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…