueller, in cooperation with the university’s School of International Service and its distinguished diplomat in residence, Ambassador Anthony Wayne.
According to Amanda Bennett, VOA has been able to expand its worldwide reportage in 47 languages to achieve significant audience gains. It has almost doubled its global audiences in the past five years to more than 275 million followers a week in its 47 languages.
A key question in polling to determine audience preferences is whether or not VOA followers on TV, radio or online services such as Facebook and Twitter trust the accuracy of what they hear on America’s Voice in countries where this really counts. In Afghanistan, 94 percent of those polled, nationwide, affirmed that they valued VOA’s accuracy and objectivity.
Recent innovations in VOA’s reporting of daily events have included greatly expanded simultaneous translations of experts in many fields at various U.S. universities, use of more story-telling to attract listeners curious about the world, and a special Voice program series entitled Student Union. The widespread practice around the world of teen girl marriages also is examined in depth. Particularly in Africa, huge populations of young girls are wed too early and assume the responsibilities of parenthood instead of pursuing secondary school education.
Asked by an AU student if the U.S. Congress endorsed these innovations, Ms. Bennett said that “support in Congress is quite strong. Reflecting what’s expected of a free press is our motto. That means fact-based reporting, here, there and everywhere… valid news filling up the information space” in an endlessly curious multimedia world.
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