Alan Heil remembers Senator Charles Percy, co-sponsor of the VOA Charter
SENATOR CHARLES H. PERCY, 1919-2011
by Alan Heil
Senator Percy passed away September 17 at the Washington Home in the District of Columbia after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 91, just ten days shy of his 92nd birthday. The Illinois Senator and former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee played a key role in enactment of the Voice of America Charter, Public Laws 94-350 of 1976 and 103-415 of 1994.
The Charter remains a cardinal principle of all U.S. publicly-funded civilian international broadcasting today, that news broadcasts of the nation’s overseas networks will be “accurate, objective and comprehensive.” These characteristics are key to the networks’ credibility which today attract 165 million listeners, viewers and new media users every week, 123 million of these tuning in to the Voice.
In the early 1970s, Senator Percy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became concerned about press reports that American diplomats in Washington and missions abroad were censoring VOA news reports. These accounts documented instances of interference affecting VOA reportage from Indochina, Eastern Europe, and other regions. U.S. ambassadors in Saigon and Phnom Penh were particularly active, and there had been restrictions on reporting in Washington in the early months of the Watergate scandal.
VOA had been operating under a 1959 executive branch directive which mandated it to be — as stated above — “an accurate, objective and comprehensive” source of news as well as a reflector of America’s thought and institutions, its policies, and debate on those policies. Throughout the following decade and a half — the Cuba missile crisis, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and East-West détente — the Voice had been subject to pressures at times to depart from “telling it as it is” for what some U.S. diplomats termed “reasons of state.”
Voice journalists, led by legendary News Director Bernard (Bernie) H. Kamenske fought hard to maintain the objectivity of the broadcasts, and Senator Percy was their champion. The Illinois Republican and his senior foreign affairs counselor Scott Cohen recognized that the executive branch directive would have considerably sharper teeth if made into a law, proposed by Congress and signed by the President. Representative Bella Abzug (D-NY) also focused on the issue. Percy and Abzug, working independently, became forceful advocates of unfettered news on America’s Voice.
Enactment of the Charter as Law
In the spring of 1976, about a year after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Percy and Cohen — with Abzug’s backing on the House side — had the VOA Charter tacked onto authorization and appropriations bills for the upcoming 1977 fiscal year. The Charter (Public Law 94-350), a nearly verbatim text of the 1959 executive order, was approved — almost unnoticed — by both the Senate and House and signed by President Ford on July 12, 1976.
Although attempts at interference in VOA news reporting declined precipitously following passage of PL 94-350, there were still problems. About two months after the Charter became law, the American Embassy in Tel Aviv barred VOA Jerusalem correspondent Charles Weiss from making any contact, even by telephone, with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization. U.S. diplomats in Eastern Europe continued to try to curb VOA reportage. U.S missions in Egypt and South Africa rejected VOA proposals to establish news bureaus in Cairo and Johannesburg.
Under the leadership of USIA Director John Reinhardt in 1978, the State Department signed off on separating VOA overseas correspondents from U.S. missions or offices in the countries where they were stationed. They also were permitted more latitude in regional travel. Enactment of the Charter had set the stage for more flexibility in deploying VOA correspondents abroad. Voice
bureaus in both Cairo and Johannesburg were soon established and still operate today.
Between the mid-70s and the late 80s, VOA’s weekly global audience more than doubled from around 45 million to more than 100 million, due to a combination of credible Charter-driven programming and expanded transmission facilities. The Cold War ended in 1991, officially sealed with the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26th of that year. As it had in the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. government launched a series of studies of its overseas information and cultural programs to determine their post Cold War relevance and structure.
Passage of the International Broadcasting Act of 1994
Partly as a result of these studies, Congress passed the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 creating a U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) within VOA’s then parent United States Information Agency, USIA. The Broadcasting Board was to oversee the Voice and the other publicly-funded civilian overseas networks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and Radio-TV Marti to Cuba. President Bill Clinton signed the new legislation into law on April 30,
However, there was a major deficiency in the new Act. In drafting it, congressional aides had deleted the VOA Charter (Public Law 94-350). They called the omission inadvertent, but the Voice staff and senior management were determined to restore it. VOA turned to Senator Percy and his aide Scott Cohen, both of whom had long since retired, for advice. The Senator agreed to write an op-ed page article in the Washington Post supporting restoration of the Charter.
On July 14, 1994 — just slightly more than 18 years to the day after the Charter had become law — Senator Percy wrote in the Post:
“As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I sponsored legislation to give the VOA Charter the strength of law. It has proven to be a firewall against bureaucratic and political intrusion in VOA’s reporting of the news. If you take the weekday VOA tour at Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW, you will see the Charter framed and hanging in almost every studio and office. It is revered by the professionals working there…. America’s Voice, the Voice of America, must maintain its most important asset, its credibility… The Charter, in law, guards that credibility. Congress should act now… to restore the full legal status of the VOA Charter.”
Restoration of the Charter
The Percy column was the most significant step in efforts to restore the Charter. After weeks more of Congressional action, the original 1976 legislation was passed minutes before the 103rd Congress adjourned, and signed into law by President Clinton on October 25, 1994. It then became part of Public Law 103-415, among other technical amendments to the International Broadcasting Act of 1994.
(A fifth entity, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. was incorporated as a private government- funded grantee network in 2004. It consists of Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV.)
That act was later incorporated in the Foreign Affairs Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. It reorganized all U. S. government overseas information and cultural activities by incorporating USIA into the State Department, except for the Broadcasting Board, VOA and the other networks. These were placed under a separate, part-time, independent BBG.
VOA Director Geoffrey Cowan wrote Senator Percy: “I would like to thank you on behalf of all of us at the Voice of America for the splendid op-ed piece in the Washington Post supporting restoration of the Voice of America Charter. Your support focused Congressional attention on the issue. Your words were pivotal in making this happen. Your name, as a co-sponsor of the original Charter legislation, may be seen on nearly every office wall in VOA. It will be forever in our hearts as well.”
September 19, 2011
THE VOICE OF AMERICA CHARTER
PUBLIC LAW 94-350
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the people of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America (the Broadcasting Service of the United States Information Agency) must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
(1) VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.
(2) VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection ofsignificant American thought and institutions.
(3) VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.
Gerald R. Ford
President of the United States
Signed July 12, 1976
Senator Charles H. Percy (R-Illinois)
Representative Bella S. Abzug (D-New York)
Alan L. Heil Jr. Board member of the Public Diplomacy Council is a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA). Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries as foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network.