AFGE Local 1812 union defends H.R. 4490 reforms for Voice of America

BBG Watch

American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812, a union representing federal employees at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), posted on its website a commentary in which it defends H.R. 4490 reforms for the Voice of America (VOA).

BBG Watch reposts the AFGE Local 1812 commentary in full as a public service.

AFGE Local 1812

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

By American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812

In the ongoing debate on the pros and cons of the current congressional legislation regarding reform of U.S. international broadcasting , it looks as if there may be a campaign underway to marshal support of the employees of the Voice of America against congressional efforts to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the House version of the Bill is HR 4490) and to convince them that AFGE Local 1812, by supporting this reform effort, is not working in the best interests of the bargaining unit employees. AFGE Local 1812 rejects those arguments.

Those stirring the pot claim that HR 4490 would turn the VOA into a propaganda machine. They base this claim on wording in HR 4490 that requires all US international broadcasting “to be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.” That wording appears twice in Section 5 of HR 4490 just passed by the House of Representatives as well as once in both Section 109 and Section 213. Opponents maintain that this will force the VOA to produce only material that is consistent with one foreign policy objective or another. They present it as being something new and that it must be fought. If it is not stopped, the very existence of the VOA and journalism itself is at stake, so they claim.

The problem is that it is not true. That particular wording is present now in current law and has been since 1994 when the US International Broadcasting Act was passed (placing U.S. international broadcasting under the U.S. Information Agency). In Section 303 of that Act it states:

“SEC. 303 STANDARDS AND PRINCIPLES.

(a) BROADCASTING STANDARDS.-United States international broadcasting shall-

(1) be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States;”

The Foreign Affairs and Restructuring Act of 1998 (abolishing the USIA and placing international broadcasting under the BBG) retained this provision. For twenty years, VOA broadcasters have lived with that requirement and to our knowledge there have been no documented incidents of using that language to spike any stories or coverage. The reason why is simple. No one that we know of is interested in turning the Voice of America into a propaganda machine. In fact, what lawmakers have told us is that in the overall U.S. foreign policy structure, the Voice of America has an important role to play. Part of that role is to be the source of accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and information. As long as the VOA performs that function, it is consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the U.S. No more and no less.

As retired USIA Foreign Service officer and a strong supporter of VOA, Tom Tuch, said in a letter to the Washington Post regarding the legislation: “VOA listeners must be confident in the truthfulness of what they hear in news broadcasts before they will accept as legitimate what they hear in the the rest of the program.”

That brings us to the other objection with HR 4490. The Bill more clearly defines the role of the VOA and the surrogate broadcasters. The Voice of America was always supposed to be focused more on the US, at least since 1976 when the VOA Charter was enacted. Parts 2 and 3 of the Charter are exclusively about the US.

These two provisions of the Charter have been all but eliminated over the past few years by management actions and by unilaterally changing the mission of the Voice of America from that of the Charter. The US focus is what most distinguishes the VOA from the surrogates. That is the basis for the requirement in HR 4490 that the VOA shall serve “as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news on the United States, its policies, its people, and the international developments that affect the United States.” Making that clear distinction between the separate missions of the VOICE OF AMERICA and the surrogates hopefully will prevent the yearly threat of VOA language service cuts and RIFs due to the claim of overlap.

Limiting the international aspect of VOA news to just “developments that affect the United States” may be a little too restrictive. Although we believe that the drafters of the legislation were acting in good faith and although with a little creativity almost any story could be covered under this provision, we would like to see the language changed. We were able to get some wording in the Report Language of HR 4490 (which indicates that those drafting the Bill had no problem with our suggestion even though the original language also was included in the Report Language). We are hopeful and will work to try to get that change in the Senate version of the Bill.

Those two issues were the only ones that were brought to the Union’s attention by bargaining unit employees. When the Union first saw the text of the Bill, we immediately raised those issues with Congress which are now being debated openly in the press.

Some items we were able to have included in the Report language that accompanies HR 4490 re: journalistic integrity of the news:

• In supporting the broad foreign policies of the United States, the VOA is to serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source for news and information on the United States, its policies, its people, and major international developments to the people of the world.

• Journalistic Integrity – The credibility of VOA and FNN news broadcasts is paramount. Therefore the committee believes strongly that, above all, the journalistic integrity of the broadcasting employees of the USICA and the FNN must be respected, supported and maintained. Journalists should not be pressured to present news or information that is factually inaccurate or deliberately deceptive. The highest journalistic standards shall be respected at all times and both the VOA and the FNN shall produce news and information that is consistently objective, accurate, credible, and comprehensive. VOA and FNN audiences must be confident in the truthfulness and accuracy of the news broadcasts before they will accept as legitimate information presented in other facets of the programming. The boards of the USICA and FNN should protect the credibility of the content produced and uphold high standards of journalism, ensuring journalistic integrity is preserved.

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