US Global Media needs freedom to do its job of promoting freedom

Recent media reports have detailed battles for oversight of the five international multimedia networks — Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting and Radio and TV Marti — that comprise the U.S. Agency for Global Media. 

Reaching 345 million people in 59 languages by television, radio, the internet and social media across the globe, the networks’ daily news and analysis is the most reliable source of accurate information many people receive.  

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This quality makes U.S. Global Media the leading instrument of American soft power in authoritarian countries and struggling democracies.

Missing from the Washington discussion is an examination of what these networks actually do, why their reporting is credible to their audiences and how it makes a difference. Audiences turn to U.S. Global Media for comprehensive fact-based news unavailable on local media. 

I recently observed reporting of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service in Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo. RFE/RL journalists first exposed a Russian-supported youth paramilitary camp in Serbia, resulting in its being shut down

They interviewed Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians for contrasting views on a possible “land swap” between Serbia and Kosovo. They've reported views and actions of the pro-Russian political parties in Montenegro. Journalists for "Current Time TV" (produced in cooperation with VOA) report in Russian from both sides of the war in Ukraine. 

RFE/RL’s mission as surrogate for absent independent domestic media in the former USSR, Western Balkans, Afghanistan, Iran and Western Pakistan is shared by Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East Broadcasting and Radio and TV Marti.

RFA Uyghur Service journalists have covered the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, reporting that made journalists’ families targets of the Chinese state.

An exclusive interview by a Korean Service journalist with a North Korean trade worker confirmed transshipment of North Korean coal mislabeled as Russian-origin in violation of U.N. sanctions.   

MBN Alhurra TV journalists have reported from the front lines on Kurdish forces battling ISIS in northern Syria, providing news and perspectives absent from most Arab-language media. 

Alhurra profiled Egypt’s Sheikh Mohamed Abdallah Nasr, sentenced to 18 years in jail for blasphemy after calling for peaceful interpretations of Islam, leading to review of his case.

Radio and TV Marti utilizes information from citizen journalists, activists and bloggers in Cuba to report on economic corruption, public health challenges and repression of dissidents and human rights activists. It amplifies voices of independent journalists, such as Yoani Sánchez, who are banned from Cuban state media.

These surrogate domestic media networks are complemented by the Voice of America, whose mission is to tell America’s story to the world. Recent VOA reports have included coverage of high-tech innovations in Silicon Valley, a nonprofit dedicated to feeding the hungry in Detroit and the effectiveness of existing barriers on the Mexican border to limit illegal immigration.  

VOA also provides surrogate domestic coverage to parts of the world not covered by other U.S. networks. A VOA journalist reported from Malawi, for example, on efforts of international charities to assist girls in rural areas that are a hotspot of HIV.  

It is this reporting of news that authoritarian leaders wish to suppress, much of it generated by local journalists and sometimes at great personal risk that drives the demand for U.S. Global Media and justifies funding by Congress.   

Independent fact-based information from outside that's credible to local audiences is critical as local media are captured by governments and oligarchs and democratic achievements are reversed.   

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Independent journalism attuned to local audiences and utilizing information from local sources challenges authoritarian regimes that manipulate nationalist passions, disregard the rule of law and violate human rights. It counters the extensive media influence operations conducted by Russia and China.      

But the power of U.S. Global Media depends entirely on its credibility, which rests in turn on its journalistic professionalism, editorial independence and clear separation from government. That credibility is threatened by provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act of FY2017 that provides for unprecedented executive branch control over the five networks. 

The 116th Congress should revisit that legislation, which was passed hastily at the end of the Obama presidency.  The National Endowment for Democracy, a private organization chartered and funded by the Congress, provides an alternative, non-federal organizational model for credible independent global journalism serving the American national interest.

A. Ross Johnson is a history and public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the former director of Radio Free Europe.