By Cindy Saine – CAPITOL HILL —The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would overhaul U.S. international broadcasting, including this agency, the Voice of America, four other government-financed broadcasters and the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees all of them.
Supporters of the bipartisan bill say the United States needs to fight back more effectively in the war of information against countries like Russia and China. But some opponents of the bill say they fear it would undermine VOA’s journalistic integrity and its reputation.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce says international outrage over recent events in Ukraine shows how important it is for the United States to counter what he called continuous Russian propaganda in the region.
“Who is going to offset that propaganda? Our best weapon in this informational battle, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the BBG, is totally defunct,” said Royce.
The reform bill passed the House Monday by a voice vote. The legislation would reduce the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called practically defunct, to an advisory role and would appoint a full-time CEO to run U.S. international broadcasting. The measure also defines the role of the Voice of America, as Democratic Congressman Gerald Connolly explains.
“Voice of America, for example, will now confine itself to its public diplomacy mission, to foster positive relationships between the United States and the rest of the world,” said Connolly.
Some current and former VOA journalists say they agree that changes to management are urgently needed, but they are worried about language in the House bill that calls on the Voice of America to promote U.S. foreign policy while being a fair and accurate source of news. The bill also would reduce the scope of VOA’s coverage from world news to U.S. news and policy.
Former VOA deputy director Alan Heil says those changes would be devastating:
“If that bill becomes law, VOA’s worldwide following on radio, TV and online channels would plummet precipitously. The Voice’s greatest asset, its credibility, would be in shreds,” said Heil.
Some media advocacy groups also have expressed alarm. Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire issued a statement in May urging U.S. authorities not to transform media such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia into diplomatic communication tools. Deloire said “adopting the attitudes of information warfare” would be extremely regrettable.
A similar U.S. broadcasting bill would have to pass in the Senate, and then be signed by President Barack Obama in order to become law. It is not clear when or if the Senate will take up the issue.