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Voice of America steps up propaganda war
By Dilshad D. Ali-IOL

One evening while fiddling with his digital satellite receiver, Tarek Zeiden in Egypt discovered a new channel - 7 degrees west - with "VOA" marked on his display. There was no content on the channel, just the sounds of a test tone. He later posted a question about the channel to a Communications World chat session with Kim Elliot, a producer for Voice of America.

"Tarek, that VOA channel has to do with a major VOA initiative to improve its audience size and impact in the Arab world," Elliot said. "The project has been discussed with some VOA employees but not yet formally announced."

Though it was meant to be hush-hush, VOA's pending service - the Middle Eastern Radio Network - has garnered a rush of attention in light of recent events. Norman Pattiz, a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors is spearheading the initiative set to pummel the 25-and-under Arab population with popular music spliced with American news, policies and beliefs.

In an interview on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor last week, Pattiz said music would be used to reel in a young Arab audience. "But when you take a look at what our mission really is [it's] to promote freedom and democracy through a free-flow of accurate, reliable and credible news and information about America and the world to audiences overseas," said Pattiz

"We will clearly identify the editorial position of the United States government," he added.

The hope is to gain a stronger foothold in the broadcast propaganda wars, which the United States is sorely losing according to numerous media critics. VOA, which falls under the arm of the U.S. broadcasting services, currently has a trivial Arab-language service that reaches only two percent of the Arab population. Whether it's objective news or out-and-out propaganda, little U.S. news reaches the Arab world, according to various surveys.

The public relations war is already afoot in Afghanistan. According to The Christian Science Monitor, the U.S. military is believed to be broadcasting propaganda messages and music from EC-130 planes over Afghanistan. And a $14 million-dollar Radio Free Afghanistan service is already being ushered through Congress. But the crowning glory is Pattiz's Middle Eastern Radio Network.

His plan for the proposed $30 million network calls for five regional streams in separate Arab dialects on AM and FM frequencies. In addition to music, the 24-hour programming will include youth-oriented content at half-hour intervals. Operations will emanate out of Washington D.C, with the broadcasts centered most likely out of Dubai.

The plan will build or lease a series of FM transmitters at various sites in the Middle East. But some of the negotiations are creating trouble in countries where the governments are wary of U.S-style reporting and don't want the deals publicized, VOA officials have said. 

U.S. broadcasters say there is a desire for American programming in the Middle East. "We want to diversify to reach all [the youths], from kids throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank to college students and tomorrow's leaders," Pattiz said in a recent interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

And if some Middle Eastern countries want to ban American broadcasts, the VOA will be prepared, Pattiz said. 

"That's why we have powerful transmitters from outside the region; so if somebody was to threaten to pull the plug on us, our listeners will know where they can reach us on other frequencies. We'll also be distributed on digital audio satellite.

"There's the war of bombs and guns, and then there's the war for the hearts and minds in that part of the world," Pattiz added in an earlier interview.

But though it's receiving a lot of support in Congress, the proposed network also has its critics. Its very nature is somewhat contradictory of the VOA's charter. Though funded by the U.S. government to explain U.S. policies worldwide, VOA's charter also calls for "accurate, objective and comprehensive news and a broad spectrum of American thought and institutions." 

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said earlier that while the State Department recognizes the independence of the VOA and its commitment to objective journalism, the radio station is accountable to its charter, to its board and to its country.

It's inevitable during wartime that the government will want to influence radio broadcasts, Pattiz said. That's the very reason the new Middle Eastern Radio Network is so vital to the government's campaign in Afghanistan and the Middle East, he added. Some journalists, however, are disturbed at the sudden surge of support for the new service, and believe it isn't good to create transmitting signals that will circumvent the wishes of some targeted countries. One VOA journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said being so cavalier about the wishes of other countries might prove more problematic in the long run for America.

"If the VOA wants to offer a service tailored for an Arab audience, that's fine. The VOA was created to be just that - the Voice of America. And of course America wants to tell its side of the story in Middle Eastern countries. It wants to influence Arab youth not to become terrorists, to become the kind of 'good Arab' America wants them to be. But to build transmitters that will reach a country's population whether that country wants it or not, it's a bit arrogant," the journalist said. "It'll probably create more problems later on. You have to work with other countries to get your messages broadcasted. You shouldn't force it upon anyone," he added.

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