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When I arrived at the Voice of America in 1999 as its director, its top five countries, in numbers of listeners, were China, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan. That's right, Afghanistan.
And Afghans are still listening to the V.O.A. Research last year estimated that 80 percent of the men in Afghanistan listened to V.O.A. news at least once a week in Pashto or Dari, the country's two principal languages; 67 percent listened every day. (The Taliban would not permit a survey of women.) Even some of the Taliban themselves have admitted to visiting American journalists that the V.O.A. is their main news source. They know that their own radio is pure propaganda.
The Voice of America wins listeners because it is not propaganda because people around the world know they can count on it for fair and balanced coverage when their own news outlets are often slanted to protect the governments in power. The V.O.A. broadcasts more than 900 hours of original programming every week, in 53 languages, to some 100 million people around the world. From its first broadcast, on Feb. 24, 1942, when it pledged in German to give the real news of World War II, it has promised the truth. The trust that it has earned can't be taken for granted especially by our own government.
Late last month, the State Department, in a bizarre episode of bad editorial judgment and patriotic censorship, pressured the V.O.A. not to air excerpts from an exclusive interview with Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and a defender of Osama bin Laden. It was inappropriate, officials said, to spend taxpayers' money to broadcast his voice.
Caught by surprise, the Broadcasting Board of Governors the panel of private citizens created by Congress in 1998 to serve as a firewall between the State Department and government-funded radio found itself unable to act quickly enough to protect the V.O.A.'s integrity and credibility. Five days passed before the V.O.A. included some brief comments from Mullah Omar in a background report that featured other voices and views; even this modest step provoked a new round of denunciations and threats. This damaging episode demonstrated an insensitivity within our own government to the importance of maintaining journalistic standards, even in time of crisis.
In 1976, Congress belatedly enacted a charter for the Voice of America, mandating that it be an objective source of balanced international news and broad coverage of American institutions and policies. After some rough moments during the cold war, the V.O.A. evolved into a highly effective and credible player in the worldwide flow of information across borders. In many hot spots around the world, its correspondents are among the best and most courageous. Its two-source rule prevents it from making mistakes common in some other international news services. It reflects the daily experience of American democracy, warts and all.
Credibility takes a long time to build, but it can be quickly lost. We need only remember how the reputation of the British Broadcasting Corporation, another publicly funded news service, suffered when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government would not permit it to air the voice of Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein. The BBC did not recover its well-deserved stature for years.
Now more than ever, the Voice of America has important work to do. It must be able to interview anyone anywhere at any time, without fear of rebuke or reprisal, in order to provide honest and full coverage of momentous events. The State Department should keep its hands and editing pencils off the news.Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College, was director of the Voice of America from 1999 to 2001.