More than a third of the Voice of America's staff has signed a petition accusing the federal government of "dismantling" the international broadcasting agency, while financing a pair of newer, semi-private and separate media operations that the staffers said do not live up to VOA standards.
Their complaints have sparked a nasty brawl with the program's parent agency -- the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- which created the new media groups. The board has rejected the staffers' charges, defended its young offspring and accused the VOA dissidents of being slow to adapt to necessary change.
The petition, which was submitted to Congress last week, pointed to a series of decisions the board has made over the past few years. In 2002, it replaced the VOA's Arabic-language news service with an outlet called Radio Sawa, which, like its predecessor, broadcasts to the Middle East. Then, earlier this year, the board opened Al Hurra, a Virginia-based television network that officials hope will be able to compete in the Middle East with Arab broadcasting giant al-Jazeera.
The nearly 500 VOA staffers complained that the newer outlets are not only autonomous from the 62-year-old broadcasting agency, the pair -- especially the radio network -- focus too much on music and entertainment at the expense of the sort of hard news, PBS-style programming the VOA has traditionally emphasized. Moreover, the petition said, the networks do not share the VOA's commitment to balanced and comprehensive news coverage.
Meanwhile, the petitioners said, the board is planning to cut the VOA's daily English-language radio broadcasts that are beamed across the world by almost half, and has ended its programming for 10 Eastern and Central European nations.
"At a time when the ability of the United States to speak to the world in a clear, effective, credible voice is more crucial than ever, the United States is broadcasting less news, information and analysis to fewer countries for fewer hours in fewer languages," the petition said. "The presidentially appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors is dismantling the nation's radio beacon -- the Voice of America -- piece by piece."
The petitioners asked Congress to investigate the board's decisions. "We want the discussion to be held publicly. It's not happening here -- and these changes are being railroaded through with no discussion with the rank and file," one senior editor at the network said in an interview. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing his fear of reprisal.
The VOA has been broadcasting, mostly by radio, since 1942, when it first began sending news to Nazi-occupied territory in Europe. Since then, it has vastly expanded its reach, broadcasting across the globe in more than 40 languages.
In 1999, the VOA came under the control of the board, which is responsible for all government-sponsored broadcasting unconnected to the military. The board, which consists of nine people -- four Democrats, four Republicans and the secretary of state -- also runs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the International Broadcasting Bureau.
Unlike the VOA, which is staffed by federal employees, the two newer media operations broadcasting to the Middle East are made up of nongovernmental employees.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the BBG, disputed the VOA staffers' complaints. He said the board is not trying to marginalize the agency, pointing to what he said are the VOA's recently expanded services to Iran and Pakistan. The staffers' petition accuses the board of reducing its broadcasts to Iran.
He said the board created the newer television and radio networks independently of the VOA, in part -- and with congressional support -- to avoid red tape.
"We launched Al Hurra in a matter of months," Tomlinson said. "If we tried to do it inside VOA, it would have taken years."
Tomlinson also defended the content of the new operations, saying they are held, by law, to similar editorial standards as the VOA's, and he rejected suggestions that they do not cover enough news.
The networks' use of music and entertainment programming, Tomlinson said, has helped lure a much larger, younger audience than did the VOA format.
The board has been cutting the VOA's English-language broadcasts, Tomlinson said, because fewer people are getting the news via radio. The Eastern and Central European broadcasts were eliminated, he said, to focus more resources on services to the Middle East.
"The war on terror is a prime requirement," he said. "If you have to choose between getting information to the Middle East and serving great old audiences in Poland and the Baltic states, you unfortunately have to go with the countries in the Middle East."