Censoring the Voice of America

Why is it OK to broadcast terrorist propaganda but not taxpayer-funded media reports?


Earlier this year, a community radio station in Minneapolis asked Voice of America (VOA) for permission to retransmit its news coverage on the increasingly volatile situation in Somalia. The VOA audio files it requested were freely available online without copyright or any licensing requirements. The radio station’s intentions were simple enough: Producers hoped to offer an informative, Somali-language alternative to the terrorist propaganda that is streaming into Minneapolis, where the United States’ largest Somali community resides. Over the last year or more, al-Shabab, an al Qaeda linked Somali militia, has successfully recruited two dozen or more Somali-Americans to return home and fight. The radio station was grasping for a remedy.

It all seemed straightforward enough until VOA turned down the request for the Somali-language programming. In the United States, airing a program produced by a U.S. public diplomacy radio or television station such as VOA is illegal. Oddly, though, airing similar programs produced by foreign governments — or even terrorist groups — is not. As a result, the same professional journalists, editors, and public diplomacy officers whom we trust to inform and engage the world are considered more threatening to Americans than terrorist propaganda — like the stuff pouring into Minneapolis.

The conundrum can be traced back to the Cold War, when Sen. Edward Zorinsky got the Smith-Mundt Act modified in 1985, declaring that, if the United States Information Agency (USIA)’s materials were to be available to Americans, it would be no different than a Soviet propaganda machine. News and information programming paid for by U.S. taxpayers was thought to be so toxic to U.S. citizens that until 1998, USIA products were exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.

But compare this scenario with what might have happened if the community radio station had instead asked to broadcast a program made by a foreign government-owned channel, say China’s CCTV or the Kremlin’s Russia Today. At one time, broadcasters were required to label media from foreign governments as "political propaganda" under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act. Not anymore; as part of the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, Congress changed the law and replaced the mandatory "propaganda" label to a discretionary one, "informational material." In practice, the disclosure is hardly used. CCTV, Russia Today, BBC, and other foreign government-financed broadcasts are increasingly available inside the United States.

Rebroadcasting propaganda from al-Shabab’s sophisticated media center, an operation that rivals or even surpasses al Qaeda’s, would have been an easier task for the Minneapolis station, should it have wanted to do so. The First Amendment provides substantial protection for media outlets, especially when the footage or tape is aired as part of a news program. Major U.S. networks, for example, devote substantial airtime to playing and discussing propaganda from al Qaeda’s leadership. The right to view those Osama bin Laden tapes is protected by the Bill of Rights and the public’s right to know.

Back in Minneapolis, though, this all looks a bit backward. U.S. radio and television stations can broadcast news and information programs produced by foreign governments and terrorists … but not VOA. It’s impossible to say whether those Somali-language VOA broadcasts would have deterred any of the four Somali-Americans who have died in the last year fighting for al-Shabab (including the first American suicide bomber — a feat that al Qaeda has yet to match). But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Now, the FBI is investigating the recent disappearances of more than 20 young men suspected of traveling to Somalia to join the militia. Two others from the community have been indicted for supporting al-Shabab. The charges include fighting for a terrorist organization.

This muzzling of VOA comes at a time when the U.S. media is shrinking, eliminating foreign bureaus, and increasingly relying on stringers (of sometimes dubious quality) for its news. VOA and other U.S. public diplomacy organizations, meanwhile, are staffed with professional journalists and editors who are adept and experienced with covering goings-on about the world.

In an age where a teenager with a keyboard can wield more influence than an F-22 Raptor, the time has long past for the United States to change its public diplomacy and communications strategy accordingly. In 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, often described as the real brains behind al Qaeda, wrote, "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media." He gets it. It’s about time the U.S. government does, too.

Matt Armstrong is a principal with Armstrong Strategic Insights Group and a member of the Public Diplomacy Council. He publishes the public diplomacy and strategic communication blog