Boldly going where no one has gone before, the Clinton administration is busy renting out its broadcast studios to the Saudi king’s brother-in-law, whose new weekly call-in show, “Dialogue with the West,” airs inside the kingdom and in neighboring countries. The hour-long program is officially a joint venture of Voice of America (VOA), Worldnet and the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), owned by Walid al-Ibrahim, a relative of His Royal Highness, and part of the Al Sa’ud’s increasingly visible media empire.
VOA, like other agencies of the Cold War national security state, is driven to innovate in order to protect its position in post-Cold War Washington. This has led new director Geoffrey Cowan to embrace the Saudi-controlled MBC. VOA supplies studio facilities and technical support in exchange for new non-short wave outlets for its programming. In the case of the “Dialogue” program, a VOA personality fills one of the two co-anchor seats while its executives share “mutual editorial control” with their Saudi partners. This “sharing” has some VOA journalists worried that they are becoming mere propagandists for “foreign despots.” When “Dialogue” premiered on January 5, its opening news summary segment omitted any mention of the day’s undeniably important story, namely, the British government’s decision to deport the dissident Islamist Muhammad al-Masra‘i.
Dissidents inside VOA began to circulate a petition around the office. Making good use of the State Department’s annual human rights report, the manifesto begins with a pithy account of Saudi ruling style (no political parties, torture, administrative detention and no human rights organizations) and warms that VOA’s integrity is threatened “when we partner with dictators who oppose every principle of freedom.” The crux of the matter is that VOA’s royal “affiliate” in this case is able to influence programming, ostensibly against official American journalism’s abiding respect for reporting news “without fear or favor.”
We hope that the irony in this somewhat overwrought defense of a Cold War monument was not lost on the petition’s author Carolyn Weaver when, a few weekends later, she caught a hack who works for USIA security (VOA is officially a part of the United States Information Agency) trying to enter her locked office! When confronted, he said he had been sent “to see if there were classified documents left out in this office.” Her own boss, Cowan, an ex-public interest lawyer, author (he once wrote a play about the Pentagon Papers) and a darling of the Los Angeles Times, shrugged off the bungled break-in: “I can’t imagine that this has anything to do with your petition.” Meanwhile, Aziz Fahmy, Washington bureau chief of Saudi MBC, having mounted a defense of his own (dismissing the Masra‘i story as merely “a marginal case of one individual Saudi dissident…and not an East-West issue,” for example), has been trawling for names of the petition signers.
For sheer effrontery, Fahmy cannot hold a candle to VOA czar Cowan, who has been busily working overtime to repackage the agency for the post-Cold War era (“a voice of sanity” in a world “confused about the future”) to, it is hoped, ward off its enemies, namely, budget-obsessed legislators on the one hand and business interests eyeing media markets in Europe and Asia on the other. In an era of “globalization,” VOA represents a state-subsidized competitor to NBC, USA Today and CNN. In a recent interview on the CBS program “Reinventing America” Cowan was pressed to defend the VOA as “a relic from World War II.” When asked pointedly if it was “ever the tool of the CIA or the military” he dissembled like a seasoned Washington veteran: “Certainly in recent times, the VOA has not been in any way connected with the CIA.” But back in November 1988, Carolyn Weaver, who is now leading the campaign to break VOA’s Saudi connection, documented the use of the agency in support of covert operations abroad (“When the Voice of America Ignores Its Charter,” Columbia Journalism Review).