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Ethnic Media Serve News to America's Newcomers - 2003-07-16

If you ask people in Washington, D.C. about their favorite news source, they might say The Washington Post or CNN. Or they might say the Korean Broadcasting Network or the Spanish language television network Telemundo. Like many metropolitan areas across the United States, the Washington area is home to a growing number of immigrants, and that's brought an increase in foreign language radio and television stations, newspapers and Internet sites. VOA's Nancy Beardsley has more.

It's 9:30 p.m. in the Washington, D.C., region, time for many Korean Americans to tune in to a local cable television program called Newsline.

The Korean Broadcasting Network, or KBN, has been broadcasting news and entertainment for the past three and a half years. Some programs are produced in Korea, others at KBN's headquarters in Annandale, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Reporter Eun Hye Grace Lee believes part of the network's appeal is that the programming is in Korean.

"We are immigrants - in my case I've been here 5 years - and I'm still more comfortable with the Korean language," said Ms. Lee. "So a lot of people instead of watching CNN, they're watching Korean news, because we're covering the national news and also the local news."

KBN emphasizes news of special interest to the Korean American community - reports on changing immigration laws, for example, or on the participation of Korean-American soldiers in the Iraq War. KBN is one of 20-30 foreign language media outlets in Fairfax County, estimates Angie Carrera. She holds the newly-created position of language access coordinator for Fairfax County, which is one of Washington's largest suburban jurisdictions.

"I see more communities knowing what's going on and what services are available to them," says Ms. Carrera. "It actually gives people not only information about what's happening in their area, but it also gives them a sense of empowerment, that they can contact local officials, if they have interests or needs. I think they're a wonderful complement to the general media that's provided."

More than one million people in the Washington area speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 census. Their news and entertainment sources now range from international Spanish language TV networks like Telemundo to newsletters that circulate informally within immigrant communities. Some media ventures grow rapidly within a short period of time. Last year, a Vietnamese social services agency, Boat People SOS, launched a newsletter called Mach Song. From its base in suburban Washington, it now has a nationwide circulation of 50,000 copies a month. Boat People SOS director Nguyen Dinh Thang says it's also broken new ground.

"One of the issues we have focused on is family violence, which is a rather rampant, but silent problem in our community," said Mr. Thang. "When we wrote articles about those sensitive issues, initially there were some angry responses, but after a few issues people got more used to that kind of discussion and debate in public. We have received calls for help from victims of domestic violence from across the country."

Other immigrant journalists want to voice political opinions they believe are being ignored or dismissed by the mainstream media:

From a townhouse in northern Virginia, Lebanese immigrant Hikmat Beaini recently launched a 24 hour Internet radio site called Al-Hilm. He says the site combines Middle Eastern music with discussions aimed at promoting Arab unity. Since 1990, he's also published Al-Nashra, a monthly newsletter written in both English and Arabic.

"Our publication projects how Arabs and Muslims in the United States think, how they defend themselves against stereotypes and discrimination," said Mr. Beaini. "We've been voicing criticism of the foreign policy of the United States, not the United States itself. But nobody came and said, 'Stop publishing criticism of U.S. foreign policy.' So we are blessed in this country to have that kind of freedom." Hikmat Beaini relies mainly on family members for staffing, and he says he's struggled financially over the years. But he's also attracting a growing number of advertisers. "We started with very small businesses - Arabs who have bakeries, restaurants, stuff like that," said Mr. Beaini. "But now we have some advertisers like the National Security Agency recruiting Arab language analysts. Even the U.S. Army is advertising with us to recruit Arab-Americans to fight terrorism. So we are here to stay."

Vietnamese publisher Nguyen Dinh Thang also hopes his publication has a long future, which is one reason Mach Song is published in both English and Vietnamese.

"We want to target the younger Vietnamese generation in the U.S., who barely speak Vietnamese," said Mr. Thang. "And also we like to advertise our community to the mainstream community in preparation for the community to branch out and establish new partnerships. So it serves as a bridge between older Vietnamese and the younger ones, and also between the Vietnamese community in general and the mainstream society."

Fairfax County official Angie Carrera believes ethnic media can provide the same kind of bridge for Korean Americans, Latino Americans and other immigrant young people as they grow up and become more assimilated.

"I think there's always going to be a need for this kind of media. And I also think that young people can be more connected because we're not asking them to give up half of their world," said Ms. Carrera, language access coordinator for Fairfax County, Virginia.