VOA asked not to air Taliban leader interview
By Andrea Koppel and Elise Labott
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. State Department Monday defended its request to the Voice of America not to air an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
"We didn't think it was right," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We didn't think that the American taxpayer, the Voice of America, should be broadcasting the voice of the Taliban."
According to a partial transcript of the interview published in the Washington Post, Omar said the United States had "taken Islam hostage" and had "created the evil that is attacking it."
"The U.S. should step back and review its policy. It should stop trying to impose its empire on the rest of the world, especially on Islamic countries," Omar said, according to the transcript.
He said the Taliban would not hand over Osama bin Laden, whom the Bush administration has said is the primary suspect responsible for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"If we give Osama away today, Muslims who are now pleading to give him up would then be reviling us for giving him up," Omar said, according to the transcript. "The very same people would be asking: Why did you sacrifice the prestige of Islam?"
The U.S.-funded VOA is broadcast around the world to explain U.S. policies. The VOA charter also calls for accurate, objective and comprehensive news and a broad spectrum of American thought and institutions.
VOA broadcasts into Afghanistan in the languages Pashto and Dari; it is estimated to reach about 45 percent of the Afghan population.
According to Joe O'Connell, director of external affairs for the radio station, the interview was not to air in its entirety. Sections of Omar's comments were to be used in a story to air last Friday examining Afghan reaction to President Bush's speech Thursday evening.
"We were never going to give him an open mike," O'Connell told CNN.
Other sources at VOA said the decision not to air the interview was made after Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and other officials called members of VOA's board to express their concern.
The board of governors also oversees all U.S. non-military information services, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio Marti in Cuba and Worldnet Television, which goes to U.S. embassies and consulates.
Norman Pattiz, a member of VOA's Board of Governors, told CNN that even before the station was offered the Omar interview the State Department had been complaining about the objectivity of VOA's Pashto language service.
He said the decision not to air the interview was made by the staff of the VOA and not by the board.
"We know what our mission is," Pattiz said. "We were set up by an act of Congress to assure the independence of our news services and we take it very seriously."
Boucher said that while the State Department recognized the "independence of the Voice of America," the radio station was accountable to its charter and to its board, on which the secretary of state has a seat.
"Its charter says that they should explain U.S. government policy and present responsible discussion about it," Boucher said. "We don't consider Mullah Omar to be responsible discussion."
In a letter to the board, a number of VOA journalists said they were "deeply distressed to learn of the suppression" of Omar's interview. "These comments were legitimate news," the letter said.
Boucher said Omar's comments have already been aired by other broadcasters, and unless Omar was prepared to announce he would comply with U.N. requirements calling for bin Laden to be handed over for trial, such an interview would provide "no news or anything newsworthy."
"Carrying the interview would be confusing to the millions of listeners to what is essentially a U.S. government broadcast, paid for by the U.S. government," Boucher said.
O'Connell told CNN the interview could still be aired at some point.
Pattiz said that while the request not to air the interview was not considered a "gag order," he expected the State Department would try to interfere with its broadcasts again as the country gears up for a military campaign against Osama bin Laden.
"We believe the integrity of the VOA is at stake," the VOA journalists said in their letter. "This censorship sets a most unfortunate precedent and damages our credibility with our worldwide audience."
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