USIA agency spreads Kosovo news abroad

The World Wide Web's leading news sources, such as the online versions of the major newspapers and CNN, provide a deluge of articles about the crisis in Kosovo. A number of Defense Department sites also provide information on certain aspects of operations. But those sites are not the only news sources available.

Another federal agency is posting information about the conflict on its Web site, but that agency will not disclose its Web address to the American public.

The U.S. Information Service, part of the U.S. Information Agency, maintains its site for U.S. citizens abroad, not domestic viewers. And Congress, fearful that the agency would be seen as propagandizing a domestic audience in the United States, prohibits the agency from directing U.S. citizens toward the information the agency disseminates, although the site is available to all Internet users.

The site, at www.usia.gov/usis.html, serves as a cornucopia of official speeches, policy statements, government reports, transcripts and agency-generated news stories on a host of issues, ranging from the Kosovo conflict to the Year 2000 computer conversion problem.

Page designers made sure the site is not too graphics-intensive, to aid overseas readers who may not have very fast Internet connections.

The primary audience for the site is U.S. embassies overseas, according to Chip Harman, one of the Webmasters for USIA. Harman said embassy staffs rely on the site for carrying out public relations and other functions within their host countries.

Harman also said he sends regular e-mail updates to Webmasters at embassies. The updates let them know what is new on the site and enable them to put fresh links up on the home pages of their individual embassies.

The secondary audience, according to Harman, is "anyone else who might be interested" in U.S. policy. And there are plenty of folks who are interested in what U.S. officials think and do. The site, which is hosted by Netscape Communications Corp. server software, Oracle Corp. database software and two Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris servers, receives about 250,000 hits per week, Harman said.

At the moment, about 3,500 of those hits are for the "Current Issues" section of the site. That section now focuses on the Kosovo situation and includes official government press releases, information for getting on a Kosovo-related e-mail news list, statements by U.S. allies' officials and a video clip of a speech President Bill Clinton addressed to the people of the former Republic of Yugoslavia.

Harman said that during the recent NATO military mission in Kosovo, traffic for the "Current Issues" section shot upward from the usual rate of about 2,000 page views per week. Kosovo has been the headline topic on the site since February, and the Kosovo page gets updated about three times a day, according to Harman.

Although most of the documents on the USIS site are in the quick-to-retrieve Hypertext Markup Language text format, some also come in Adobe Systems Inc.'s portable document format. PDF makes it possible to post documents formatted in any number of office automation packages without requiring readers to have that software on their own computers. Harman said having documents in PDF allows embassies such as those in Africa - where the people have poor access to the Internet - to print out the PDF documents and create pamphlets or newsletters for dissemination in rural areas.

The site also includes a listing of items from what USIA calls its Washington File - a news service-like stream of postings of official texts, policy statements and USIA-written stories.

The site, though flavored with a healthy dash of federal PR, offers more than just government-sanctioned information. It also offers links to Web pages of American newspapers, magazines and other media, as well as links to other federal agencies' Web pages.

Still, the site and all its documents are, after all, a tool for official U.S. interests, and Harman and his fellow Webmasters realize that. "The way we describe it is 'public diplomacy,' " he said. "These [documents] are a reflection of objectives established in American foreign policy."

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