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VOA Somali & BBC Somali: A ‘Cancer in Our Midst’?

Thursday, January 19, 2017
By Liban Farah

Few Somalis were aware of, before 2013, that Voice of America (VOA) was prohibited from broadcasting their produced programmes directly to US domestic audiences. VOA programmes are broadcast in 61 languages and to more than 100 countries across the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia, but it was VOA Somalia that dominated the limelight for all the wrong reasons. VOA which is an extension of the State Department, has been prohibited from disseminating propaganda and psychological operations inside the US due to restrictions imposed by Smith-Mundt legislation that dictated no US government funded propaganda “shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States.” Although there’re plenty of evidence that this regulation has never been adhered to be the US government, nonetheless, breaches thereof were illegal.  It begs the question; if VOA service is considered harmful and illegal to broadcast to US citizens domestically, why are we Somalis allowing ourselves to be subjected to such insidious programming?

Foreign Policy publication quoted anonymous ‘former U.S. government source’ probably connected to the US State Department, advocating importance of VOA in Somalia as a counterprogramming tool, stating: “Somalis have three options for news, word of mouth, Al-Shabaab or VOA Somalia.” This was the tone and the decisive framing of debates throughout, whether advanced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors responsible for VOA broadcasting networks, whether it was in public meeting hearings or in the US national mainstream media.  As longtime Smith-Mundt activists have noted, it was more than “ironic that government propaganda was used to remove a legal ban on potential domestic application of government propaganda efforts.” The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 as incorporated in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), effective 2013, allows U.S. government produced propaganda programmes to be disseminated in the United States as news and information. To be more precise within the context of VOA Somalia, VOA Director David Ensor confirmed on July 2013 when he said that “Amendments to the Smith-Mundt legislation which were made in the recent Defense Authorization Act will allow us to build greater awareness of our impact, particularly in this country’s large and influential diaspora communities.” Furthermore, Jeff Trimble, then Broadcasting Board of Governors executive, told the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, while building up this narrative, that targeting Somali US citizens was intended “to prevent extremism here in the United States.” There’re already fears “that government officials will use their new powers to in fact produce such programs or at least to target specific groups of Americans based on their ethnic or religious origins.”

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VOA Somalia’s counterpart across the Atlantic is of course the BBC Somali language service, which as part of the Foreign Office controlled BBC World Service, was also undergoing critical junctures at the same time. The World Service funding structures by the British government were taking into effect with cuts from the Foreign Office (traditional sole funder) and much of the funding responsibilities transferred to the License Fee. BBC Global News Director Peter Horrocks highlighted important services being ring-fenced as “our lifeline services in countries like Somalia and Burma” while simultaneously regretting changes that the BBC World Service had to make “because of the funding changes.” The BBC didn’t quite use the “Somalia situation” angle as much to reverse the government decision on cuts, but they did however, directly reach out to the US State Department for World Service funding assistance. Later on, a much refined argument was put forward by the Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, James Harding, in a speech directed at the government with the following:

“If the UK wants the BBC to remain valued and respected, an ambassador of Britain’s values and an agent of soft power in the world, then the BBC is going to have to commit to growing the World Service and the government will also have to recognise this. It will mean reversing the trend of closing language services and, with an eye to audiences of need, opening new ones.”

Within that same year The Independent newspaper reported that the “Government has acknowledged the importance of “soft power” in global politics with an unprecedented £85m investment in the BBC World Service to support initiatives in Russia, North Korea, the Middle East and Africa.” The BBC Director-General called it “the single biggest increase in the World Service budget ever committed by any government” in what was a rerouting of Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget for other purposes. In essence, overseas aid allocated funds were transformed into tools of “cultural exports” and “global influence” which was deemed more important than saving lives; or perhaps the alternative essence is more valid, in the sense that ODA is nothing more than a currency for purchasing global influence and therefore entirely consistent aforementioned aims.

VOA-BBC: Psychological War

Christopher Simpson, author of ‘Science of Coercion: Communication Research & Psychological Warfare 1945-1960’ extensively writes in his book about the internalisation and enforcement of the paradigm of domination. Simpson presents detailed studies about Wilbur Schramm who was the most influential originator of much of the manuals and training materials for US government propaganda operations, as well as writing ‘The Process and Effects of Mass Communication,’ Simpson states that he was the most productive source of “psychological warfare programs during the early 1950s.” What few Somalis realise is that just as the US Information Agency (USIA) used to commission for many of Schramm’s services, so too did the VOA, and in fact, Simpson includes under VOA’s sponsorships both ‘The Process and Effects of Mass Communication (1954)’ and ‘Four Working Papers on Propaganda Theory (1955)’. Under the rubric of American Association for Public Opinion Research, Academics such as Schramm and Samuel Stouffer “saw the United States as the protector of important attributes such as democracy, peace, humanitarianism, truthfulness, rationality, and Judeo-Christian values” – though in reality a blunt clandestine war instrument – US legislative bodies wouldn’t have otherwise banned such benign materials to be domestically disseminated were it only about ‘democracy, peace, humanitarianism, truthfulness, rationality, and Judeo-Christian values’!

It’s with that backdrop, as Gary Rawnsley documents in his book ‘Radio Diplomacy and Propaganda: The BBC and VOA in International Politics, 1956-64’ how Director of the VOA in 1962 communicated to the British Foreign Office who controlled their transatlantic counterpart, the BBC World Service, about established US policy of “not to broadcast to any fully-developed friendly countries in foreign language.”  The British Foreign Office liked that rule of thumb propaganda ‘philosophy’ – calling it ‘sound’ – which led to the BBC abolishing its North American service, not surprisingly within that same year of 1962. The BBC World Service was originally the BBC Empire Service from its inception in 1932, and as the British Empire waned in both power and prestige over the years, the story of the BBC World Service has been one of constant reinvention “from an adjunct of UK foreign and war policy” to a media that increasingly tried to present itself as “an independent, impartial and trusted provider of news.” BBC Somali language has been displaying this cunning metamorphosis from the extremely racist colonial masters to the self-aggrandising anointed champions of freedoms, and all that without the least bit of irony. BBC Somalia Service claim now that they’ve increased their share of radio audience in Somalia to almost half of the market (1.7 million) with considerable audience outside of Somalia also tuning in to its radio programming (810,000 every week in Kenya alone for example). According to the most recent survey by the BBC World Service, 2016 BBC Somali weekly audience figures for the BBC on all platforms were 3.6 million with Global Audience Measure (GAM) standard error margin of +/- 3%. Whereas the VOA lay claim to 54% of daily listenership, meaning on average, VOA Somali radio was the second most listened to station after the BBC Somali. But the VOA Somali is somewhat unique in the sense that its Somali listenership is the highest of all VOA Language Services, beating the likes of VOA Arabic, VOA Chinese and VOA Spanish! Even more surprising is the lack of any resistance given VOA Somalia was first launched in 1993 as part and parcel of the propaganda wing of mission code named ‘Operation Restore Hope’ which was then disbanded the following year as the mission failed and US forces exited Somalia.

VOA-BBC: Propaganda Model

The propaganda model as rational systematic capitalist formulation was first popularised by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their highly acclaimed 1988 book ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ – although a similar critique from a limited Marxist perspective was also advanced two years prior in Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality. If we consider the five components developed under Herman-Chomsky propaganda model, we can clearly identify related implications of each of these “news filters” as impacting Somalia by the dominant mediums of VOA-BBC. First, their seizes and sheer concentration of dominance of news in Somalia has conferred upon them disproportional power to determine the “news” agenda. Second, the resources behind the VOA and BBC as US-UK governments funded entities greatly exceeds anything that local Somali media can muster, thereby becoming primary employer of journalists as well as primary sources of “news” due to their geographical coverage. Third, undue influence is exercised through VOA-BBC medium platform as the authoritative vehicle conveying political messages of governments which comes with easily granted direct access to government officials, further cementing their advantage over all other local media outlets. Fourth, with the backing of US State Department and British Foreign Office, VOA-BBC don’t have to worry about censuring wrath of US-UK governments over ‘disapproved’ contents in post 911 Orwellian thought control sanctions – if any, VOA-BBC have been the beneficiaries thereof. Finally, the “anticommunism” control mechanism in the original propaganda model is nowadays replaced with “war on terror” and its effects remain very much potent in Somalia.

“These elements interact with and reinforce one another. . They fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis and operations of what amount to propaganda campaigns.”

A clear giveaway indicator in this VOA-BBC patterns of systematic bias is found in their reporting of regions occupied by Ethiopia & Kenya, and also the framing of Israeli occupation of Palestine. Because these outlets are opposed to the unification of Somali territories and don’t recognise the legitimate claims of Somalis over these forcefully transferred colonised regions, they have editorially dedicated a lot of concerted efforts to undermine morally and politically the struggle for a century-long shared dreams of Somali people. As per the explained filtering mechanisms of the propaganda model, these philosophical concoctions of Somalia’s enemies have seamlessly subverted editorial autonomy of local media organisations who mistakenly adopted these adulterated ideologies, and without realising it, mistakenly conflated those narratives with professional journalistic standards. When foreign governments, for all intent and purposes, determine what is newsworthy for a nation like Somalia concerning its own domestic affairs, with the inherent bias of prioritising foreign interests and if necessary “manipulating the news, imposing its own agenda, and deliberately diverting attention from other material” opposing these propaganda narratives, then one can only speak of Somalia as a hollowed out nation. It’s precisely for that reason why many self-respecting nations across the globe proactively take measures to counteract such hostile information wars, deploying various methodologies from signal jamming or restricting access for their citizens, to censorship or outright prosecution of VOA-BBC journalists under espionage acts.

However Somalia is not a self-respecting nation; not anymore! Let alone monitoring or regulating VOA-BBC staff activities in the country to stop and mitigate any harmful practices violating domestic information laws, being employed by VOA-BBC has in fact become a shortcut route to power and a worrying revolving doors seems to have developed recently. Villa Somalia and across many other ministries are infested with so-called ex-VOA-BBC dual-national journalists roaming all over the place, especially in most sensitive areas of government, with no questions asked, no vetting by any national security agency and worst of all, no one cares. One of the most idiotic and mind-numbing acts was the appointment of Yusuf Garaad as the new Permanent Representative of Somalia to the United Nations. Yusuf Garaad, a veteran of over 20 years’ service with BBC Somalia, has demonstrable laundry list of abysmal record concerning his criminal betrayal and extremely inhumane disservice to the people of Somalia throughout the civil war. Deeply institutionalised within the Foreign Service milieu as a loyal mouthpiece representing British foreign policy interest for over two decades, as well as deeply embedded ideological sympathies for his adopted nation as a British citizen, there’s near to naught chance that he’ll adequately be able to represent Somalia’s interests. More so given the fact that the British mission at the United Nations are fronted by the Foreign Service, yes his former employers, who’ll undoubtedly welcome him with open arms as just another one of those foolish clowns. The next government, if it wants to be taken seriously, should immediately replace him.

Before anyone accuses me of inciting witch-hunt against journalists with straw man arguments, let me be clear; – I’m a defender of Somali journalists, their freedoms and their journalistic integrity. This is about the big picture in which principles of ‘Soomaalinimo’ should unapologetically confront the dissemination of foreign governments produced propaganda as well as psychological indoctrinations through VOA-BBC platforms. Far from singling out Somali journalists for negative criticism, rather, it’s a challenge for them to lead this confrontation on behalf of the nation. Many of them do understand this duty, risking life and limb on a daily basis to fulfil their responsibilities. Somali Journalism as profession needs to be reinvented anew; it has to become people-centred profession serving the nation, and it should discard existing VOA-BBC benchmarked standard templates which appear to have been designed as an intelligence gathering exercise. Granted, the title may sound a little inflammatory, but the apostrophised portion was inspired by Dalmar Omar, an Islamabad-based Somali blogger who once wrote “Laanta Af Soomaaliga ee BBC’da waa kansar (cancer) ku dhex-jira Ummadda Soomaaliyeed” back in 2007.


Because we Somalis have always been spectacularly led down by our so-called governments and also by everyone else, we have to at least stop letting ourselves down. We should create and promote independent people-centred media that aims to serve their people – independent as from any vested group interests whether foreign, domestic or businesses, and with the necessary venues to hold them to account. One example of such a media is Dalsoor which was launched last year and still solely operating with the direct support it receives from the Somali public, both home and abroad. Although it’s a challenging funding model in terms of sustainability, still it’s only one of the few nation-wide journalistic platforms in current media landscape advocating principles of ‘Soomaalinimo’ while giving voice to the silenced dissenting voices in the VOA-BBC dominated national discourse.


For avoidance of any doubts and in the interest of transparency, I’m a contributing member of the public supporting Dalsoor, in which capacity I’ve featured in their programmes. I’ve no any other interests or relationships to declare.

*This article originally appeared in barkinka.com

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