Reprinted from The Weekly Standard Online
On September 7, in the central Nigerian city of Jos, riots broke out between Muslims and Christians. The violence lasted for a week, and according to The New York Times at least 500 people were killed. As the local government struggled to return the city to normalcy it blamed an unusual suspect for fanning the flames of the conflict--the Voice of America.
In fact the Plateau State House--the regional legislature--went so far as to pass a resolution condemning the VOA for spreading pro-Muslim propaganda during the riots. It was the first time the government had officially criticized the U.S. broadcasting service, but Nigerian Christians have been complaining about the VOA for a long time.
One Nigerian journalist (all of the people I spoke with in Nigeria asked to remain anonymous out of fear of Muslim reprisals) says, "In times past, people would always turn to Voice of America, but no longer, because the Muslims have taken over and are only interested in pushing a Muslim viewpoint." Another Nigerian complained that "you only hear the Muslim side" on VOA. An American living in Nigeria says, "Every Nigerian Christian I ask about the VOA [is] unified in their opinion of its anti-Christian and often anti-American stance."
The criticism of VOA has grown so pronounced that congressman Dave Weldon sent a letter to newly installed VOA director Robert Reilly on October 26 asking him to investigate VOA's Nigerian broadcasts and make certain "that VOA is doing everything possible to be sure that they are not inadvertently adding to the tensions in that country."
So just what is the Voice of America doing in Nigeria?
First it helps to know a little bit about Nigeria. Home to roughly 123 million people (as one expert told me, "All numbers in Nigeria are tentative"), the country is about 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian, with Muslims concentrated in the north and Christians in the south. In addition to the religious fault line, Nigeria comprises over 250 tribes, so while English is the country's official language, large segments of the population speak tribal dialects. According to VOA, the most important of these local languages is Hausa, first language to some 40 million Nigerian Muslims and used as a second, trade language by many millions of Christians.
The Voice of America's Hausa-language service broadcasts nine and a half hours of programming a week in Nigeria. Most of these broadcasts are in Hausa, with a few segments done in English. The editorial content is produced by a handful of writer/broadcaster/editors in Washington, all of whom are Muslim. The editors put together broadcasts with a mix of material from the central VOA newsroom and reports from 14 local stringers (12 in Nigeria, one in Ghana, and one in the Republic of Niger) who are not full-time VOA employees. These stringers are also all Muslim.
Nigerian Christians complain that the VOA perpetuates a subtle pro-Muslim bias, as when it exaggerates the size of the Muslim population in places such as Jos and interviews a disproportionate percentage of Muslims in "man-on-the-street" segments.
Another complaint is that one of the more popular VOA shows is "Islam in the U.S."--which recently echoed the false claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion in America--while there is no companion show about Christianity. One Christian missionary even complains that VOA hiring is biased, saying that "several qualified indigenous Hausa Christians have applied to VOA but have been rejected because they are not Muslims. American VOA staff may not understand the dynamics going on in the hiring process, but Christian applicants understand [from] comments made by Nigerian Muslims working at VOA that religion is the basis for their rejections to work for the VOA."
One Nigerian national suggests that the problems with VOA aren't with the reporters in Nigeria, but the producers in Washington. "Even if you put in all of the Christian reporters," this person says, "it doesn't matter, if all of the producers are Muslim."
The good news is that now that the Hausa-language problem has been brought to light, the VOA seems to be responding with admirable speed and transparency. Only days after Reilly received Rep. Weldon's letter, the two met, and Reilly promised to review the Hausa section immediately.
In addition to allegations of an underlying bias, there have been moments of outright anti-Americanism in the Hausa broadcasts. On October 15, Sheikh Dahiru Mohammad Buachi, an Islamic scholar from the Nigerian state of Buachi, claimed in a broadcast interview that America's war on terrorism was a war on Islam and that American forces were killing innocent Muslims in Afghanistan. Reilly says he was "not happy" with the Buachi interview, that the transcript he saw of the broadcast was "totally unacceptable." All broadcasts from the Hausa section are now being reviewed by both Dare and the regional director.
Sensitive that the show "Islam in the U.S." ignores Nigerian Christians and that VOA has no comparable show for the Christian audience, Reilly is working on a new show for the Hausa section tentatively called "Religion in the U.S."
For his part, Dare sounds a lot like an American diversity consultant. "There was a tendency to talk more to Hausa-Muslim sources," he says, because "the stringer network is mostly Muslim and they complained that the risk was too high to speak with Christians."
Three weeks into his tenure, Dare put together a "Purple Book" filled with sources and contacts from both religions so that stringers and editors alike could balance their stories. He also put in place a performance audit for his stringers. As a result of the audit, one of the stringers was dropped and three others have been placed on three months probation.
The reforms in VOA's Hausa-language service are taking place as religious violence increases in Nigeria. In addition to the September riots in Jos, there were Muslim riots over U.S. military action in Afghanistan in the city of Kano during October which left nearly 200 dead. The local government in Kano has been on something of an anti-Christian offensive during the past six months, using "zoning laws" to close and demolish churches. According to Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, by last June, 17 of Kano's 120 Christian churches had been razed and 54 more were under threat of demolition.
All of which is part of Nigerian Muslims' increasing radicalization. In January 2000 some of the Muslim-dominated states began enforcing Sharia or Islamic law, a regime that includes punishments such as death for Muslims who convert to Christianity. Under Nigerian federal law, Sharia is unconstitutional, but President Obasanjo has yet to challenge it. As Marshall explains, "It's as though Alabama declared they were going to implement the Book of Deuteronomy and the U.S. federal government didn't object."
There may be limits to what American public diplomacy can accomplish under such circumstances. But not contributing to the problem will surely be an improvement.