Sunday, January 27, 2008

Voice of America 2.0? Charter is Void When Inconvenient

Sometime in the mid 1980's, I remember being rung at 3 AM by Charles Z. Wick, then Director of the US Information Agency at the time when VOA has just started its VOA Europe service. As a journalist, I had put in a call to question the wisdom of this idea to "correct the image of the US amongst the minds of European youth". Charles was having problems understanding time zones. VOA Europe later had a much bigger problem with the programming - mixing Madonna (the Music) with short radio features on American life, about firestations in Pennsylvania ("the More").

Since the programming wasn't culturally sensitive, and the DJ's were trying to sound "local" from a studio 6 times zones away in Washington, the project of "government-people" communication failed miserably, ending up as filler on some of the emerging private stations in Eastern Europe. These station owners liked the music, but replaced the VOA News with their own bulletins. VOA Europe has long since gone. But Radio Farda and Radio Sawa are doing a similar kind of thing in Iran and the Middle East respectively.

Actually, Radio Farda and Radio Sawa are much cleverer in their programming than VOA Europe ever was, their problem is that their success is linked to the credibility of the US in that region as a whole - and that has never been lower.

Now it would seem Donald Rumsfeld (yes, it is he) believes a new form of propaganda agency is needed - presumably not to reach old Europe, but South Asia, Middle East and Latin America. Wired carried a piece on it last week, quoting Rumsfeld at the press conference.

Private media does not get up in the morning and say what can we do to promote the values and ideas that the free Western nations believe in? It gets up in the morning and says they're going to try to make money by selling whatever they sell... The way they decided to do that is to be dramatic and if it bleeds it leads is the common statement in the media today. They've got their job, and they have to do that, and that's what they do.

We need someone in the United States government, some entity, not like the old USIA . . . I think this agency, a new agency has to be something that would take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that exist today. There are multiple channels for information . . . The Internet is there, blogs are there, talk radio is there, e-mails are there. There are all kinds of opportunities. We do not with any systematic organized way attempt to engage the battle of ideas and talk about the idea of beheading, and what it's about and what it means. And talk about the fact that people are killing more Muslims than they are non-Muslims, these extremists. They're doing it with suicide bombs and the like. We need to engage and not simply be passive and allow that battle of competition of ideas.

Remember it is not the first time the US government has played with clandestine radio and propaganda. They first ran Radio Swan just before the Cuban invasion, then a series of stations in the 1980's from Honduras, aimed at Nicaragua. Rumsfeld actually tried a version of this himself in Iraq, the results of which were a disaster. The Pentagon hired the Lincoln Group to pull off a propaganda campaign designed at discrediting the insurgency. This amounted to planting fake news stories in the Iraqi press written by soldiers that said things like the insurgents "crawled on their bellies like dogs in the mud." For this, the Pentagon spent more than US $25 million.

When war breaks out, the US always brings in their psycological warfare teams and fly planes over the area to persuade locals they are the friend not the foe. They use radio and leaflets. In the first Gulf war in 1991 they were active as I reported on Radio Netherlands' Media Network show

At first glance, the dull grey propeller-driven E-130 aircraft converted from cargo service, looks as slow and clunky. But Commando Solo II is in fact a special modified US$70 million plane, where the fuselage has been stuffed with computers, radio and TV production equipment, and quite powerful radio and TV transmitters. This gear allows the plane's 11-man crew to jam selected TV and radio broadcasts and substitute messages - true or false - on any frequency.

Commando Solo has already been battle-tested by the 193rd Special Operations Group, an Air National Guard unit based in the US state of Pennsylvania. During the Persian Gulf War, the plane's crew broadcast radio reports on military frequencies targeted at Iraqi soldiers, including some of the next areas to be targeted by US bombers. As a result, it is claimed, many Iraqi soldiers deserted those positions. To prepare Haiti for the US intervention there, Commando Solo beamed in radio and TV messages from deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Each broadcast began with the crow of a rooster, the symbol of Aristide's political party

In the second Gulf war, the airplanes went home too early, leaving the airwaves wide open to their enemies. Iran moved up mobile transmitters to the border with Iraq and used TV to fill the gap left by the demise of the old Radio TV Baghdad.

So, yes, the US seriously needs to review its overseas public diplomacy efforts. But the Rumsfeld approach is not the way of the 21st century and 2008 is not the year to be doing it.

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