Repeal of Smith-Mundt is good for media freedom, but Americans must be wary of government bureaucrats marketing news domestically
BBG Watch Commentary
Commenting on the defense authorization bill that President Obama signed last night, which includes a provision that reduces restrictions of the Smith-Mundt Act on the dissemination of materials within the United States that were originally intended for audiences overseas, former Broadcasting Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and Voice of America (VOA) official Ted Lipien said that “while the repeal of some of the restrictions is good for media freedom, Americans should be wary of government bureaucrats trying to actively market their news programs domestically using U.S. taxpayers’ money.”
Ted Lipien is a co-founder and director of the independent and nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB.org), an NGO promoting free flow of uncensored news and information from the United States to countries with restricted or developing media. Executive Director of CUSIB Ann Noonan spoke at a recent BBG meeting in Washington about neglect by the BBG of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcasts to Russia and Central Asia and the firing of experienced RFE/RL journalists. A potential BBG focus on the domestic U.S. media market can accelerate such dangerous trends and deprive foreign audiences of vital news and information.
“The repeal of some of the restrictions of the Smith-Mundt Act is a good thing for free media and transparency, but the leadership of the Broadcasting Board of Government (BBG), the federal agency in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S.-funded broadcasters serving foreign audiences in countries without free media, must be very careful so that its bureaucracy will not focus on serving and trying to influence the domestic market at the expense of the international one.”
“There will be a very strong pressure on the part of the BBG government bureaucracy to focus on the domestic U.S. media market to increase their audience. Over the years, the BBG bureaucracy grew while international news programs and the number of journalists and international experts declined. Government bureaucrats will feel more comfortable doing business with people like themselves, people they know,” Lipien said.
“Responding to requests for programs from domestic U.S. broadcasters is fine. Active marketing and the use of taxpayers’ money for that purpose, which is what the government bureaucracy may want to do, should be prohibited with appropriate regulations from the Broadcasting Board of Governors for its staff,” Lipien said.
Lipien also said that the new legislation will be an especially big boost for the Voice of America (VOA), which produces many excellent programs in English, Spanish and other languages. There is no reason stations in the United States should not be able to receive them directly from the Broadcasting Board of Governors since they are already able to download most of them from the Internet or satellite and use them as part of their own program offering to Americans. By law, VOA programs must be accurate and balanced.
“As long as appropriate limits and protections are observed, making these programs easily available to any Americans who want them is a positive step. The law is also good for U.S. public diplomacy abroad as it shows that what is good for foreign audiences is also good for Americans,” Lipien said.
“Any programs produced with U.S. taxpayers’ money, including those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), with include Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which include Radio and TV Marti, should in the public domain and available to anyone who wants them, in the United States and abroad, free of charge,” Lipien added.
“Americans will be able to judge how their money is being used and may protest when they are spent on programs that try to compete with and duplicate the work of commercial broadcasters or include frivolous and culturally offensive content, as it has been the case with recent videos, images and text being offered to Kazakhstan, Russia and other countries by the current American management of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,” Lipien observed.
The BBG appears to be addressing the management problem at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It has accepted the resignation of RFE/RL president and CEO Steven Korn who fired many experienced journalists and web editors. Lipien said that many RFE/RL journalists continue to resist pressures from managers appointed by Steven Korn and still produce many excellent programs, as do other BBG-managed broadcasters.
“The new law, if properly interpreted and implemented, may actually help the Broadcasting Board of Governors to better focus on its international mission, but it also presents serious risks,” Lipien added.
Official BBG Press Release
Passage Of New Law Enhances Our Journalists’ Reach, Improves The Agency’s Use Of Resources, Increases Transparency, BBG Says
Washington, DC – The Broadcasting Board of Governors today hailed a new law that updates one of the founding statutes of public diplomacy in the United States, a change that the Board has long supported and had incorporated into its strategic plan.
The defense authorization bill that the President signed last night includes a provision that reduces restrictions on the dissemination of materials within the United States that were originally intended for audiences overseas. This means that news and information programs produced by BBG journalists for people in more than 100 countries can also be made available for broadcast within the United States; many already are available worldwide via the Internet. The provision was originally known as the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act when it was first introduced in Congress in 2010 and re-introduced last year.
Presiding Governor Michael Lynton said the new law will allow the BBG to accept requests to provide its programs to organizations which, until now, it could not share them with, including U.S.-based broadcasters, publications, universities, non-governmental organizations, and others that have requested these materials over the years.
“This will enable more efficient use of agency resources, wider availability of our journalists’ vital and informative work, and greater transparency as more people in this country come to know what U.S. international broadcasting is about,” Lynton said.
The legislation updates the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, a section of which prohibited the State Department and U.S. international broadcasting from disseminating within this country any program materials that have been produced using funds appropriated for public diplomacy. A subsequent amendment to the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998 prohibited using such funds to influence public opinion in the United States. These two provisions together are popularly known as Smith-Mundt, named after the primary Senate and House authors of the 1948 bill, who could not have anticipated the advent of the World Wide Web or dramatic shifts in the population of the United States, including large communities of people from other countries seeking information via a variety of media in their native languages.
“The new law is a major breakthrough for U.S. international media,” said Susan McCue, a member of the BBG Board’s Communications and Outreach Committee. “All Americans will now have access to the vital and informative reporting of our accomplished journalists around the world who are working under difficult circumstances in closed societies and developing countries. The news and programs they produce every day will benefit many US audiences, including diaspora communities.”
The BBG has been expanding its programming options overseas as more media platforms become popular among its key target audiences – emphasizing broadcasting via radio and TV where they have the greatest impact, while ramping up digital outreach in places where audiences increasingly indicate a preference for receiving news through websites, blogs, mobile devices or other means. The new law allows this process to continue without regard to whether these programs might also be watched or heard by people within the United States, and expands the options for these programs’ distribution.
The law makes no change to the BBG’s enabling statute, the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994, which does not authorize the agency to create new programs solely for U.S. audiences.