Op-Ed: No propaganda, Voice of America need not fear reform bill | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published May 2, 2014 by Digital Journal

Washington – Mismanagement by senior executives threatens journalistic independence of Voice of America (VOA) much more than the bipartisan bill in Congress designed to reform U.S. international media outreach. There will be no government propaganda from VOA.

One advantage of being my age (60) is that I have a longer view of history and experience with all forms of U.S. international broadcasting and digital media outreach, starting as a listener to Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Voice of America in Central Europe under communism. (I and all of my teenage friends preferred RFE for news and commentary, but also valued VOA for different reasons. To us, it was America’s voice for those with very little hope.) I ended my U.S. government international broadcasting career as a VOA acting associate director and later started media freedom NGOs and news and opinion websites.

 H.R. 4490, United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, introduced by U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and U.S. Rep.  Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Committee’s Ranking Democratic Member, is not perfect, but contrary to claims by critics, including some VOA journalists, it is not designed to limit their journalistic independence or to undermine the VOA Charter, which is included in the bill. Those who say that VOA could become like Russia’s RT or China’s CCTV have little knowledge of Russian and Chinese regimes and their propaganda, and little faith in America’s legislative tradition and commitment to freedom.

I take the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Eliot Engel, at his word when he says:

 “Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this bill maintains the requirement that U.S.-funded programming serve as objective sources of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy. It’s absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we’re trying to reach.” 

The legislation tries to fix what has become a “defunct” organization, to use Hillary Clinton’s description, much of it due to mismanagement by senior executives.  VOA journalists should be assured that they will remain federal employees and that VOA will be separated from the surrogate pro-democracy media outlets such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). This should increase VOA’s journalistic independence, not decrease it. It should also vastly increase effectiveness of surrogate news services to countries like Russia, eastern Ukraine, China, Tibet, Iran, and others that still need surrogate local free media. 

VOA executives and former International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) managers are themselves responsible, along with some former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members, for this bill being proposed in the first place. If they had not mismanaged the organization and ignored the VOA Charter, we would not be even having this discussion. 

The entire bureaucratic set-up, under the previous legislation, ensured that the organization would fail administratively, at least at the federal level. Even far better-managed RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia (RFA) were also threatened because of overreaching central federal bureaucracy in Washington. The part-time oversight BBG board was unable to control the bureaucracy, but was instead controlled by it. Journalists saw their programs and positions, critical for U.S. national security, eliminated by the agency’s government bureaucrats whose numbers continued to grow despite declining budgets. 

We can’t argue with Congress on the issue of mismanagement. If Congress does not want to give out public money without any conditions attached or any oversight, and does not want to allow Voice of America executives to continue in their ways or to recreate VOA as yet another NPR, then it is not going to happen. 

To those who wish for something else, I can only say that the U.S. does not have the same media tradition as Great Britain. Unlike Great Britain, America also remains a major world power disliked by many undemocratic regimes and populations subjected to anti-American propaganda. There will never be an American BBC-like domestic and international media outlet with the same funding, same more neutral image, and same impact as BBC. 

Critics of the U.S. broadcasting reform bill are concerned that it places too much emphasis on U.S. public diplomacy, but the bill does not go as far as the public diplomacy component within the former United States Information Agency (USIA), under which VOA had operated. In later years, while still under USIA, VOA was able to preserve its journalistic independence thanks to the VOA Charter. Even BBC serves a public diplomacy role for Great Britain and does it through its outstanding world news service in many languages. 

VOA cannot be like BBC. It should accept a more modest role — serving those who are most repressed and most deprived of access to news and information while at the same time telling America’s story to the world. It should also not try to be like CNN or try to peddle fluff journalism in countries like Russia, China, or Pakistan in the hope that governments there will allow distribution through local media channels. If anything, the reform bill should lead to less self-censorship, much higher journalistic standards and more independent program delivery. 

The Internet is a wonderful borderless program delivery platform, and its use should be constantly and smartly expanded and be the focus for multimedia program placement from radio and television with skillful adaptation of content. But since the Internet also can be easily blocked by hostile regimes, VOA must have and must rely on Internet censorship circumvention technologies, satellite television, shortwave radio, and cross-border medium wave (AM) radio transmissions. 

This kind of censorship-busting mission is something that U.S. taxpayers understand and are willing to pay for. The current management could have used the Internet to assert VOA’s journalistic independence vis-a-vis undemocratic regimes, but instead it compromised to get its programs placed locally. That is why I believe that mismanagement threatens journalistic standards.

We have to make sure that the future CEO and the VOA director abide by the VOA Charter. In my view, this document — the VOA Charter — is the best we can hope for in U.S. political and media environment. Purists would say that even the VOA Charter does not guarantee journalistic independence, and they would be absolutely right. For one thing, it requires VOA “to present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” which VOA has not done under the current leadership. 

These conditions attached to taxpayer funding of VOA will remain no matter what some government executives or journalists may wish. One cannot reconcile the 1st Amendment protection of free press with 100% government funding for managing a completely autonomous news organization without any stated public mission and no strings attached. Once this mission is stated by Congress, as it was in the VOA Charter, VOA is no longer a fully independent journalistic enterprise, and it will not be perceived as such abroad or in the United States. 

But VOA can still be a great news organization that serves vital U.S. interests abroad and helps many people who do not have access to uncensored press. VOA’s public role is unique because of its association with the United States as a government and a nation. This is different from BBC’s public image and reach, and it will not change. That does not mean that Congress and VOA can’t guarantee VOA journalists independence at the working level, but the organization has to focus 100% on its foreign news mission. Even with all the limitations imposed by Congress and inadequate funding, Voice of America can do a great job abroad. 

Congress is not going to fund VOA without specifying its mission at least in general terms, especially now that the Smith-Mundt Act has been modified to allow domestic distribution of VOA content. If some people think that this could happen — Congress letting a VOA director do whatever he or she wants, allow distribution of programs in the U.S. while also increasing VOA budget year to year —  they are simply dreaming. Please note the full bipartisan support for this reform bill in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Not one Democrat or Republican voting against it. 

In my experience as a VOA journalist, manager, regional marketing director and acting director in charge of news, mismanagement at the senior level has been a far greater threat to journalistic independence in recent decades since the passage of the VOA Charter in 1976 than increasingly rare attempts from U.S. government officials to try to manipulate VOA’s news coverage. These attempts were resisted in most cases by pointing to the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law. 

The best that we can hope for and work toward is that the VOA Charter will be respected and VOA central news operation will be revived, so that Voice of America is no longer known for posting a zombie video for audiences in Pakistan (showing blood-thirsty Uncle Sam attacking a Pakistani in an attempt to be humorous), multiple reports on the British royal family, Justin Bieber updates, and a video from North Korea that did not challenge the regime’s propaganda but instead reinforced it. 

I do not blame VOA journalists for these videos. They were in some cases responding to relentless pressure from mission-neutral managers to expand local program placement and audience or perhaps to secure visas for a return visit to a closed country. 

Despite these pressures, many Voice of America broadcasters still practice outstanding journalism. VOA Ukrainian Service has an excellent television program, which I had helped to launch during the Orange Revolution, but the management has failed to provide the Ukrainian Service with sufficient resources to respond to Russia’s aggression with more frequent updating of its website and social media pages with news generated in Washington. This is the fate of many VOA language services and its central newsroom. 

If this reform bill is not passed by Congress and signed by the President, then VOA is doomed under the current management, which also created such a hostile working environment that many experienced and talented journalists have left the organization. If the bill does become law, then VOA has a chance of survival and can hope for better management and more funding, both of which are critically needed. Some modifications in the bill to strengthen journalistic independence would be highly desirable, but without any new legislation there is no hope for reform that could save VOA and its pure and noble mission. 

Ted Lipien was in charge of VOA broadcasts to Poland during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy that had over 70% weekly reach. He is co-founder of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) which supports the work of Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) journalists who bring news and information to people without free media.

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