Caught at the difficult crossroads between journalism and diplomacy, the Voice of America has taken another step toward attempting to put its correspondents on the same footing as journalists for non-government news organizations.
In regulations issued last week governing VOA's corps of 15 overseas correspondents, the radio's director, R. Peter Straus, stripped the correspondents of their official status and ordered them to operate outside the American diplomatic community the same way other correspondents do.
The correspondents no longer are to have access to classified materials, must establish offices outside embassy facilities, and file their copy through normal commercial channels.
"U.S. Embassies will be neither more or less helpful to VOA correspondents than to other American journalists in giving or facilitating interviews, supplying information, aiding in travel, making other arrangments, or assisting with any difficulties," the guidelines say.
The guidelines are an effort to buttress the radio's attempt to put its news operations on an independent basis, with greater credibility among its vast overseas audience, according to proponents of this view.
Critics of this argument say that the radio is an arm of the government and should adapt its broadcasting efforts to U.S. foreign policy.
The new guidelines stop short of placing VOA correspondents on exactly the same footing as non-government correspondents.
"Since the VOA is an official broadcasting service, it cannot, as a practical matter, divorce itself in the minds of many of its listeners from an identification with the U.S. government," the guidelines say.
The regulations then instruct correspondents to get prior clearance from the VOA news division in Washington before seeking an interview "with a head of state or other politically or controversial personality, either in or out of government," and to follow similar procedures when covering "any story which can reasonably be deemed sensitive."
Correspondents must inform U.S. Embassy officials of their plans in such cases and refer any objections to the home office. Embassies abroad will not have an opportunity for prior censorship of a correspondent's copy, as is now the case, however.
"It is clear that the decisions in controversial cases are now to be made by the news division in Washington. Previously it was unclear where the decision was to be made - by the ambassador, local U.S. information official, or who," Straus said in explaining the new guidelines.
There is a longstanding principle in American diplomatic practice that an ambassador is in complete control of all American officials who are in his country.
This has led to a series of behind-the-scenes disputes between VOA news personnel and the State Department over efforts to block VOA correspondents from covering developments the correspondents and their editors belived should be covered.
The test of the new guidelines, and the radio's renewed efforts for an independent news operation, will come in how disputes between embassies abroad the VOA home office are resolved.
Straus said these issues would be taken up by top-level officials of the International COmmunications Agency, of which VOA is a part, and the State Department.
Since the ICA is a semi-autonomous agency linked to the State Department, any confrontation would appear to be an unequal one, but Straus indicated a willingness in outlining the new policy to take major issues to the White House for resolution.
Many of the new procedures were recommended in a report earlier this year by a special panel headed by former Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Chalmers Roberts.