Magazine article The Crisis

Joyce Davis: Three Decades Covering the Middle East

Magazine article The Crisis

Joyce Davis: Three Decades Covering the Middle East

Article excerpt


When Joyce Davis talks about her hometown of New Orleans, the distant lands of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the schisms between Christianity and Islam, it is with a sense of energy and passion that is contagious. You always walk away feeling you've only begun to tap into her world of knowledge and want to know more as she shares what she has seen, heard and learned at home and abroad over the past 30 years.

"I took a lot of philosophy courses in college," she says during a recent telephone interview. "I would be a more sedate, quiet person, if I had chosen to be a philosopher."

Davis chose another road - that of journalist and author. It has proved a rewarding career choice. She is a rare stamp in American society - a Black journalist whose recognized expertise is the Middle East and Muslim nations of Central Asia.

Today, more than three decades after launching her career as a night reporter at The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, 51-year-old Davis is associate director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). It is an important post with the powerful, broadcast news service funded by the U.S. government. Davis calls the shots daily on news reports and feature stories broadcast in 33 languages and beamed to an estimated 1.3 billion people across 12 time zones in 28 countries of oil-rich Central Asia and the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

From her offices at the heavily guarded RFE/RL headquarters in downtown Prague in the Czech Republic, Davis helps supervise a staff of 1,400 full- and part-time correspondents and editors around the globe and directly controls the work of about half the 700 reporters, editors and technicians. She helps them decide what and how to cover events today, next week and next month, and develops big-picture signature projects such as "Religion and Tolerance," a recent series that took a look at moderates in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

"In this job, I can have an impact on people around the world being able to have information so they can make choices about politics, economics and religion," says Davis.

"Religion is being used to promote terrorism and violence," Davis explains, ticking off several examples in the regions and citing the most familiar in the United States - the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

"When you have a single source on what Islam teaches - that message being that Islam says to kill - to inform people there are other viewpoints, other interpretations of Islam, is important," she explains. "It's not promoting or even telling people they need to be religious. It's promoting discussions to give them a variety of choices. Our role is to give objective news and information to closed societies."

Davis rebuffs anyone who would question her decision to join RFE/RL, which is viewed by many as a U.S. propaganda machine, after building a substantial career at traditional news outlets.

She says that while the public perception that the Cold War-era RFE was a lopsided news service with a proAmerican bent wasn't too far off base, it is no longer true. When she signed up, she says, the broadcaster was "trying to raise its standards and bring objective news and information to the Muslim world that was closed."

Davis continues: "I was brought in as a clear sign RFE/RL is changing. I have 35 years in this business. I would not have thrown that away."

With a number of "hot spots" on her radar, no day is just a routine day at the office. One day, as winter was slowly giving way to signs of spring in Prague, Davis was directing coverage of debates over the formation of the new Iraqi government and planning the series on religious tolerance. Suddenly, there was a full-scale revolution in Kyrgyzstan, forcing its president to flee to Russia.

"We were at the center of this story, as people fled to the streets and took over government buildings," she recalls. …

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