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Voice of anti-Americans

National | With the United States at war, why is Uncle Sam funding radio broadcasts favorable to the enemy?

Issue: "Politics Post 9/11," Nov. 17, 2001

in Washington-Across western Africa, a Muslim-dominated radio outlet crackled with talk of the enemy. The metaphor was a game of checkers: "We're waiting to see the U.S. make a move. Then we'll make our move. Let President Bush make his move. We're ready to finish this game." One long-time Christian missionary in Nigeria (whose name WORLD is withholding because of fears for his safety) said he couldn't believe his ears when he heard that recent broadcast-because it came from the Voice of America, courtesy of American taxpayers. "You've got Americans in the crossfire in Nigeria," he said, referring to riots between Muslims and Christians that have left thousands dead in Nigeria over the last two years. "Professors are using their homes to offer refuge to hundreds of Christians from the riots. And some of the inciting of the Muslims and some of the accelerating anti-Americanism is coming from the VOA." Muslim staffers dominate the VOA's Hausa-language service, which broadcast the checkers metaphor, and they've become infamous inside Nigeria for offering no equal time to Christians. Grace Abdu, deputy director of news and current affairs at the Plateau Radio and Television Corporation in the city of Jos in Nigeria's "middle belt," says the VOA service is so biased that the local newspaper has editorialized against it. The Plateau State's legislative assembly (which includes her husband) has passed a resolution condemning one-sided reporting from the VOA, as well as the Hausa services of the British Broadcasting Corporation and Deutsche Welle (the Voice of Germany). Recent riots in Jos have further eroded trust of the VOA. "People here have depended on the international broadcasts for fairness and objectivity," said Mrs. Abdu. "Now they see that these people are one-sided, and their credibility is almost totally lost." Mrs. Abdu says the bias will continue unless the VOA insists on a religious balance on the staff that includes Christian Hausa speakers. Complaints about bias have echoed for years, but after the terrorist attacks on America, missionaries have begun writing members of Congress to demand new attention to VOA content. Some of those legislators are taking notice. U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) learned of an Oct. 15 VOA-Housa interview with Nigerian Muslim leader Sheik Dahiru Mohammed Buachi, which aired just after hundreds of Muslims and Christians died in violence in the northern town of Kano. The sheik, according to Mr. Weldon's source, "was highly critical of Americans for being arrogant and taking delight in people's suffering.... He was highly critical of President Obasanjo of Nigeria for coming out in support of America. He said Americans were just out to run down Islam and that they are killing innocent Muslims in Afghanistan." The sheik even said America was partly to blame for Nigeria's crisis. Mr. Weldon fired off a letter to brand-new VOA director Robert Reilly demanding a transcript of the interview. He and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, plan to meet with Mr. Reilly this week. Another interested congressman is U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House International Relations committee's subcommittee on Africa. He's spent the last few weeks butting heads with the VOA over allegations that the VOA's Pashto-language service in Afghanistan has favored the Taliban, and has fought VOA opposition to his bill to recreate a "Radio Free Afghanistan," which passed the House last week by a vote of 405 to 2. But government-funded broadcasters have often thumbed their noses at any attempts to analyze their content, whether the analysts are congressmen or taxpayers. Supporters of VOA "independence" argue that the service should strive for accurate news that doesn't sound like horn-tooting propaganda. But critics say the VOA's lack of monitoring allows broadcasts that have devolved into propaganda for other countries and causes. Aside from the issues of reporting on violence, missionaries have complained to Mr. Weldon that recent VOA reports claimed the city of Jos is 80 percent Muslim and 15 percent Christian, when those percentages are so inaccurate they should be reversed. They also charge that the weekly VOA-Hausa program "Islam in the U.S." reports that Christianity is losing out to Islam in America. The TeamBush response to congressional demands for action could be critical to moving VOA, but the State Department is cool to the idea of "Radio Free Afghanistan." Whatever the outcome, the emerging controversy in Washington will center on the question: What do the words "Voice of America" mean? Will the VOA offer the world the American point of view, or will lax management and fear of censorship charges allow, at least in some regions, an American-funded voice of anti-Americanism?

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