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US Public Diplomacy Officials Appeal for Congressional Support in Mideast Efforts - 2004-02-10


Officials in charge of U.S. information and "public diplomacy" efforts have appealed to Congress to support expanded broadcasting and "outreach" programs to counteract anti-Americanism, particularly in the Middle East. The officials testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

The testimony came amid a continuing review of U.S. "public diplomacy" and its effectiveness since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Margaret Tutwiler, recently-appointed as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, said U.S. information efforts need to be more focused. "We need to continue to focus and deliver meaningful programs and activities in those areas of the world where there has been a deterioration in the view of our nation. That deterioration is, of course, most stark in the Arab and Muslim world," she said.

Republican Congressman Christopher Shays, chairman of the House subcommittee, cited findings that show the United States has not been able to get its messages across, particularly in the Middle East. "Nowhere is our stunted reach into the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims more obvious, or more perilous, than in Iraq. All public diplomacy in the region today should be keenly focused on persuading Iraqis and their neighbors [that] we are there as liberators, not occupiers," he said.

Mr. Shays and other lawmakers have been increasingly critical of how U.S. public diplomacy is carried out, from the work U.S. diplomats do overseas to radio and television broadcasting, saying these efforts have failed to change attitudes toward the United States, particularly among youth in the Middle East.

Some of this criticism has focused on Iraq, where a public communication campaign managed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been plagued by problems.

Where broadcasting is concerned, two members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. international broadcasting, said newer programming such as Radio Sawa in Arabic, and Radio Farda for Iran, have proven effective.

Board Chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, referred to an even newer effort due to be inaugurated in coming days, the Middle East Television Network. "Our competitive edge in the Middle East is our very dedication to truth, and free and open debate, and we will stand out like a beacon of light in a media market dominated by sensationalism and distortion," he said.

At the same time, Mr. Tomlinson noted that spending for U.S. international broadcasting declined by 40 percent between the end of the Cold War and the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Another board member, Norman Pattiz, says the media environment in the Middle East demands bolder and more creative steps aimed at counteracting disinformation about the United States. "In the Middle East, we are very unpopular. There is a wide variety of news organizations and they believe they are getting plenty of information but that media environment is characterized by "hate-speak" on radio and television, incitement to violence, disinformation, government censorship and journalistic self-censorship. So it is within that environment that the Arab "street" gets its opinions not only of U.S. policy, but of our people, our culture, our society, of all things American," he said.

BBG Chairman Tomlinson says the "firewall" that is supposed to shield the journalistic and newsgathering functions of U.S. international broadcasters, such as Voice of America and others, from U.S. government interference must be maintained. "We believe it is important to maintain the strength of public diplomacy, and the traditions of international broadcasting. I'm convinced that we will not be successful in our overall mission to delivering our message to the world if we fail to grasp that these are two independent spheres and they operate according to two sets of rules," he said.

Recent cutbacks announced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, including the end of VOA transmissions in 10 East European languages and reductions in others, have prompted renewed concern that focusing on the Middle East is weakening the VOA's overall role.

The Broadcasting Governors say budgetary realities and shifting priorities made the cuts necessary.

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