Smith-Mundt Act Modifications Lack Protections Against Abuse

This commentary by Ted Lipien was republished from the Committee for the International Broadcasting (CUSIB) website.

Government MediaSmith-Mundt Act Modifications Lack Protections Against Abuse

by Ted Lipien

While the independent, nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting supports some changes in the Smith-Mundt Act, we and many other media freedom advocates share grave concerns that officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will use the new legislation to abandon some foreign audiences under the rule of repressive regimes in other countries to focus more on the US media market and on domestic public relations. This bill empowers government bureaucrats without placing on them any meaningful restraints or offering clear rules on how the law should be implemented. If it is not modified, the proposed law can potentially lead to tremendous abuse, diminished ability to inform and influence foreign public opinion and, above all, to wasting of taxpayers’ money.

The lack of clarity in the current bill presents a real threat because of the BBG’s track record in seeking easy higher audience ratings abroad by downplaying hard news and human rights reporting. BBG officials have been eliminating or trying to eliminate Voice of America (VOA) broadcasting services to countries like Russia and China and are focusing instead on providing lifestyle and educational content. The new legislation will make it easier for these officials to divert money and other resources from serving foreign audiences with comprehensive analysis of current events to producing easy to place programs, not just for foreign but also for domestic broadcasters.

The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting believes this is not how US taxpayers want their money to be spent. Most taxpayers are willing to support uncensored newscasts to help victims of human rights abuses living under oppressive regimes in other countries, especially if they know that these programs also enhance US national security. We doubt that they would also want to pay for producing lifestyle programs for either international or domestic audiences at the expense of news. Taxpayers should not be paying for marketing of such programs, even overseas, if they are not part of a comprehensive broadcast focused primarily on news and current affairs. When news broadcasts are being eliminated by BBG officials to pay, for example, for English teaching videos, US taxpayers have a good reason to be concerned.

The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting is also concerned that the same officials will try to place restrictions on how BBG programs can be reused domestically. Currently, Voice of America programs are in the public domain, but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) content is not. The proposed legislation should clearly state that all BBG programs, including those produced by the so-called “grantee” organizations like RFE/RL but paid for entirely by American taxpayers, are in public domain and can be used free of charge if they can be obtained from the Internet and directly from satellite, or when they are picked up from terrestrial radio and television transmissions.

These concerns about transparency and accountability are not merely academic. BBG officials are already trying to weaken public and Congressional scrutiny by, for example, attempting to eliminate the requirement that the new proposed CEO position at the BBG be subject to Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. They also want to bureaucratize the surrogate-grantee broadcasters, including RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia (RFA), by forcing them to merge. There is already a very strong push by BBG officials to limit public monitoring of their performance.

Who will keep an eye on the BBG if the agency is allowed to broadcast, publish and advertise in the US?

There is also the possibility that more rebroadcasts on US domestic stations may expose, for example, a pro-Kremlin bias in VOA Russian programs, which was reported last year in a BBG’s own analysis commissioned from an independent media scholar and pro-democracy journalist living in Russia. If BBG broadcasts are good, their domestic use, on the other hand, can increase their visibility and win greater public support for US international broadcasting. That would be a good thing, in our opinion. But the Smith-Mundt Act modifying legislation in its current form gives government bureaucrats far too much power without placing any restraints on how they can use it. And it is not just the Broadcasting Board of Governors that is affected by this bill, but also the Pentagon and the State Department.

There is a real danger that some of the provisions of this law will be misused by the Broadcasting Board of Governors officials. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R – CA) has recently written a letter to some of his colleagues in Congress accusing the BBG of being “opaque in its decision making and incredibility tone deaf to Congressional priorities.” Rep. Rohrabacher was commenting on the BBG decision to replace two hours of live VOA Mandarin radio broadcasts with repeat programming with no live newscasts while the fate of blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng was still hanging in the balance. BBG officials had assured his staff earlier that they would not be making any substantive changes in VOA Mandarin programs. Rep. Rohrabacher is not alone in criticizing BBG officials for their lack of transparency and accountability. Other Republicans and Democrats in Congress have voiced similar criticism.

The Smith-Mundt Act modifying legislation should make it clear that the BBG is not allowed to actively market their programs domestically, target any specific groups of Americans, and spend taxpayers’ money on domestic advertising. The legislation should also make it clear that the BBG should not be allowed to claim any domestic audiences in their performance reports or to conduct market research in the US using public funds. If they are allowed to feed and measure the domestic market, that is where taxpayers’ money will go rather than serving international audiences. The law and subsequent regulations should also make it absolutely clear that the BBG is not allowed to own or operate any domestic stations,  to favor one station over another or to sign rebroadcasting agreements with domestic broadcasters. 

The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting, however, supports the idea that Americans should have full, unrestricted access to BBG programs if they want them. In fact, the current law does not prevent individual American citizens and US broadcasters from using Voice of America programs if they can find them. Most are on the Internet, and the argument that the current law prevents a station in Minnesota from rebroadcasting VOA Somali radio programs to the local Somali expatriate community is somewhat misleading. The current law does prevent the BBG from making these programs available to those who request them, but they can still legally use them if they can find them on their own, for example, by downloading them from the Internet.

Still, that part of the current law that prevents the BBG from assisting those in the United States who request these programs should be changed. The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting also supports a clarification that all BBG-produced content is in public domain and can be used by anyone abroad or in the United States free of charge.

But allowing the BBG to market their programs in the US without any restrictions is a dangerous idea because it counts on government bureaucrats to restrain themselves on their own. There is a real danger that they will take advantage of this law, if it passes, to divert public money from critical news and information projects in countries lacking free and balanced media to use for their own domestic PR projects and on themselves. If not modified, this bill will lead to wasting of taxpayers’ money at home and to weakening US public diplomacy and national security interests abroad.

Ted LipienTed Lipien
Former Voice of America Acting Associate Director
Co-founder and Director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting
Free Media Online Founder and President