Voice of America, A radio heard in secret
Washington — The man in front of the huge master-panel on the second floor of this building didn't know that Dith Pran was listening two years ago, when he flipped a switch to send Cambodia its Voice of America broadcast. But he was.
Twenty months later, after Pran, the leader of a commune in Cambodia, had fled his country, his friend and former employer in Phnom Penh, Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times, wrote:
"This commune chief had a radio and sometimes at night -- maybe once a week -- Pran and four or five trusted friends would gather around it with him, and surreptitiously listen to the Voice of America . . . .
"Finally, in December, he learned on the VOA that the Vietnamese had invaded Cambodia in force . . . ."
A later VOA report let him know conditions had changed on the Cambodian border, and it was then that he made his escape.
This is the kind of thing "the Voice" (the nickname given to the Voice of America by its employees) does best: transmitting the news to people like Dith Pran in thie own languages and in places where unbiased news is a scarce commodity.
When you walk up and down the halls here at VOA headquarters in Washington, D.C., you see one sparsely equipped, undersized radio studio after another -- a long, unpretentious table, a couple of microphones, and an announcer or two facing an engineer. On the glass window of each of these studios is a sign telling which of VOA's 38 languages the broadcast is in; and, if you push a button, you can hear a broadcaster sending news around the globe in Russian, Persian, Chinese, and so on.
News reports, along with features of "Americana" and some outright State Department pitches for US foreign policy, gush out of Voice of America transmitters throughout the world, producing a total of 822 broadcast hours each week.
The information sent through this pipeline is compiled and edited in a news center on the third floor, a wide-open newsroom similar to the one on the "Lou Grant" TV show, except that it also has a radio control room, where a couple dozen staffers ride herd on reports sent in from around the world.
Once the information has been edited into newscast from, it is read by a broadcaster, whose voice signal goes to master panel at the heart VOA headquarters with 28 switching panels, clocks marking the hour in various world capitals, and plenty of dials and controls. From the panel VOA transmissions are fed to various transmitters in the US, which then relay them by shortwave or microwave to transmitting stations around the globe.
The VOA newsroom is somewhat controversial in international journalistic circles, where US Department of State influence on the organization has long cast a shadow over its claims to objectivity and accuracy.
One former BBC staffer complains that "the flaw is that the VOA is subject to government direction, although it would claim not to be . . . . One feels that they are striving to be objective, but are still the embassy putting out the news, if you know what I mean."
Still other sources credit the VOA with more journalistic independence today than in the past and with a reputation for balance and objectivity.
"Traveling around the world with the Secretary General," comments Rudolph Stajduher, spokesman for Kurt Waldheim, "I find that the VOA is generally very useful that it has much improved in the past few years, especially news for Africa.
"Ten to 15 years ago the BBC was way ahead, but the gap has been narrowed quite considerably. The VOA has more extensive coverage. I still give priority to the BBC, but in the past I would listen only the the BBC.
"When I am vacationing in Yugoslavia, I listen and get first class coverage of the United Nations, perhaps the best UN coverage of all. Lately, there appears to be a more professional composition of services, more journalistic excellence. I feel the hand and voice of a journalist at work."
Other sources indicate the Voice has high standing among political refugees, people like Dith Pran, who listen to it for news "particularly as it affect their own country, where they are generally getting only managed news," in the words of one sources.
Dith Pran would be quick to agree.
The Cambodian refugee who escaped the horrors of the Pol Pot regime told me from a hotel room in Washington. D.C., that, although he had very few opportunities to tune in VOA broadcasts during the Pol Pot regime, he listened whenever he could.
"When we got news about the war, we knew Pol Pot was attacked. That made us have new hope. Under the Vietnamese we could listen more openly. They didn't care, and anyway didn't have control of the administration."
Does he think VOA reporting is slanted?
"No. The people believe the VOA is much better than other radio.The BBC has no Cambodian [language] broadcasts. There is only the VOA, the north Vietnamese , and Radio Peking. The others [North Vietnam and Peking] exaggerate, not like the VOA.
"Even the illiterate people listen and feel it is the best news. The only thing I can tell you is that most people think it is the best news and the fairest news."
Voice of America officials have no way of knowing who, if anyone, was listening to their Cambodia broadcasts, and indeed have wondered whether the broadcasts were useful.
"We had thought of abandoning our broadcasts in Khmer [the Cambodian language ]," explains acting Voice of America director Hans Tuck, who has a modest office around the corner from that master control panel. "There was no feedback whatsoever, and we had been told that foreign-radio-listening was a capital offense. We also had been told that, not only did people not have radios anymore, but if they had radios they couldn't get batteries for them.
"The first evidence we had was when Prince Sihanouk gave a press conference in Peking and told our correspondent that he had been listening to the broadcasts all along while he was under house arrest . . . and then he said, 'I know your broadcasts are listened to, because Pol Pot listened to them too . . . . He used to berate me about them."'
VOA officials have to rely on stories like this to measure their effectiveness inside countries like Cambodia. Elsewhere surveys have been done. (A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study estimated that roughly 7 million Soviet listeners tune into the Voice of America on an average day.)
In absence of hard, statistical data, howeveR, VOA officials often have to rely on impressions from journalists, defectors, and others who have travelled through the regions -- an admitted biased sample.
Alexander Ginzberg, who has criticized the organization for not taking a harder line on Soviet dissidents, told them the VOA has "as many listeners as Pravda has readers." And Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident who came to the United States, related that the last time he was arrested in the USSR, the jailer who took him to his cell said, "Comrade Bukovsky, I knew you were coming . . . . I heard it on the Voice of America."
"I don't know if that story is apocryphal or not," laughs Hans Tuck, "but he told it. I'm quoting correctly." He adds that there are other ways of knowing people are listening in parts of the world where listening can be dangerous. A Voice of America correspondent was recognized in a hotel inside China by the sound of his voice. And "an ABC correspondent made a recent trip through Cambodia and told a VOA correspondent that he had found quite a bit of evidence of VOA listenership. People had indeed buried their radios in the ground and got them out to listen.
Press attacks in Communist-controlled media indicate that the communist authorities themselves listen and take the broadcasts quite seriously.
Soviet press attacks on VOA broadcasts are kept in a file in the offices of Woody Demitz, the foreign service officer who heads up the VOA's large Russian division. (VOA broadcasts 14 hours a day in Russian, more than any other language, and the broadcasts can be a source of embarrassment to the Soviets, especially at a time such as now, when world opinion is against them for the Afghan invasion).
Reaching into a file of dispatches from the US embassy in Moscow, many of them classified, Mr. Demitz produces a description of a Jan. 6 editorial cartoon in the party newspaper Pravda. It shows a radio console labelled "Voice of America," "Radio Liberty," and "Radio FRee Europe" with buttons labeled "lie," "slander," "rubbish," and "fabrication." It is operated by a sinister figure labeled "Cold War." The cartoon is titled, "At the out-of-tune harmonium." Comment above the cartoon reads, 'The radio stations Voice of America, Radio Liberty, And Radio Free Europe are broadcasting on the occasion of the events in Afghanistan with a flagrant anti-Soviet position, from the position of the cold war."
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, congressionally funded stations based in Munich but entirely independent of VOA, are being jammed by Soviet transmitters, while Voice of America is not -- tacit admission by the Soviets that they do not , in practice, link Voice of America with the other two services, which comment much more freely on internal affairs of the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
According to Mr. Truck, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty try to take the place of a free press inside the countries to which they broadcast, reporting events from a subjective, internal viewpoint. He recalls one ambassador's description of the difference: "Radio Liberty is your local news broadcast, and the Voice of America is the Walter Cronkite show."
To further explain the difference Hans Tuck says, "When Solzhenitsyn's 'Gulag Archipelago' was published, the Voice of America concentrated on trying to tell the world and Soviet listeners about the publication of the book -- what it contains, how it was received, how it was reviewed, how widely it was distributed, what kind of impact it made in this country and throughout the rest of the world. Radio Liberty readm 'Gulag Archipelago,' chapter by chapter on the air."
Soviet authorities apparently find the Voice of America approach less offensive and less dangerous to their own internal propaganda goals, choosing at the moment not to jam it but to keep a steady patter of anti-Voice commentary going in its press.
Attacks like the Pravda cartoon appear regularly. Since the recent deterioration in Soviet-American relations, invective in the Soviet press has heated up considerably, indicating perhaps a growing frustration in the Kremlin with this other voice talking to Soviet citizens.
The last time the Soviets actually jammed VOA broadcasts was during the USSR's invasion of CZechoslovakia in 1968. This chill followed a thaw in relations that came after the signing of the partial nuclear test ban treaty in 1963. The latest epoch of jam-free transmission began in 1973, at the height of detente.
DO VOA officials have any reason to believe the Soviet Union will jam the Voice again?
"I would think that's a possibility that they are contemplating, yes," acknowledges Mr. Tuck. "But whether they will or not, there's no way to tell beforehand."
Government sources suggest it has become difficult, in a public relations sense, for the Kremlin to explain renewed jamming of VOA broadcasts after so many years, although they could certainly choose to do so at anytime.
Current Soviet jamming of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, as well as Radio israel, is an expensive proposition involving large numbers of transmitters placed strategically around the Soviet Union's perimeter. If the Kremlin decides to jam the Voice again, it will mean either building new expensive transmitters or making current towers do double duty, thus reducing their effectiveness.
"The cost is also in terms of their own credibility, vis-a-vis their public," Mr. Tuck says. "Now they can cope with it, but it does cost them something. It costs them a great amount of dissatisfaction, especially among their intelligentsia and among the people whose support they may enjoy, but who will know they are not being trusted by their own government."
When the VOA was jammed in the past, the operation was highly effective. Hans Tuck, who served in the embassy in Moscow at the time, remembers that "it was very difficult to listen to [VOA broadcasts]. We could listen to them . . . when we got away from major population centers . . . . [but] the minute you get into a city you have groundwave jammers which cover the area quite adequately."
In today's world, the Soviet Union is not the most highest priority at the Voice of America.
"Right now," says Hans Tuck, "we're primarily concerned with Iran, Afghanistan, Soviet Central Asia. We are convinced that people are listening to us in those countries. And we do get evidence that they are . . . ." He recalls an NBC radio spot in December that pointed to the irony in seeing Iranian villagers in Tabriz gathered around a transistor radio, listening to Voice of America reports on events not more than 300 yards away from them.
What did those Tabriz villagers hear?
For one thing, they could have heard Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's blistering attack on President Carter for giving asylum to the Shah, as well as the administration's rebuttal. Hans Tuck says they also could have heard stories of Savak Atrocities and alleged CIA complicity in them, when those things were in the news.
During the feature portions of the broadcasts, they could have heard the experiences of a welfare mother and a returning Vietnam veteran, Ian Stirton, part of a series on Americans.
(The feature on the Vietnam veteran reported that, "unlike his uncles, the World War II veterans who came back to parades, brass bands, and cheering crowds , Ian Stirton . . . returned from a controversial was to a less-than-cheering nation, and, like most who returned with him, he re-entered American life with a passion for anonymity and a desire to bury his wartime experiences. But, he soon discovered, burying them meant having to apologize for them.")
They also might have heard predictions that the US would encounter continuing inflation, unemployment, and energy shortages in the 1980s.
In the opinion of a number of sources surveyed by this newspaper, those Tabriz villagers would have gotten reasonably balanced and accurate reports of world events . . . even if they might have been tilted slightly towards the US viewpoint. No one credits the Voice with the kind of objectivity and balance the BBC is famous for. But, then, no one seems to give it the black marks for propaganda it earned during the cold war.
Mr. Tuck says the VOA began to build its reputation as a credible news source "during the Vietnam War and then Watergate," when, he says, the Voice broadcast the dissension over the war and then hung the dirty Watergate laundry on the line where all could see it.
Even so, some critics maintain the VOA still carries the stigma of tilted news.
One United Nations source complains that the Voice is "independent, but USA-slanted. If events occur in the world, in which Americans are only marginally interested, they won't be reported by the Voice of America, whereas the BBC will report things of no special interest to the UK. It's not so much the presentation as the selection of news items."
Other international listeners tend to listen to the Voice with a healthy degree of skepticism but to listen nonetheless.
One Saudi Arabian says he listens to Radio Monte Carlo, the BBC, and the Voice of America in that Order. "When it comes to the VOA, I listen to it to hear what the Americans are saying, to get the American version. It's very important to get that version. I personally listen to the VOA, and [I give it] a great deal of credibility."
Gaining that credibility is what the VOA's work in recent years has been all about, says Hans Tuck, especially since Congress passed a new charter for the Voice in 1976. Mr. Tuck recounts that Senator Charles Percy (R) of Illinois told him during a hearing on the Hill, "You know, if you let anyone interfere with your news broadcasts, youm are violating the law, because the law specifically states that VOA news shall be independent.
How independent that news remains depends to a certain extent on who heads the agency, and many critics of the Voice have serious reservations on this score.
"Hans Tuck is one of the ablest people . . . on this sort of thing," says one longtime observer of America's international broadcasts. "He probably has had considerable success in helping to improve things there. The real trouble, though, is that [the Administration and Congress] apparently think unqualified people have competence in international broadcasting."
This source and others worry about the system of political patronage that puts a number of allegedly unqualified people in the top job at VOA. He questions the Carter Administration's selection of Mary Bitterman to head the organization. She, according to an administration press release, is a former lecturer in history, a project manager for the Hawaiian Environmental Simulation Laboratory, and a member of the programming board for Hawaii's public broadcasting system. She is now executive director of Hawaii's public broadcasting authority. Her nomination is still to be approved by Congress.
If she is, the problem she will face is that, for all the organization's efforts to stand independent, it still has unquestionable ties to the political power centers in Washington. If the voice is to fulfill its objective of "conveying information that is credible -- that will be accepted as truthful, over the air," as Hans Tuck puts it -- it will have to prove itself daily to its listeners.
To people like Dith Pran, a lot hangs in the balance. In places such as Cambodia, he says, 'Most people pay attention to the voice of America. It's very important to them."