Oral Testimony of Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, Chairman,Broadcasting Board of Governors, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, on American Public Diplomacy in the Islamic World
Secretary of State Powell’s presentation to the United Nations two weeks ago laying out the case that Iraq has failed to halt its banned weapons programs was beyond any doubt among the most important statements in the war on terrorism —one that everyone in the world needed to hear.
Had Secretary Powell delivered that speech only two years ago, most people in the Arab Middle East would have heard it only through the distorted filter of radio and television stations controlled by those hostile to the United States. Only a tiny fraction would have had the patience to tune in the Voice of America’s Arabic service that was broadcast exclusively on scratchy short wave.
Today the situation is very different. Thanks to the creation of Radio Sawa and its journalistic leadership, millions of people in the Arab world — and most notably the people of Iraq — heard simultaneous translations of the Secretary’s case broadcast live, with later programs that reexamined the evidence supporting America’s case against Saddam Hussein.
In an age when Arab boycotts of American products are widespread, a U.S. government-run radio station almost overnight has become the most popular voice of its kind in major portions of the Middle East. Including Baghdad.
How did this come to be?
Months before the horrors of September 11, my predecessors on the Broadcasting Board of Governors—in no small part energized by my colleague Norman Pattiz—recognized the need for a far greater U.S. broadcast presence in the Middle East. These activists, recognizing that in the Middle East short wave is a vehicle of the past, set about negotiating agreements that would give us powerful AM transmitters broadcasting throughout the region from Cyprus and Djibouti. We added FM stations in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Djibouti. We also broadcast on digital audio satellite—and the Internet.
In the beginning some dismissed Sawa because its format featured the best of Western and Arabic pop music — not understanding this music could attract a huge under-30 audience for accurate news and current affairs. Today daily features like “Ask the World Now,” where statements of top U.S. policymakers are used to answer questions from listeners, and “The Free Zone,” a weekly discussion of democracy and human rights in the Middle East enhance Sawa’s basic news coverage. Whenever important events warrant, Radio Sawa interrupts its regular format to present complete coverage of events like Secretary Powell’s presentation or President Bush’s speech at AEI last night projecting his vision for a post-Saddam Iraq.
It’s little wonder that Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has called the station “the triumph of the Bush Administration’s focus on public diplomacy abroad.”
Sawa may be the star of our efforts in the war on terrorism — but it is only one of our recent initiatives and only one approach to international broadcasting. We have added Radio Farda — a 24/7 service to the youth of Iran while maintaining VOA’s Persian broadcasting via television and radio and Internet for older audiences. Mr. Chairman, may I submit for the record a recent New York Times article: “U.S.’s Powerful Weapon in Iran: VOA TV.” VOA has added a new Arabic language Web Site aimed at opinion leaders throughout the region. The combined signals of VOA and RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan delivers news and information to an astonishingly high audience there. VOA and Radio Free Asia have doubled broadcast hours to North Korea—and we hope to do more. Meanwhile, RFA continues to build on its record of scholarship and journalistic integrity to a largely information-deprived part of the world. Nineteen of RFE/RL’s 34 language services broadcast to nations with Muslim