SCMP Friday, September 28, 2001

Gag feared after voice given to Taleban leader


Voice of America, the United States Government-funded international broadcaster, may face repercussions after it defied opposition from the US State Department by airing a report containing portions of an interview with the leader of Afghanistan's Taleban militia.
Extracts from the controversial interview, in which Mullah Mohammed Omar sought to explain why the Taleban would not turn over its "guest", alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden, were finally carried on the station's shortwave broadcasts on Wednesday (Hong Kong time) and posted on Voice of America's (VOA) Web site. But the full interview has still not been aired on the US Government-funded station - which broadcasts around the world in English and dozens of foreign languages - although copies of its text have emerged.
"We went ahead and ran it," said one VOA employee of the decision to include portions of the interview in a four-minute report, which also included the voices of US President George W. Bush, a spokesman for the Afghan Northern Alliance and Islam specialist John Esposito. This partially reversed the broadcaster's earlier decision to shelve broadcasting the interview last week, in response to objections from the State Department.
"Obviously, we are dismayed that they chose to ignore our recommendation," said a senior State Department official in response, adding that VOA's governing board, on which the department has a seat, would almost certainly review the matter.
"I would expect the board to take a look at this in light of the circumstances," the Senior State Department official said, noting that strong opposition to VOA airing any part of the interview had been expressed to the panel by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
US government officials objected to VOA airing the report because it contained the voice of Mr Omar and "we didn't think that the American taxpayer-funded Voice of America should be broadcasting the voice of the Taleban", State Department spokesman Richard Boucher earlier explained.
In addition to a review of the case by VOA's governing board, the broadcaster is expected to face harsh questioning from US lawmakers who have the final say over its funding. Many have complained about interviews VOA has aired in the past with controversial figures in the Middle East peace process.
The row over the interview is hugely embarrassing for VOA, which has been struggling to assert some editorial independence since it was formally removed from the auspices of the State Department in 1999 and placed under the control of the governors.
Although the broadcaster is funded by the US Congress, its editorial independence is guaranteed by its charter and many VOA journalists were outraged at the State Department intervention.
"It was flat-out censorship," said an employee who was one of more than 100 VOA journalists to sign a letter that said the move had damaged their credibility and put the integrity of VOA "at stake".
"If this is an indication of the gag order they're going to impose on us, we can't do our jobs," said another staff member, who asked not to be named.
But Mr Boucher denied this was the case. "We recognise the independence of the Voice of America," Mr Boucher said. "Its charter says that they should explain US government policy and present responsible discussion about it. We don't consider Mullah Omar to be responsible discussion."
However critics of the State Department's stance have likened it to the ban that then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher imposed in 1988 on the broadcasting of the voices of members of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. She justified this at the time as preventing terrorists and their supporters living off "the oxygen of publicity" but the ban was widely criticised and eventually lifted in 1994.