- - Monday, July 29, 2013

I fear the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 for somewhat different reasons than most bloggers angered by the removal of a previous legal ban on the U.S. government’s domestic propaganda. I agree with those who insist that no government can be trusted as a domestic news provider. Giving officials extra powers without additional safeguards in the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 was a huge mistake.

What I fear much more, however, is the negative impact the current controversy has on the future of liberty voices abroad: Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. Excellent journalists who work there to provide uncensored news and opinions to nations without free media are being unfairly suspected of domestic propaganda because of actions of a few top officials who are also ruining America’s media outreach abroad.

I do not so much blame U.S. bloggers for their suspicions that really should be directed against the Obama administration. Those reporting on the scandal are drawing conclusions that to them seem perfectly logical.

I am very angry, however, with government bureaucrats, specifically top executives within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America who had pushed Congress to have the law changed without thinking of highly negative political consequences of their actions.

I came across a transcript of a discussion that took place in July 2011, during which a top IBB bureaucrat, State Department officials and a few outside experts enthusiastically endorsed the lifting of the domestic propaganda ban. Not a single panelist raised any serious concerns about a potential domestic political fallout if the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 were to be modified according to their wishes.

I found their attitude to be arrogant in the extreme. How could they not think that Americans might object to such a move, which many see as directed against the First Amendment’s guarantee of free press with the creation of government press? Did they not realize that the original Smith-Mundt Act had been passed to prevent, among other things, the State Department and U.S. international broadcasts becoming a target of domestic partisan political disputes?

These officials showed no concern that bipartisan support for the Voice of America might evaporate if their proposal is accepted. They did not worry that it might outrage American taxpayers who would start to question their generous support for U.S. broadcasts to those who live under repressive regimes — broadcasts that help victims of repression abroad and strengthen U.S. national security at the same time.

However, to those of us who have witnessed monumental mismanagement of U.S. media engagement with foreign audiences in recent years, such official arrogance came as no surprise. There was no true compelling need for changing the law. Arguments in favor of the change were largely misleading. Government bureaucrats wanted new powers for themselves, a new audience, and new opportunities for funding additional projects.

In fact, the old Smith-Mundt Act did not make it illegal for Americans and American media to use and rebroadcast these programs domestically if they got them on their own, for example on the Internet, where they have been available to everyone for a long time. It merely prohibited government officials from actively marketing these programs domestically. A minor change in the law, such as making it clear that all this material is in the public domain — much of it already was, since it is paid for by American taxpayers — could have addressed most of the needs and concerns.

But IBB and State Department officials would not be satisfied with small modifications. They wanted to actively distribute programs to domestic U.S. media without any restrictions.

I can’t speak about the U.S. State Department with its public diplomacy agenda that in many cases requires active engagement with American citizens at home and abroad. But before they embarked on their domestic media outreach project, officials in charge of international broadcasting have already largely ruined what was once a powerful U.S. tool for strengthening media freedom abroad.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called their work “defunct.” They have made Voice of American English programs almost completely irrelevant by reducing hard news reporting, cutting down on original coverage and eliminating reporting positions. VOA’s social-media engagement scores are minuscule when compared with such foreign competitors as al Jazeera and Russia Today.

U.S. officials have “lost the information war” abroad, as Mrs. Clinton observed. No wonder they now want to claim a domestic audience.

Because of arrogance and shortsightedness of these officials, many Americans now think of U.S.-funded programs for audiences abroad as propaganda. They are not. Many foreign-language news programs are still getting through with a strong impact in countries such as Iran, Russia and China.

These programs, however, could be more effective. The management, which lacks any strategic thinking and political common sense, has created such a dysfunctional work environment that the future of U.S. international broadcasting is seriously in doubt. When we add to this misdirected and highly unfortunate new hostility among some Americans to these international broadcasts because of fears of government’s domestic propaganda, the amount of damage done by these officials is almost beyond comprehension.

However, just because a few bureaucrats were hungry for power, Americans should not turn their backs on these strategically important international broadcasts and outstanding journalists who produce them. It is not the journalists’ fault that they have to work under such incompetent management. It is these officials who need to be replaced.

Freedom abroad also means freedom at home. That was a clear concept behind U.S. overseas broadcasts for many decades that International broadcasting Bureau officials distorted and weakened recently for no good reason.

Members of Congress are now working on reforming the whole structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. IBB bureaucrats would like nothing better than for the bipartisan oversight board to disappear.

A major overhaul is needed, but a bipartisan oversight board must remain to ensure full accountability. Such a board can also prevent any future domestic propaganda. Congress must, however, quickly fix the board’s legislative mandate so it can hire competent staff and gain control over the bureaucracy.

IBB officials who had helped to create the latest government propaganda crisis should be fired and their misguided project subjected to a careful legislative review in Congress. Only such drastic actions would restore public support for U.S. voices of liberty abroad and make them once again fully effective.

Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director and co-founder of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting

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