First ever bill to defund Voice of America for violations of VOA Charter and mismanagement

BBG Watch Commentary

Rep. Matt Salmon

Rep. Matt Salmon

Never in the history of the Voice of America (VOA) under its numerous past directors has a bill been introduced in Congress to defund it for mismanagement. But in response to a multitude of news omissions, violations of the VOA Charter, and news reporting mistakes in recent years and months, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has announced his intention to introduce a bill that would eliminate federal funding for the Voice of America, which was established by the U.S. government in 1942.

Rep. Salmon described his initiative to defund VOA as the fifth “Shrink Our Spending” (SOS) bill in a series of bills to be introduced over the next few months to cut wasteful and duplicative spending.

Another bill dealing with the Voice of America, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490), has already been unanimously approved in a fully bipartisan action by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which Rep. Salmon is a member, and sent to the whole House for consideration.

H.R. 4490 introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, with Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel and seven other co-sponsors, would not abolish the Voice of America but would subject it to much stricter management controls. Some fear that some of these controls may also limit VOA’s journalistic independence, although elements of the VOA Charter, which calls for accurate and objective news, have been incorporated into H.R. 4490.

The Voice of America as a federal news organization serving overseas audiences has been managed in recent years by VOA Director David Ensor, VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch and a large team of senior SES and GS-15 executives. Policies and management of VOA are also affected by highly bureaucratized International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), where the previous management has been recently replaced with a three-person interim team in an attempt by the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to reform its executive and technical support federal entity.

Both VOA and IBB report to the BBG board, but the part-time board has been largely powerless and unable to control or reform the federal bureaucracy under the current legislative setup. H.R. 4490 is designed to enable the BBG board to hire a full-time executive and to assume thereafter only advisory functions.

H.R. 4490 would effectively abolish the IBB. It also mandates that no USICA employee other than the USICA CEO and the VOA director be paid at a rate higher than grade GS-15, step 10 of the General Schedule under section 5332 of title 5, United States Code. It also freezes the filling of positions rated grade GS-14 or GS-15 for five years, with exceptions.

Rep. Matt Salmon wants to take a much more drastic step and to abolish the Voice of America entirely while preserving the BBG’s surrogate grantee (non-federal) broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), which have been much better managed but have also suffered to some degree from mismanagement at the federal level. H.R. 4490 would give surrogate grantee BBG broadcasters more autonomy and combine them under a separate CEO. They would no longer be as directly exposed as they are now to mismanagement at the federal level affecting their operations.

Rep. Matt Salmon wants surrogate broadcasters to continue providing news to countries without free media but does not see a need for the Voice of America that does not follow its Congressional Charter to report news about the United States and U.S. policies. As far as we could determine, under no previous Voice of America director has a bill been introduced in Congress to defund the Voice of America specifically for mismanagement and violations of the VOA Charter.

In announcing his intention to seek defunding for the Voice of America, Rep. Matt Salmon issued the following statement:

“For my fifth SOS bill, I introduced legislation to eliminate federal funding for VOA. While originally commissioned to provide a ‘clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States’, the VOA has veered from its original mission and has, sadly, become another duplicative, federal program. Rather than working to fulfill its original mission, VOA has fallen into the rut of merely mimicking other news outlets by simply reporting news. Unbiased news reporting is important in countries where freedom of the press is limited. Because of this, the United States already funds organizations tasked with disseminating unfiltered news to regions of the world that lack a free press. While a worthy cause, it is not one VOA was primarily tasked to do.”

“Furthermore, Cold War relics, such as VOA, have been rendered obsolete with the rise of the Internet and social media, especially in closed countries which have connected our world in ways we could have never imagined. With the success of social media and other U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasting programs, it makes fiscal sense to eliminate this superfluous federally funded entity.”

Background: The Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts began in 1942 as a response to the need for people in closed and war-torn societies to obtain reliable news. After World War II, VOA was preserved and transferred from the Department of War to the Department of State. According to its Charter, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, VOA is to “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news, … present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions, present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, [as well as offer] discussions and opinion on these policies.” VOA is now is one of a group of federally funded broadcasting entitles that reports to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). In addition to overseeing the VOA, the BBG is responsible for supervising, directing, and overseeing the operations of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB, operating the Radio and TV Martí services to Cuba), and funds and provides oversight to the grantee broadcasters Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The VOA received $196,375,000 in FY13.

READ MORE: Fifth Shrink Our Spending (SOS) Initiative: Eliminates Federal Funding for the Voice of America, May 9, 2014 Press Release, Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ-05)

Despite spending millions of dollars on development of social media platforms, the Voice of America has done so poorly in social media outreach abroad under combined management by VOA and IBB executives that its premier VOA English News has fewer Twitter Followers (103 thousand) than UN Peacekeeping (118 thousand). Russia’s RT has 657 thousand Twitter Followers and BBC World News has 6.26 million. In terms of presenting U.S. policies on Twitter, VOA does not even come close to the U.S. State Department, which has 903 thousand Twitter Followers.

On the journalistic side, VOA has became known under its current leadership for posting dozens of reports on the British royal family and Canadian pop-star Justin Bieber while ignoring many legitimate news from the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Congress. In 2011, an independent media scholar concluded in a study commissioned by the BBG that the VOA Russian website had developed a “pro-Putin” bias.

Voice of America map shows Crimea as no longer part of Ukraine, even though the U.S. Government, which funds VOA, does not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia or as a separate territory.

Voice of America map shows Crimea as no longer part of Ukraine, even though the U.S. Government, which funds VOA, does not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia or as a separate territory.

In one of their many poor decisions, VOA executives had approved of posting online a video report from North Korea with North Korean propaganda that was largely unchallenged. VOA also posted online a fake interview with a major opposition leader in Russia and more recently mistranslated comments by a former U.S. secretary of defense. Both mistakes were exploited by the Kremlin’s media against the United States. VOA English News even posted a map showing Crimea to be part of Russia even though the U.S. government does not recognize the annexation of Crimea by Moscow.

In recent days, VOA even retweeted tweets from Russia’s propaganda outlet RT, including one tweet from an RT photographer who had earlier posted an altered photo mocking Michelle Obama and making an anti-U.S. propaganda claim. VOA also retweeted highly questionable information from Ukraine from a fanatical Kremlin supporter calling herself “Pro-#Russia,#Assad,#Gaddafi. Fuck the #EU,#US.” VOA even produced a video promo for audiences in Pakistan showing a blood-thirsty zombie dressed as American Uncle Sam attacking a Pakistan.

Two former BBG members, Ambassador Victor Ashe and Blanquita Walsh Cullum, strongly criticized VOA executives for allowing this to happen. Ambassador Ashe said in a statement: “It is time for VOA head David Ensor to take control and remedy this or resign. He continues to make excuses. Why does the Board permit it? If he will not correct this then he must depart.”

On the personnel management side, the Voice of America became known under its current management team for being one of the worst workplaces in the entire federal government. IBB and VOA executives have over the years replaced many experienced journalists with poorly paid contractors and created what many employees and their union describe as a hostile work environment. Many veteran broadcasters have left VOA in frustration. In a possible violation of the 1st Amendment, VOA executives even tried to get an independent American reporter at the UN fired because of a professional dispute with one of VOA employees. VOA’s mandate is to support the 1st Amendment and independent and free media worldwide. Sources told BBG Watch that despite being urged repeatedly by BBG members and others to initiate management reforms, Director Ensor has refused to take meaningful actions with regard to his management team.

It is difficult to predict what might become of Rep. Matt Salmon‘s initiative to abolish VOA. Bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490), which may have a better chance of being passed, does not propose to abolish the Voice of America but introduces a number of reforms.

Not in a direct response to Rep. Matt Salmon, but in a separate interview VOA Director David Ensor said  that VOA should not be a mouthpiece of the White House or anybody else.

“Voice of America is not a propaganda organization and it is not a mouthpiece of the White House or of anybody else. It is a proud journalistic organization more than seventy years old.” — VOA Director David Ensor

It remains to be seen what will happen in Congress to Rep. Salmon’s proposed bill and to H.R. 4490. Any bill would have to be passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by the President to become law. Further changes to the bills can be proposed both in the House and in the Senate.

We hope that the management of the Voice of America will be reformed and there will be no need for Rep. Matt Salmon’s bill to defund VOA to be introduced. His initiative may be an attempt to get Congress to take action on H.R. 4490. We further hope that H.R. 4490 will introduce the necessary management reforms, but that at the same time the bipartisan bill will be modified to strengthen the role of the VOA Charter and to protect Voice of America’s journalistic independence.

Had VOA been better managed and its executives respected the VOA Charter, these bills would have never been introduced. The current management team has earned dubious honor of being the first one in the history of the Voice of America to provoke a member of Congress and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to propose defunding the entire organization because of bad leadership and violations of the VOA Charter by VOA executives. Unfortunately, the real victims if such a law would pass would be VOA journalists and their important mission of brining news about the United States to the world.

We believe that BBG members should take immediate actions to reform the management of VOA using their powers, albeit limited, under the current legislation. They should also reach out to Rep. Salmon, assure him that these reforms are being made, and urge him to withdraw his proposal on the assumption that the entire U.S. international media outreach will also be eventually reformed under some version of H.R. 4490.

The following description of H.R. 4490, as it stands now, was prepared by the Congressional Research Service.

United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014

On April 28, 2014, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, with Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel and seven other co-sponsors, introduced the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490). The Committee voted to report the bill favorably to the House on April 30. The bill in its findings provision states that the BBG operates poorly under a flawed structure, that the BBG’s internal operations and personnel decision making have deficiencies, and that U.S. international broadcasters lack clearly defined missions, leading to duplicative services and a lack of focus on the “public diplomacy” and “surrogate” missions of the broadcasters. The bill seeks to restructure the whole of U.S. international broadcasting in order to address these problems. The following sections highlight some of the central provisions of this bill.

Creation of the U.S. International Communications Agency

The bill, if enacted and signed into law, would repeal the USIB Act in its entirety, although several similar provisions from that act are included in the new bill. Under the bill, the BBG would be abolished, and a new United States International Communications Agency (USICA) would be established. Under the bill’s provisions, the BBG bipartisan structure of nine governors would be mirrored in a new USICA Board, but the USICA Board would retain only an advisory role in the new Agency. Most authorities held by the current Board would instead be exercised by a new USICA Chief Executive Officer (CEO). The USICA Board would retain the power to appoint and remove the USICA CEO, therefore maintaining the “firewall” role for the USICA Board in shielding U.S. international broadcasting from outside influence. The bill would effectively abolish the IBB, with its functions absorbed into the overall new USICA and subsumed under the authorities of the USICA CEO.

Mandating Coordination

Aiming to increase coordination and refocus the mission of the broadcast entities, the bill requires the USICA and the new grantee surrogate “Freedom News Network” (FNN) (see “Creation of the Freedom News Network,” below), to coordinate operations and share resources and content to ensure efficiency. It also requires the USICA and FNN to regularly meet and coordinate with the Department of State to share relevant information, ensure U.S. international broadcasting is aligned with “broad” U.S. foreign policy interests, and reduce overlap in broadcast services.

Voice of America

Broadcasting standards and principles, contained in one section of the USIB Act, are restated in three places in the bill: one set for all broadcasters, one set for VOA, and one set for FNN. While the overall standards provisions applied to all broadcasters in the bill largely continue those set forth in current law, the principles applied to VOA provide a sharper focus on explaining the United States, U.S. government policies, and international news that affects the United States. The historic VOA charter is not included verbatim in this bill, but elements are integrated into the bill’s new VOA principles. The VOA mission, as stated in the bill, emphasizes what is considered VOA’s “public diplomacy” role as well as its role in providing objective, comprehensive news coverage. A new VOA director provision sets out that position’s responsibilities, and places the VOA director under the supervision of the USICA CEO. The provision also sets out qualification requirements for the USICA CEO.

Creation of the Federal News Network

H.R. 4490 would consolidate the grantee broadcasters, RFE/RL, RFA, and MBN, into one consolidated surrogate grantee broadcaster, the “Freedom News Network” (FNN). The brands of the existing grantees would be preserved, thus maintaining audience name recognition of surrogate programming. While the corporate boards of directors of the grantees currently are the same nine Governors who serve on the BBG, FNN’s board would be composed of a separate group of individuals, to be appointed in its first iteration by the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, with the intention that FNN board membership would change over time in accordance with FNN’s corporate charter and by-laws. While OCB’s TV and Radio Martí are often considered surrogate broadcasters, the bill states that OCB will remain within the federal government as part of USICA. The bill contemplates that FNN would expand its programming into regions where no current individual surrogate grantee broadcaster currently operates, including sub-Saharan Africa.
The bill’s mission provision for FNN sharpens the legislative vision of the proper focus for surrogate programming, directing the new grantee to promote democracy, civil society, free media, political freedom, and uncensored flows of information. Although these goals are spelled out in greater detail than in previous legislation, they do to an extent parallel concepts that the surrogate broadcasters already employ.

Eligible Broadcast Areas

The bill defines the eligible broadcast areas for U.S. international broadcasters supervised by the USICA, including those countries and regions that lack democratic rule and political and press freedom. Placing an eligibility test in legislation may be designed to encourage efficient elimination of language services when media and information freedom increase in a targeted foreign country.

Administration and Personnel Provisions

The bill mandates that no USICA employee other than the USICA CEO and the VOA director be paid at a rate higher than grade GS-15, step 10 of the General Schedule under section 5332 of title 5, United States Code. It also freezes the filling of positions rated grade GS-14 or GS-15 for five years, with exceptions. The bill would also require the USICA to report to Congress on the size of the workforce, the structure of the organization, contracting methods and practices, and language services performance.

In the bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, the bill’s sponsors and co-sponsors listed what they consider to be wrong with the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Many of their findings apply specifically to the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau.

SEC. 2. FINDINGS AND DECLARATIONS.

Congress finds and declares the following:

(1) United States international broadcasting exists to advance the United States interests and values by presenting accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and information, which is the foundation for democratic governance, to societies that lack a free media.

(2) Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘‘[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’’, and that ‘‘this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’’.

(3) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives on January 23, 2013, that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) ‘‘is practically a defunct agency in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and need to get back into it.’’.

(4) The BBG, which was created by Congress to oversee the United States international broadcasting in the wake of the Cold War, has, because of structural and managerial issues, had limited success to date in both coordinating the various components of the international broadcasting framework and managing the day-to-day operations of the Federal components of the international broadcasting framework.

(5) The lack of regular attendance by board members and a periodic inability to form a quorum have plagued the BBG and, as a result, it has been functionally incapable of running the agency.

(6) The board of governors has only achieved the full slate of all nine governors for seven of its 17 years of existence, which highlights the difficulties of confirming and retaining governors under the current structure.

(7) Both the Department of State’s Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office have issued reports which outline a severely dysfunctional organizational structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

(8) The Inspector General of the Department of State concluded in its January 2013 report that dys- function of the BBG stems from ‘‘a flawed legislative structure and acute internal dissension’’.

(9) The Inspector General of the Department of State also found that the BBG’s structure of nine part-time members ‘‘cannot effectively supervise all United States Government-supported, civilian international broadcasting’’, and its involvement in day-to-day operations has impeded normal management functions.

(10) The Government Accountability Office report determined that there was significant overlap among the BBG’s languages services, and that the BBG did not systematically consider the financial cost of overlap.

(11) According to the Office of the Inspector General, the BBG’s Office of Contracts is not in compliance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, lacks appropriate contract oversight, and violates the Anti-Deficiency Act. The Office of the Inspector General also determined that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has not adequately performed full and open competitions or price determinations, has entered into hundreds of personal service contracts without statutory authority, and contractors regularly work without valid contracts in place.

(12) The size and make-up of the BBG workforce should be closely examined, given the agency’s broader broadcasting and technical mission, as well as changing media technologies.

(13) The BBG should be structured to ensure that more taxpayer dollars are dedicated to the substantive, broadcasting, and information-related elements of the agency’s mission.

(14) The lack of a coherent and well defined mission of the Voice of America has led to programming that duplicates the efforts of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, RFE/RL, In- corporated, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network that results in inefficient use of tax-payer funding.

(15) The annual survey conducted by the ‘‘Partnership for Public Service’’ consistently ranks the Broadcasting Board of Governors at or near the bottom of all Federal agencies in terms of ‘‘overall best places to work’’ and ‘‘the extent to which employees feel their skills and talents are used effectively.’’. The consistency of these low scores point to structural, cultural, and functional problems at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

(16) The Federal and non-Federal organizations that comprise the United States international broadcasting framework have different, yet complementary, missions that necessitate coordination at all levels of management.

(17) The Broadcasting Board of Governors has an overabundance of senior civil service positions, defined here as full-time employees encumbering GS–14 and GS–15 positions on the General Schedule pay scale.

(18) United States international broadcasting should seek to leverage public-private partnerships, including the licensing of content and the use of technology owned or operated by non-governmental sources, where possible to expand outreach capacity.

(19) Congressional action is necessary at this time to improve international broadcasting operations, strengthen the United States public diplomacy efforts, enhance the grantee surrogate broadcasting effort, restore focus to news, programming, and content, and maximize the value of Federal and non-Federal resources that are dedicated to public diplomacy and international broadcasting.

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