VOA reform push sparks propaganda fears

The House is moving to overhaul the handful of taxpayer-funded media organizations, but critics say the changes would turn the Voice of America into a tool for pro-western propaganda.

Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed a bill to make “dramatic reforms” to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the government-backed outlets.

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“U.S. broadcasters are competing with a hand tied behind their back,” Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said after the bill passed the committee.

One of the highest profile changes in the new bill is an explicit statement that news at the Voice of America, the U.S.’s flagship foreign broadcaster, “is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States.”

Lawmakers said that U.S. organizations operate at a disadvantage and need leeway to promote and explain American policies, as other state-funded broadcasters do.

But the legislation has raised concerns the outlet could turn into a propaganda machine.

The Kremlin-funded Russia Today, which is itself the subject of criticism for its Moscow-friendly stance, wrote that the new bill calls “into question how much editorial independence Voice of America (VOA) will have left.”

But lawmakers and other supporters say the bill is just getting the broadcaster back to its roots.

“Public diplomacy is not propaganda – it’s telling America’s story; it’s explaining our policies to foreign audiences,” a committee spokesperson said in an email to The Hill. “The U.S. spends a lot of money every year to help people in foreign countries; we do a lot of good in the world.”

“We do not pay for the VOA to be just another news outlet,” the spokesperson added. “We pay for the VOA to provide news that supports our national security objectives.”

Some say the legislation could restore focus to the broadcaster, which they say moved away from serious news coverage and is plagued by poor oversight.

In recent years, Voice of America had turned to “fluff journalism,” said Ted Lipien, a former acting associate director at the broadcaster.

He said it had ignored the U.S.’s perspective on a slew of important issues and instead turned to content like a recent video clip about zombies, which “allowed them to place their programs on local stations and countries that otherwise would object to serious news or news at all.”

“As a journalist and a former VOA manager and executive, I’m glad that this bill has been introduced and I’m hoping that it will reform Voice of America,” he told The Hill. “I’m not worried that it is going to limit [the] journalistic independence of the Voice of America.”

Instead, he said, the bill “addresses a much larger problem of mismanagement at the organization.”

The broadcasting agency has long been chided for organizational dysfunction.

A Government Accountability Office report last year said that nearly two-thirds of the BBG’s special language services overlap with each other, and the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that it was “failing in its mandated duties” and noted “a degree of hostility that renders its deliberative process ineffectual.”

On her way out as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton piled on, calling the BBG "practically defunct in terms of its capacity to tell a message around the world."

The nine governors on the BBG only work part-time, and meet once a month to make management decisions.

“The Broadcasting Board of Governors has been, I think it’s fair to say, deficient and defective over the years,” said Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“It often fails to address governance issues in a timely manner, it meets infrequency, often does not have a quorum, the members of the board are part-timers and therefore can’t give their jobs the kind of attention it needs … in order for them to be the final authority over these bodies,” he added.

Not everyone agrees there’s a problem.

"The work of the BBG is performed on a daily basis regardless of the frequency of board meetings,” said Jeff Hirschberg, a former member of the board and now vice chairman of the Northeast Maglev, a Washington-based transportation firm.

The House bill would create a new chief executive to oversee day-to-day operations, reduce the governors to an advisory role and shift them to a new International Communications Agency.

In addition to the Voice of America, the BBG also provides grants to fund so-called “surrogate” broadcasters like Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, which runs Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa.

The House bill combines those under the umbrella Freedom News Network. Each of the broadcasters would retain their old names and branding, but would share administration staff and other resources.

A Senate counterpart to the House bill has yet to be unveiled, but is expected to also spin off the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, according to a person with knowledge of the issue. The office operates Radio and TV Marti from within VOA’s formal structure.

As lawmakers hammered out the details last week, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell promised employees that little would change for them.

“People around the globe depend on [U.S. international media] for high-quality journalism,” he wrote in a letter to staffers. “This will not change, no matter the outcome of current efforts on Capitol Hill.”

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