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An Update on "Bad News at the VOA"

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Date: Wed, 13 Dec 1995 08:33:07 -0800

An update to "Bad News at the VOA"

     "Bad News at the VOA" was posted to the
net and faxed out at about 1:00am last Friday
morning.  By 8:30 that morning, the
Director's office of the VOA phoned and we
will meet this coming Friday morning.  To
VOA's credit, they responded immediately to
the allegations, appear to be taking them
seriously and are investigating.  There is
not much more that one could ask from a
government agency.

     The genesis of the article on the VOA
was an incident I witnessed just after the
release of Aung San Suu Kyi.  Immediately
after her release, correspondents from the
VOA and British Broadcasting Company asked
for interviews.  BBC got a long, live
interview.  The VOA correspondents remained
stuck outside the gate for several days until
one finally got a fifteen minute interview. 
The VOA correspondent had to share even that
time with other journalists.  VOA has since
gotten other interviews, but it was
enlightening to see who, during the initial
confusion, was viewed with respect and who
was not.

     After that, I spent some time in Rangoon
talking to people who listen to VOA, BBC and
the Democratic Voice of Burma.  The general
assessment was that the VOA was inferior at
best, and pro-SLORC at worst.  The US
Government is supposed to be on the side of
democracy in Burma so it was disturbing that
our natural friends and allies would look at
any American official and see SLORC.  I
suppose it's no great revelation that not
everyone who is supposed to be on the side of
democracy is a friend, but it's disappointing

     The Associated Press has now done an
article on similar allegations coming from
pro-democracy groups based in Thailand and
the Washington Times is working on an article
as well.    The VOA is doing an internal
investigation and has broadcast news of the
allegations to Burma.  At least one
Congressional oversight committee is looking
into this as well.  But I'm not sure that all
this is good news.

     VOA news is essential in countries other
than Burma.  Wherever a government controls
the media, alternatives like the VOA are
invaluable.  Despite the VOA's importance, it
has powerful enemies in the Congress who
would like to kill it. As flawed as the
Burmese-language service is, it would be a
disaster for the VOA's enemies to use this
issue to harm the entire agency.  All of this
points up that the issue is not punishing
individual wrong doing, but is instead about
quickly removing any bias in the programming. 
The stakes in all of this are 80 minutes--the
80 minutes a day that VOA broadcasts to
Burma.  A Burmese student put it best when
she wrote to me:

     The people of Burma have no clue as to
     the true situation of the world or the
     pro-democracy movement.  Everything that
     the SLORC tells is a lie and they depend
     on the radio for true information about
     life and society.  The VOA, which comes
     on 40 minutes in the morning and 40
     minutes at night in Burma, is their
     lifeline to the world and to their goal
     for a better future. [Those who
     broadcast biased news] are destroying
     the hopes of the 45 million people in
     Burma for freedom and democracy."

And now for some good news.  An article
posted from an account previously used to
distribute SLORC views has posted an article
praising the VOA's Burmese language service. 
If the SLORC likes it, something must be
wrong.  And there is this from VOA listeners
in Thailand:

     ...since Tuesday, [VOA] coverage changed
     dramatically.  For the first time, the
     coverage was primarily pro-democracy:
     coverage of the UN Resolution and an
     analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi's views on
     the National Convention.  They also
     called up Maung Maung Aye, Information
     Minister of the NCGUB based in Mae Sot,
     for an interview.   They haven't done
     anything like this in ages.  All 
     pro-democracy people here are really
     thrilled with the change and just
     praying it lasts!

     Finally, I should make a correction and
a clarification.  In the original article, I
referred to the VOA Director as Jesse Cowan. 
I've since been told that it is
Geoffrey(sp?), not Jesse Cowan.  My apologies
to Mr. Cowan for getting that wrong.  Also, I
want to make clear that I don't speak for
anyone but myself.  If you have questions
about the views of any individual or
organization referred to in my article,
you'll have to ask them directly.  I
apologize to BurmaNet readers for not stating
that clearly from the start.


   Douglas Steele
   Washington, DC