Op-Ed: Federal employees identify U.S. stations for government-paid news SPECIAL | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published July 27, 2013 by Digital Journal

Washington – Federal employees were told to identify U.S. stations but not to make offers of government-funded news to domestic media.

With the controversy swirling over media reports that after a recent congressional modification in the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, U.S. officials may try to target Americans with government propaganda, the federal agency in charge of news and information programs for foreign audiences told its employees that they can start identifying U.S. stations that may be interested in taking their programming but should not contact them specifically to market such programs.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which runs the Voice of America(VOA), Radio and TV Marti and several other news media outlets serving international audiences, advised its employees that after the inclusion of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 in the the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2013 (Public Law 112-239), they may collect information on U.S. stations as potential recipients of government-funded overseas news programs, but that they “should not be contacted solely to inform them of domestic programming.”

 “If you have a meeting on other issues, you can mention that VOA/OCB (Office of Cuba Broadcasting in charge of Radio and TV Marti) can now respond to requests for programs in the U.S.,” employees were told. “You can refer them to the Agency Domestic request regulations, VOA’s web pages or OCB’s web pages,” internal instructions said.

Section 1078 of the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2013 forbids use of taxpayers’ money by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and State Department employees to influence public opinion in the United States. The exact wording is:

 “No funds authorized to be appropriated to the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States.” 

Critics, such as the watchdog website BBG Watch, warn that government officials cannot be trusted not to target specific groups of Americans with news designed for foreign audiences. Although intended for overseas, such news also include information about political and social developments in the U.S. and expert opinions on domestic issues. Critics also said that government officials made partly misleading claims, some referred to it as propaganda, to get the U.S. Congress to change the Smith-Mundt Act to allow them to distribute their news programs in the United States.

Officials of the BBG’s management arm, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), used the example of a Somali-language radio station in Minnesota being told that it cannot receive and rebroadcast VOA Somali programs. In reality, under the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, Americans and American media outlets were never forbidden from using and rebroadcasting Voice of America programs if they obtained them on their own. The only restriction applied to government officials providing such programs or trying to target American audiences. 

In earlier decades, some Americans listened to VOA broadcasts on shortwave radio and later Americans had complete access to nearly all VOA text, audio and video content on the Internet. The Somali-language station in Minnesota could have downloaded the program off the Internet and rebroadcast it without seeking help or permission from the U.S. government. As with any third-party content, a station would have to make sure that the program did not contain any copyrighted material in addition to VOA-authored content which has always been in the public domain because it is paid for by American taxpayers. 

An instruction of the VOA website says that “VOA may, upon request, authorize use or re-broadcast of its programs and materials by private individuals, organizations, and media entities in the United States.” In fact, any VOA original material that is already in the public domain does not need an authorization from a U.S. government entity for its use and reuse as along as all other applicable laws and regulations are observed by those who use it . While users may now benefit from seeking additional information from VOA as to what type of content is available, they were never prevented from finding and using it on their own without authorization from the U.S. government.

Even the sponsors of the new legislation to modify the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, Congressmen Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA), made comments suggesting that it was somehow impossible or even illegal for Americans to obtain and use these programs before their Modernization Act went into effect. 

Critics of their bill point out that it simply was not the case. In critics’ view, the constant use of the Somali example suggest that some U.S. legislators administration officials and consultants living off government contracts were in fact strongly interested in targeting specific groups of Americans. International Broadcasting Bureau officials may have been primarily interested in seeking a new market in the U.S. after failing to make much progress in recent years in their overseas markets. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called their international media outreach “defunct.”

Supporters of Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded programs for overseas audiences point out that they do not contain propaganda and many are excellent examples of accurate, balanced and comprehensive news reporting despite mismanagement at the top of the agency and lack of sufficient resources. Some programs, such as VOA English-language news, however, became noncompetitive internationally against media like Al Jazeera and Russia Today as the management kept eliminating news reporting positions while expanding various International Broadcasting Bureau support services and bureaucracy. Voice of America is relying more and more on wire services such as Reuters and producing less and less original news. 

Advocates for U.S. international broadcasting fear that government officials might divert resources from serving audiences in countries without free media to expand into the U.S. market, where they would compete against domestic commercial media. In addition to taking jobs away from American reporters if domestic stations substitute VOA material for their own, it would be a waste of tax money that the U.S. Congress intended to use for foreign audiences, critics say. Even if there is no government propaganda in VOA programs, some might suspect that there is or fear that there might be.

IBB officials failed to predict public outrage against the Smith-Mundt Act modification and may have endangered future funding for U.S. international broadcasting. These broadcasts have always enjoyed strong bipartisan support because of their focus on nations without free media ruled by repressive regimes. The removal of the domestic propaganda ban has exposed these broadcasts to domestic attacks and controversy that may undermine their important mission abroad. A recent NBC News report included many comments from irate U.S. taxpayers. Many victims of human rights abuses in countries like China, Iran, Russia and Cuba rely on these programs because their own media is censored by their governments.

 “To call these efforts ‘propaganda’ is an affront to those journalists, many of whom work in some of the roughest spots in the world, putting themselves and their loved ones at great risk,” IBB officials said. Critics say that this is absolutely true, but they point out that government officials are to blame for disinformation and confusion with their push to have the law changed. 

According to critics, all U.S. government-funded news programs, including those produced by private 501(c)3 grantees–such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa–should have been placed in the public domain and made available to anyone who wants them without government officials getting involved and being in charge of distribution and possible marketing and targeting of such programs.

While the current law specifically prohibits diversion of programming focus and resources to domestic use, many Americans point out that those in charge of these programs cannot be trusted and must be closely watched. U.S. officials in the International Broadcasting Bureau insist that they have no intention of targeting Americans or producing programs for the domestic media market. 

Rigorous congressional and public oversight will be needed to hold them to that promise and to make sure that collection of information about U.S. stations does not lead to domestic marketing of programs. These broadcasts should continue to serve America’s security interests and enrich media media freedom abroad, as the U.S. Congress intended and U.S. taxpayers wanted them to be. 

Ted Lipien is co-founder of the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) and a former acting associate director of the Voice of America.

READ the Digital Journal op-ed in Internet Archive.