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U.S.: Congress Considers Campaign For Hearts And Minds Of Muslims

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to strengthen radio broadcasts into Afghanistan. Members of Congress say that often America's image is distorted by the media in largely Muslim countries and that it is time to set the record straight.

Washington, 11 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Members of the U.S. Congress say America must take immediate steps to improve its image in the Muslim world if it is to win the war on international terrorism.

Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) said yesterday at a congressional hearing on the role of U.S. public diplomacy in the fight against terrorism that the media in the Middle East has been key in spreading anti-U.S. sentiment across the Islamic world, depicting America as a force for evil in the world. Hyde is chairman of the House of Representatives International Affairs Committee.

Hyde said the U.S. must take steps to present a more positive picture of itself in the region, but had so far failed to do so.

"How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue (the centers of the American cinema and advertising) has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?"

Other members of the committee said the chief means of rectifying the situation lay with U.S.-funded overseas broadcasters Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

Congressman Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, said that while the U.S. was waging a strong war on land and on sea against terrorism, it was being "out-gunned, out-manned and out-maneuvered on the public information battlefield." Lantos said, "The mass riots (by Muslim crowds) we see in the streets of Indonesia, Pakistan and other nations is proof positive that we are losing this aspect of the war."

Lantos called on President George W. Bush to dramatically increase U.S. broadcasting to Afghanistan and the Muslim world, saying the funding should come from the $40 billion Congress had recently appropriated for the war on terrorism.

Although VOA's broadcasts to Afghanistan in Pashto and Dari -- the country's main languages -- reach an estimated 80 percent of the male population, a bill is now pending in Congress to start a second service there, Radio Free Afghanistan. The chief sponsor of the legislation says it should be run by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Committee members appeared to favor that bill, which currently has 33 co-sponsors and would essentially revive the Afghan service run by RFE/RL in 1985-1993, provided it did not take money away from VOA's Afghan programming.

Ed Royce, the California Republican who introduced the bill, said Radio Free Afghanistan would be "the voice of Afghans talking about the radicalism of the Taliban that would be our best ally."

One point of debate, however, has been the extent to which U.S.-funded broadcasts should present a "balanced" picture on stories involving terrorists and their supporters. VOA has recently been criticized for giving air time to pro-Taliban voices, but says it is simply providing balanced news.

Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, made this observation: "To be truthful, you don't need to present the Taliban side of an argument as long as you are trying to be truthful in the presentation of the facts. You don't have to have Adolf Hitler's side or (Benito) Mussolini's side, either, or Joe Stalin's side of an argument."

But others warned that the credibility of U.S. broadcasts among foreign audiences depends on presenting the news in a balanced, unbiased way.

And Charlotte Beers, the recently appointed undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said she was satisfied that VOA was working in a proper and balanced fashion.

A former advertising executive, Beers said the U.S. should seek to target young audiences in the Arab and Muslim world through broadcasting, educational, and advertising efforts in a bid to ween them off of fanatical views.

"There are a number of ways to talk about Islam and the beauty of that belief and the significance it has in being so close to so many other religions in the world with common ground."

She said that while the U.S. was unlikely to change the opinions of extremists, there was every reason to believe that balanced, reliable information could help sway the minds of many of their followers.

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