A powerful pair of lawmakers in the House of Representatives have agreed on major legislation to overhaul Voice of America and other government-funded broadcasting outlets that could have implications for the broadcaster’s editorial independence, Foreign Policy has learned.
The new legislation tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. "public diplomacy" and the "policies" of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.
"It is time for broad reforms; now more than ever, U.S. international broadcasts must be effective," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement.
The bill is the result of a year’s worth of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans working hand-in-glove with their counterparts in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It has the support of the committee’s most senior Democrat, New York Congressman Eliot Engel, and will get a vote on Wednesday in the committee. Corresponding bipartisan legislation is currently in the works in the Senate.
Besides clarifying VOA’s mission, the bill reorganizes the federal agency responsible for supervising U.S.-funded media outlets, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Instead of being led by a group of part-time board members, the bill establishes a full-time, day-to-day agency head. It also consolidates Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network — other foreign-facing broadcast outlets — into a single non-federal organization, and aims to save costs by downsizing the number of federal contractors at the outlets in the years to come.
Within VOA, the proposed reforms to its mission may prove the most controversial. Founded in 1942 as a part of the Office of War Information, the VOA was originally tasked with countering Japanese and Nazi propaganda. In the 1950s, it moved to the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency where it focused its efforts on countering Communist propaganda. In later years, VOA concentrated on providing news to individuals living under repressive regimes. In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed its principles into law, emphasizing VOA’s mission as an "accurate, objective, and comprehensive" source of news, as opposed to a propaganda outlet.
For many years since then, employees at the TV and radio broadcaster have insisted on viewing themselves as objective journalists as opposed to instruments of American foreign policy. On some rare occasions, that sense of independence has resulted in news stories that depict the United States in a less than favorable light.
"The persian News Network of Voice of America has been documented to show anti-American bias," the conservative Heritage Foundation alleged in a policy brief this month.
Such instances have led congressional overseers to wonder why they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a news outlet without a more explicitly pro-American editorial focus.
"This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts," reads a summary of the new bill. "The VOA charter states that VOA will provide a ‘clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States … Over time, VOA has abandoned this mission."
Lynne Weil, a spokesperson for the BBG, declined to weigh in on the proposal. "The agency does not comment on pending legislation," she said.
The timing of the bill comes as the crisis in Ukraine has prompted a renewed information war between Washington and Moscow. In recent weeks, the Kremlin has put its TV network RT into overdrive to castigate Western involvement in Ukraine and denounce the Kiev government as right-wing fascists. Meanwhile, Congress passed a bill last month providing more authority to VOA and RFE/RL to expand broadcasting into Ukraine and eastern Europe. The BBG’s budget request for fiscal year 2015 is $721 million. A copy of the bill appears below: