On 30 April, a committee reported the US International Communications Reform Act to the House of Representatives for further consideration. This bill aims to restructure the US federal government-funded international media and, in particular, to overhaul the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the State Department’s overseas broadcasting.
If the Senate approves the version passed by the House and if President Obama signs it into law, Voice of America would henceforth be required to support US foreign policy.
The bill’s authors accuse Voice of America of abandoning its duty to support US policy over the years, becoming “too” independent and even making “anti-American” statements.”
Historically, VOA served US diplomacy by countering Nazi and then Chinese and Soviet propaganda. In 1976, President Gerald Ford enshrined the principle of “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” broadcasting in VOA’s charter. VOA was now promoted as an independent news source in regions where censorship prevailed.
These principles are retained in the new bill, but VOA’s reports must also be “consistent with and promote the broad foreign policies of the United States.”
There is clearly a danger that this new concept of “promoting” US foreign policy could affect VOA’s content.
The International Communications Reform Act reverses the priorities of the 1994 law currently in effect. Programming focused on the United States and its foreign policy would be more important that providing independent news and information to the population of countries where it is otherwise inaccessible.
“We urge the US authorities not to transform media such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia into diplomatic communication tools,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
“It is legitimate that these media should offer a US vision of freedom. But encouraging or forcing them to support diplomatic positions and to reflect national interests means adopting the attitudes of information warfare and this would be extremely regrettable.”
As well as defining the VOA’s principles, the very first article of the International Communications Reform Act says that the US international broadcasting “exists to advance the United States’ interests and values.”
It is crucial that journalists working for the network of media depending on US funding should not be obliged to reflect US interests while “presenting accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and information (...) to societies that lack a free media.”
Like VOA in Iran, the local language services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty constitute one of the very few sources of independent news and information in countries such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. These media could not continue to provide the same valuable service if they took their orders from the US government.