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Public Diplomacy and International Exchange 

U.S. Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes said last week that international exchange programs are the most effective and successful part of U.S. public diplomacy. A number of political leaders and members of the media have studied in the United States and that experience has profoundly affected their professional lives.

Babak Yektafar heads a bilingual media project in Washington, DC, and he publishes a weekly magazine for Persian-speaking people in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and the Iranian diaspora. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Yektafar said that after studying communications at Fairleigh Dickenson College in New Jersey he worked at C-SPAN as a TV news producer.

That is where he learned the importance of “context” – that is, assuming that the reader or viewer is confronting a story for the first time and needs some background to put it in context. According to Mr. Yektafar, “sourcing” is a major element in U.S. journalism. In contrast, he said, Iranian reporters – when questioned about their sources for a story – often reply, “Well, everybody knows that.” It’s his pet peeve, he said. “Objectivity” is another hallmark of American journalism, Babak Yektafar explained. For example, no matter how one feels about a story, it is essential to recognize that there is another side to it that people need to hear so they can make up their own minds.

Turkish free-lance journalist Nilay Karaelmas, who has had a long career in both print and electronic media, agreed. She studied journalism at New York University and worked as a U.N. correspondent during the 1991 Gulf War. She said she learned that you have to confirm any story from at least two sources. In her opinion, freedom of expression is the basic element of U.S. journalism. In contrast, she noted that in Turkey, there are taboos on certain subjects that call into question one’s loyalty to the state.

Maria Trach noted that in Ukraine – as in Turkey – journalists in the past had to be careful what they wrote about. Ms. Trach, who studied at Ball State University in Indiana, now works as a news producer for a television channel in Kiev. She said she feels even more strongly about the value of a free press as the result of her experience during the 2004 Orange Revolution. Ms. Trach said, despite pressure by the television management to tell only “half-truths,” she and her editor-in-chief, who had also studied in the States, fought to tell “both sides of the story.”

Afghan writer Rahim Aziz, who has studied at three U.S. universities, agreed that an independent media is the foundation for responsible journalism. He said journalism in the United States, unlike in Afghanistan, is free from government control. He noted that in Afghanistan, journalism – like politics – is dominated by ethnic and sectarian interests, something he hopes will change in time.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.