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Voice of America Pulls Reporter Off Air Amid Government Pressure


Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or across@spj.org
Charles N. Davis, SPJ FOI Committee co-chairman, 573/882-5736 or daviscn@missouri.edu
Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Committee co-chairman, 406/542-4449 or ian@kpax.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Voice of America’s decision to yank a reporter off the air after her interview with a Taliban official was an insult to the worldwide fight for press freedoms and a blow to the organization’s journalistic credibility, says the Society of Professional Journalists.

Former Voice of America officials pulled 20-year employee Spozhmai Maiwandi off the air after State Department officials criticized a report that included her interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The report was put on hold after the State Department’s comments but eventually aired Sept. 25 when VOA employees became infuriated with the situation.

After the report was broadcast, Maiwandi was “promoted” to a position where she is rarely allowed on the air. She and her news director say the outside pressure also prompted VOA officials to ban interviews with any official from countries that sponsor terrorism. VOA's Horace Cooper, however, told SPJ that VOA's current leadership has no agenda against Maiwandi.

“As America fights a war against terrorism to protect our freedom, it must be careful not to undermine the freedoms that make America a beacon to the world,” said SPJ President Al Cross, a political writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. “Punishing a VOA employee in this fashion does incalculable damage to VOA’s credibility, which must be maintained in order to achieve its mission.”

Maiwandi, an Afghanistan native, is a Washington-based VOA reporter who, for the past 10 years, has headed VOA’s Pashtu language service. She conducted a phone interview with the Taliban leader shortly before he disappeared, and about 40 seconds of the interview were used in the Sept. 25 radio report that quoted President Bush, a Northern Alliance leader and a Georgetown University academic.

“This action besmirches the long and distinguished record of Voice of America serving as a model of American press freedom,” said Charles N. Davis, co-chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “This reeks of propagandistic manipulation.”

The issue concerns SPJ leaders because of the far-reaching implications of Voice of America’s actions. VOA’s move could give news organizations, especially government-run entities in other countries, support for pressuring or gagging reporters who they deem overcritical or overzealous in their quest for fair and balanced reporting. VOA’s action also condoned bending to government pressure on access to sources and information and providing the public with unbalanced reports – practices the Society strongly opposes.

“VOA apparently was subscribing to a new kind of post-September 11 political correctness. Namely, that there is only one viewpoint that counts – the American government’s,” said Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Committee co-chairman and special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network in Missoula, Mont. “While that might be popular here at home, it’s not acceptable on the world stage. If VOA wants to retain credibility as a source of news around the world, it cannot engage in this kind of censorship.”

Voice of America’s action also went against its charter, as established in 1976 by President Ford.

“VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news,” the charter states. “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institution.”

Anyone wishing to voice disdain for Voice of America’s action can contact the organization at 202/619-2538 or voanews@voanews.com.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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