I am of that age where I need to replace all of my metal fillings to prevent further decay. So every Monday for the past month, I have spent two hours at the office of Dr. Tuan Tran, my dentist.
It is an unsuspecting place to get content for a piece I had been wanting to write on the 75th anniversary of Voice of America (VOA) and its future prospects in the Trump era. Just proves that storytellers are everywhere, and you have to be ready to listen.
On my last visit, after the Novocain shot but before the hygienist inserted the cotton swabs and bite guard into my mouth, Dr. Tran asked me, “What have you been up to, Riva?”
I mentioned to him that I had just been on “Voice of America’s Straight Talk Africa” TV, part of the “VOA’s English to Africa” service. The segment was in celebration of International Women’s Day.
Then I was rendered mute by the hygienist and Dr. Tran started to reminisce, which was out of character for him.
VOA began radio broadcasting in 1942, to combat Nazi propaganda. Per its charter, it is mandated to “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” Since WWII, it has been the front-edge of America’s informational interface with citizens around the world, particularly those battling dictatorships and tyranny.
From the war in the Koreas, the workers movements in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet Union, the democratic movements in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, VOA has been the top news source for people yearning for democracy and freedom, and it is often the first signal to be jammed by authoritarian leaders seeking to suppress access to information.
Speaking in between the rounds of drilling, Dr. Tran explained to me that he was born in 1968 and lived in Saigon, Vietnam, and that his father, Hoa, studied engineering in France. “That was before 1975, when the communists took over,” he pointed out.
Dr. Tran continued, “I was only 7, but I remember my family coming to a standstill in the early evenings when it was time to tune in to the Voice of America broadcast. We were often in the company of neighbors. No one talked. We just listened, fixed on the radio.”
“My family immigrated to the United States in 1982 to flee the communist repression, but until the day we departed, we continued to listen to the VOA, shades drawn, in an interior room, as VOA was considered incendiary propaganda by the communists. We didn’t want to be turned in.”
As he debated whether to fill my molar with composite or porcelain, Dr. Tran paused and said, “You know, I hadn’t thought about VOA for 30 years, but I remember things like they were just yesterday.”
Dr. Tran’s childhood recollections validated for me what I had witnessed myself, traveling in the developing world for the past 30 years, much of the time in Africa. The VOA brand was unrivaled, and that it was unrivaled because it represented the values of the United States.
I recall being deep in the bush of Southern Angola in the summer of 1988, it was at the height of the Angolan civil war between American-backed rebels, and the Soviet-supported government. I was positioned at a forward rebel camp, accompanied by journalists. The troops were boisterous, trading cigarettes, lining up for food, and sharing stories, then without warning, the place fell dead silent.
It startled me, almost as much as the sound of gunfire did the day before. And then I came to realize that everyone was grouping around their short-wave radios. It was time for the Portuguese-Africa VOA radio broadcast!
Earlier this month, almost three decades later, I was in West Africa, in Monrovia, Liberia, in a rented car driving to the Mamba Point Hotel. My driver turned to me, “Madam Riva, it is time for the Voice of America broadcast. Please. Do you mind if I switch it on,” he asked apologetically.
VOA is the largest public diplomacy program of the United States government and broadcasts in more than 40 languages. Serving an estimated weekly global audience of 236.6 million, they provide news, information, and cultural programming through the Internet, mobile and social media, radio, and television. Its programming is some of the most popular in their markets, like Shaka Ssali’s “Straight Talk Africa.”
With today’s information overload, where fake news goes viral, and real news is labeled fake, where hacks and leaks dominate our news cycle, Voice of America is an indispensable tool in our engagement with global citizens.
As President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE considers his priorities, as he looks to beef up the U.S. military, and potentially make major cuts in diplomacy, and as the Congress reviews his 2018 budget submitted this week to Congress, they should be reminded that the fate of nations over this past decade has changed on a dime. And it was not weapons systems that fell these governments, but the power of information to mobilize a people. For good or for bad.
When you consider recent history, the sophistication of Russia’s disinformation campaign, and the online recruitment tools ISIS uses, VOA’s importance is clear. President Trump should be “doubling down” on its broadcasts, and not considering cuts for a network that dispatches truth, hope and inspiration to some of the most volatile parts of the world. Further, he should take care to safeguard VOA’s integrity, its gold-standard global media brand.
Last year, the part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversaw the VOA programming, and that of its other broadcasting partners, including Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, was abolished through an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, and replaced with a full-time CEO appointed by the president. The move by the Republicans was seen as a way to streamline management but a lot of power is now concentrated in a single presidential appointment.
President Trump must ensure that this first-time CEO will have the credentials to guide the broadcasters into a new era, and permit the independence of its journalists. Further, the Republican Congress, which sponsored the amendment, including the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce (R-Calif.), must ensure that the provision of the bill, which directs an inspector general from the State Department to ensure, “respect for journalistic integrity of all the broadcasters covered by this Act,” is monitored and enforced.
“I can’t believe that Donald Trump would consider cutting the budget of VOA,” said Dr. Tran as he elevated my chair so I could rinse and then reapply my lipstick to my temporarily paralyzed face.
“Ask any political refugee from my generation who came to this country seeking freedom about their views of VOA. Ask those coming to the United States now,” he urged me. “They will tell you that the VOA broadcasts mattered to them. That they counted on them, like they have always counted on America.”
As I exited the office I was chased down the hall by Mila, Dr. Tran’s receptionist. “Here is your next appointment card. You still have three fillings left to replace.”
K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016), Finalist, Forward Reviews INDIES ‘Book of the Year’ Awards in biography and memoir.
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