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House Passes U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Bill

BBG Report and Commentary

Rep. Ed Royce

Rep. Ed Royce

Saying the United States is “losing the information battle” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) on Monday said the bureaucratic umbrella that manages U.S. international broadcasting is broken and must be reformed.

Royce spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives during brief colloquy over H.R. 4490, called the U.S. International Communications Reform Act of 2014. The bill passed by voice vote, and requires Senate passage to go to President Obama’s desk for signature.

The measure was driven by a series of reports in recent years by the Government Accountability Office, State Department Inspector General, Office of Personnel Management, as well as by various think-tanks, detailing a range of inefficiencies, abuses of government contracting guidelines, and never-ending morale problems.

JULY 28, 2014 – House Session – H.R. 4490 – Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA)

More recently, the bill passed today unanimously in a voice vote by the House of Representatives sparked a fierce debate in which a few current and former journalists at the Voice or America accused members of Congress of seeking to turn VOA into a propaganda outlet. VOA Director David Ensor reportedly thanked a VOA English News reporter who wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times criticizing the bill for trying “to remake it [VOA] into something fundamentally not American.”

Other current and former VOA journalists, as well as some former BBG members and former VOA and IBB executives and managers, strongly supported H.R. 4490.

Some journalists, mainly in the VOA English Newsroom, used email in the agency to attack others for positions supporting the legislation, accusing current and former colleagues of seeking to transform VOA into a propaganda outlet, with one VOA reporter appearing to blame the Tea Party. The Royce – Engel bill, however, was fully bipartisan. It was unanimously approved first by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and today on the House floor. No member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, spoke against the bill.

Royce spoke about the situation in Ukraine, the downing of Malaysian Flight MH 17, and what he called “thugs” supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin whose policies the lawmaker said were being supported by “malcontents and skinheads” on social media websites.

What is not so well-known, Royce said, is that the U.S. is losing an information battle, in large part because of a “totally defunct” Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. federal agency which has overseen all U.S. international broadcasting and media efforts since the late 1990′s.

H.R. 4490 was drafted over the course of the last year to address what former Secretary of State, and possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, said was a “practically defunct” BBG, weakening the ability of the U.S. to tell its story around the world.

Over the years, the nine-member BBG came under increasing criticism for a series of decisions and management failures, particularly at IBB and at VOA. Also the better-managed surrogate broadcasters — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks — have experienced problems and hardships blamed largely on mismanagement by IBB and, the dysfunctional BBG organizational structure and limited funding.

Tensions between the surrogate broadcast channels and IBB and VOA also increased as budgetary pressures, and what former and current employees allege has been widespread mismanagement, slashed VOA’s global radio broadcasting in English and in other languages while IBB increased the number of its staff positions by 37 percent in the last seven years.

Critics accuse the current VOA director, David Ensor, and other key officials of deliberately decimating VOA’s Central English Newsroom, as well as VOA English and foreign language direct radio and television broadcasting without making VOA competitive in digital media, including social media platforms.

VOA now trails behind RT and other international competitors by hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and millions of YouTube views. VOA English News Twitter has nearly ten times fewer followers than the State Department Twitter account in English. Numerous veteran and younger reporters departed in recent years. But David Ensor defended his plans for the future in a recent online post, “VOA in 2020.”

Earlier this year, VOA’s Chief White House correspondent, Dan Robinson, took voluntary retirement and sent a sharply-worded letter to the BBG referring to VOA’s “plummeting reputation” in official Washington.

President Obama granted only one interview to VOA since coming to office.

The BBG, and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which more directly oversees VOA and other broadcasters on a day-to-day basis, also faced criticisms from BBG Watch, which has run biting commentaries about mismanagement, based on employee sources throughout the agency. Most of reports on waste and mismanagement dealt with IBB and VOA, although in 2012, BBG Watch also reported extensively on a management crisis at RFE/RL which has since been addressed.

Asking “who is going to offset [Russian] propaganda?”, Royce cited Clinton’s remark to Congress, as well as GAO and State Department Inspector General reports, and testimony on Capitol Hill by former BBG governors, and accounts by staff, saying the situation “has real consequences” and demands reform of the agency.

The problem does not end with Russia’s propaganda machine “saturating the airwaves with false information designed to insight violence..stoke sectarian fears [and] create a pretext for Russian military engagement in Ukraine.”

In the Middle East, said Royce, Hezbollah television is engaged in broadcasting “lies and propaganda and incitement designed to destabilize the region and build support for a terror war on Israel and on democracy there.”

He also mentioned China’s CCTV, noting it broadcasts to more than 100 countries and recently established a bureau in Nairobi, Kenya.

“There was a time when [the United States] dominated the international airwaves. Now we are a voice among many but that voice is really on the defensive, and in many places it’s no longer heard.”

Gerald ConnollyGerald Connolly (D-VA) echoed Royce’s remarks, saying it contains “commonsense reforms” and aims to create a “more clearly-defined mission” for U.S. international broadcasting.

Royce and Connolly stressed that the legislation is designed to maintain the objectivity and accuracy of news and other information provided by VOA and other broadcasters.

“To be clear, this legislation isn’t about creating a U.S. government propaganda effort. VOA is not being turned into a version of Russia’s RT or China’s CCTV. This bill is about communicating America’s message of pluralism, tolerance, transparency, to foreign audiences. There was a time when we did that really well, but we have lost it.”

At the same time, Royce said: “The VOA is once again an integral part of foreign policy,” adding that surrogate broadcasters “have a different mission” of providing “uncensored news and information in closed societies and to be a megaphone for internal advocates for freedom.”

The surrogates, said Royce, will be the “at the tip of the spear” in the information battle, given a “global mandate to go after the most despotic regimes, exposing their abuses, their violence, their hypocrisy, and tell them what is really going on in [those] countries.”

At the insistence of some VOA journalists, their AFGE Local 1812 union and NGOs such as the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), HR 4490 was altered on the way to Monday’s House passage with language bolstering protections for VOA’s Charter, which requires accurate, objective and comprehensive news and even-handed discussion of U.S. policies.

But the main employee union at BBG and VOA, AFGE 1812, came under sharp criticism from a group of journalists in VOA’s central English newsroom, for vigorously supporting the bill, though many in VOA’s more than 40 language services, where most of VOA’s broadcasters work, also strongly supported the reform legislation.

Union officials noted that sentiment among lawmakers on the Hill, driven by numerous examples of mismanagement, could have produced a bill that was much worse, even zeroing out funding for VOA. AFGE Local 1812 leaders worked behind the scenes on the Hill to increase protections for VOA’s journalistic independence as did representatives of CUSIB. At the same time, they strongly supported management reforms.

An aide to Matt Salmon (R-AZ), who introduced a bill earlier this year proposing to eliminate VOA altogether, said that there has been no “appetite, especially in the Senate” for de-funding VOA which she noted is “very politically-protected.”

Projecting that the Senate will pass the House measure or something close to it, the aide added that once the law is on the books the hope is that there will be “a lot of internal changes within VOA.”

There have been persistent calls by critics of IBB and VOA for departures of key managers within the International Broadcasting Bureau and Voice of America structure, including Ensor and his deputies, some of whom came from commercial television networks such as CNN.

The BBG appointed a three-person panel of officials to oversee a range of issues in the agency. H.R. 4490 calls for the BBG to shrink into an advisory role. The legislation would eliminate the IBB, widely-criticized by VOA rank and file employees and surrogate media outlets, and create at least one CEO to manage all the federal broadcasting services.

The President’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2015, sent to the Congress March 25, 2014, includes $721 million for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA’s own budget has stood at or just under $200 million for Fiscal Year 2014 and $211.9. million requested for FY 2015.

Royce pointed to what he called economies that would come from implementing H.R. 4490, including cost savings of $160 million over five years, adding that no future funding would be provided unless cost saving reforms are implemented including administrative consolidation, right-sizing and leverage private-public partnerships.

“Ripping away” bureaucracy will reduce administrative overlap, Royce said, allowing both VOA and the new Freedom News Network to survive.

VOA, IBB and BBG officials faced a wave of criticism in recent weeks after the agency went ahead with plans to shut down radio broadcasts by the VOA and surrogate stations in Asia, areas where agency officials said few people use shortwave to hear U.S. programming.

VOA journalists managing the station’s broadcasts to the region were given little if any time to inform audiences that VOA would be disappearing.

Former listeners to VOA in South and East Asia accused the agency of “abandoning” audiences, and giving the information playing field to China.

In a letter to President Obama, leaders representing human rights groups and ethnic communities in the United States, as well as former Voice of America (VOA) journalists, expressed their support for the bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, for the VOA Charter, and for the restoration of VOA’s effectiveness in reporting U.S. and international news.

The letter was signed by two former BBG members, a former VOA director, current head of VOA employee union, representatives of human rights and ethnic community organizations in the United States, and several former VOA journalists and managers.

Chairman Royce issued a statement on Letter to President Obama urging support for legislation.

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Chairman Royce Applauds House Passage of Legislation to Reform U.S. International Broadcasting

JUL 28, 2014

Washington, D.C. – Today, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, applauded House passage of bipartisan reform legislation to improve the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters, such as the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN).  The legislation, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490) was unanimously passed by the Foreign Affairs Committee in April.  Chairman Royce and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Committee’s Ranking Memberintroduced the legislation in April.

On House passage of H.R. 4490, Chairman Royce said:  “For many years, our international broadcasting has been broken and ineffective.  While strongmen, despots, and terrorists are working overtime on their public disinformation campaigns, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees our international broadcast efforts, meets once a month.  The status quo is a recipe for failure on the critical information front.  The legislation the House passed today provides serious reforms to U.S. international broadcasting, allowing for a strong, effective tool in the fight against censorship and harmful misinformation.”       

H.R. 4490 reforms U.S. international broadcasting, including in the following ways:

Fixes Well-documented Management Problems – Currently, five U.S. international broadcasting entities report to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (“BBG”), a group of 9 part-time individuals, who meet once a month to make management decisions. Important decisions can languish if the Board does not have a quorum, which is often the case. This legislation would establish a full-time, day-to-day agency head and reduce the role of the Board to a more appropriate advisory capacity. These changes have been recommended by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General and are widely recognized as needed reforms.

Clarifies the Mission of the Voice of America (VOA) – 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 and adopted a mission of the so-called “surrogates” to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies. This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts.

Consolidates “the Freedom Broadcasters” – Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) have the same mission – to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies – with different geographic reach. Consolidating these organizations into a single, non-federal organization will achieve cost savings, allow for closer collaboration, and improve responsiveness. While the consolidation would mean shared administrative staff and other economies of scale, they would retain their distinct “brand names.”

For information of Chairman Royce’s efforts to reform international broadcasting, visitwww.foreignaffairs.house.gov/broadcasting.

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Chairman Royce Statement on Letter to President Obama Urging Support for Legislation to Reform U.S. International Broadcasting

JUL 28, 2014

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued the following statement on the recently publicized letter to President Obama from a broad coalition of former members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), journalists, and former BBG employees.  In the letter, they ask the President to supportH.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, which improves the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters.  The legislationunanimously passed the Foreign Affairs Committee in April.

Chairman Royce said: “I appreciate the wide support given this important piece of legislation.  For too long, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has been dysfunctional, inefficient, and ineffective as noted by numerous reports from the Office of the Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office. We are trying to counter Russian propaganda – and that of our adversaries throughout the world – with one hand behind our back.  This is urgent legislation that I expect my colleagues to support when it comes to the floor later today.”

In the letter to President Obama, the signatories write, “Today we are engaged in a battle of ideas with state and non-state media… U.S. international broadcasting is an important element of our national power that can no longer be neglected and allowed to decline.  We, the undersigned, urge you to support the forthcoming legislation with resolve and urgency.”

Full text of the letter can be found HERE.

Note:  In June 2013, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on ways to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, is a bipartisan effort to implement the reforms that were identified during that hearing.

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Community leaders support reform of U.S. international broadcasting

BBG WATCH
JUL 28, 2014

BBG and US INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS REFORM ACT OF 2014

BBG Watch Commentary

UPDATE: H.R. 4490, the bipartisan Royce – Engel United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 was passed unanimously Monday, July 28, 2014, by the House of Representatives in a voice vote. The bill now goes to the Senate, where a Senate version of the reform legislation is already in the works.

Royce Statement on Community Leaders Letter to President Obama in Support of U.S. International Broadcasting ReformALSO SEE: Chairman Royce Statement on Letter to President Obama Urging Support for Legislation to Reform U.S. International Broadcasting, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, July 28, 2014.

In a letter to President Obama, leaders representing human rights groups and ethnic communities in the United States, as well as former Voice of America (VOA) journalists, expressed their support for the bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, for the VOA Charter, and for the restoration of VOA’s effectiveness in reporting U.S. and international news. “According to its charter, the Voice of America (“VOA”) is charged with providing a ‘clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States.’ This mission is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War but it has been subjugated to leadership that has allowed for mission drift,” the letter says.

H.R. 4490 also aims to improve the effectiveness of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) surrogate media outlets by freeing them from the dysfunctional federal bureaucracy of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

The letter to President Obama was signed by two former BBG members, as well as leaders of the union representing BBG federal employees. Other former BBG members sent to congressional committees separate statements in support of the bill.

In addition to strong bipartisan support in Congress, the reform bill has also received strong backing from leaders of human rights and U.S. ethnic communities which represent the backbone of constituent support for taxpayer funding for the Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).

However, many current VOA and agency executives and some current and former employees associated mostly with the Voice of America English newsroom oppose the reform bill on the grounds that it could undermine VOA’s journalistic independence by assigning it more of a U.S. public diplomacy role, although the VOA Charter already has provisions on news independence as well as reporting on U.S. policies and both supporting and opposing opinions on these policies.

One VOA foreign correspondent expressed his opposition to the bill in “Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real” Los Angeles Times op-ed, in which he repeatedly referred to the bipartisan Royce-Engel legislation approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee as “the Royce bill” and warned members of Congress of trying to “remake it [VOA] into something fundamentally not American.” A former VOA English newsroom correspondent referred to “one-sided legislation that would so brutally eviscerate VOA as to bring it to the point of extinction.”

These fears, however, do not appear to be widely shared by rank and file VOA employees, especially among more than 40 VOA language services, their union leadership, and among many outside supporters of the Voice of America who see the proposed legislation as the only way of saving the organization from mismanagement and further decline. Some have proposed minor changes in the legislation that may be introduced in the Senate version of the bill to confirm journalistic integrity of VOA under its charter. The letter to President Obama expresses strong support for both management reforms and the VOA Charter.

Under its current management, the Voice of America is nowhere near its foreign competition when it comes to online audience engagement and social media, while IBB and VOA executives also cut back on direct radio broadcasts without properly notifying audiences and VOA program hosts. VOA English News Twitter has fewer Twitter followers (109K) than the UN Peacekeeping Force Twitter (132K) and nearly ten times fewer than the U.S. State Department Twitter (998K) and more than six times fewer followers than Russia’s RT Twitter (706K).

On YouTube, RT English has over one million, three hundred thousand subscribers and over one billion, two hundred million views. VOA English News YouTube has only 36 thousand subscribers and 35.8 million views.

President Barack Obama 
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

July 27, 2014
11:00PM EDT

Ukraine and its regional neighbors are threatened by an all out offensive from Russia’s robust propaganda machine. Unfortunately, Putin’s campaign of misinformation is having the desired effect: stoking sectarian violence, undermining stable democratic governments, and creating the pretext for Russian invasion. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (“BBG”) which oversees U.S. international broadcasting was established to be our country’s first defense in wars of information but the BBG is broken – or as Secretary Clinton stated, “defunct”. Thankfully, legislation to reform the BBG is moving in the House of Representatives. The bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, sponsored by Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engel, proposes important reforms to address the BBG’s highly dysfunctional management structure, clarify the mission of our international broadcasters, and empower our journalists. We urge you to sign H.R. 4490 into law when it reaches your desk.

For years, the failure to improve the BBG has allowed anti-democratic states and non-state actors to effectively use propaganda to undermine our national security objectives overseas. As Hillary Clinton testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the 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.”

Clarifying the BBG mission is critical. According to its charter, the Voice of America (“VOA”) is charged with providing a “clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States.” This mission is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War but it has been subjugated to leadership that has allowed for mission drift. We still need the Voice of America to report on the broad foreign policies of the United States and present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies; we need the VOA to expand and strengthen the relationship between the people and Government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.

We support H.R. 4490’s proposal to dissolve the current BBG structure and consolidate its component entities based on mission and workforce structure. H.R. 4490 retains the federal elements of the BBG, including the VOA and OCB, but makes important management reforms by identifying a Chief Executive Officer to oversee the day-to-day operations. This federal organization is rebranded, jettisoning the “BBG” name that has become synonymous with government dysfunction and inefficiency.

Non-federal international broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, will be consolidated into a single organization with a common leadership and advisory board. This consolidated organization will be modeled after the National Endowment for Democracy and have the mission to provide uncensored local and regional news and information to people in closed societies. This division will reduce overlap and ensure the complementary yet distinct missions of our international broadcasters are being fulfilled.

Unlike the post-war media climate of the 1940’s, today’s media landscape is highly competitive, necessitating a more aggressive U.S. international broadcasting posture. Adaptation will require a more effective and efficient use of finite resources which can only be achieved with significant reforms to the BBG’s management and mission clarification. The United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 draws upon the recommendations put forward by 2011-2012 BBG Board and we urge you to support this much needed reform effort.

You have stated that “we need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.” Today we are engaged in a battle of ideas with state and non-state media that U.S. international broadcasting is an important element of our national power that can no longer be neglected and allowed to decline. We, the undersigned, urge you to support the forthcoming legislation with resolve and urgency. We lend our names in our personal, not institutional, capacity.

Sincerely,

Blanquita Cullum, broadcaster, former Broadcasting Board of Governors member

Ambassador (retired) Victor Ashe, former Broadcasting Board of Governors member

Timothy Shamble, President of AFGE Local 1812

Robert Reilly, former Voice of America Director

Harry Wu, China’s labor camps survivor, Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation

John Lenczowski, President and Professor at The Institute of World Politics and as former Director of European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council

Rev. Ruben Diaz, New York State Senator

Mark Gjonaj, New York State Assemblyman

Karl Altau, Managing Director, Joint Baltic American National Committee, Inc. Representing:
Estonian American National Council, Inc.
American Latvian Association, Inc.
Lithuanian American Council, Inc.

Irena Lasota, President of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE), journalist

Janusz Bugajski, Senior Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis, Washington DC

Ann Noonan, Executive Director of Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting

Ted Lipien, journalist and author, former Voice of America Acting Associate Director, former VOA Eurasia Division Director, former IBB Eurasia Marketing Director, former VOA Polish Service Chief

Ethan Gutmann, journalist and author, Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting Advisory Board

Manny Papir, human rights activist, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Guliani

Jing Zhang, journalist, President of Women’s Rights in China

Liqun Chen, Women’s Rights in China

Justin C. Yu, journalist, community leader

Reggie Littlejohn, President of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers

Enver Safir, former VOA Russian Service Moscow Correspondent, former Director of IBB’s Prague Office of Marketing and Program Placement

Marek Walicki, journalist, formerly with Radio Free Europe and Voice of America

John T. Murphy, former Director Voice of America Eurasia Division, former IBB Global Marketing Director, former Senior Adviser IBB Office of Engineering

Vello Ederma, retired VOA European News Chief and European Division Deputy Chief

Marina Oeltjen, former Voice of America Russian Service Chief

Marie Ciliberti, former Voice of America broadcaster

Jaroslaw Martyniuk, formerly Researcher with InterMedia and an active member of the Ukrainian Diaspora in Chicago and Washington D.C.

Additional signatures are being collected.

Attachment:

We strongly support all three provisions of the Voice of America Charter and restoration of VOA newsroom’s and VOA language services’ ability to report U.S. and international news.

VOA CHARTER

To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford.

It reads:

The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:

1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought
and institutions.

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)

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  1. July 29, 2014, 6:53 am

    I notice that the plight of journalists in US government broadcasters seems to be ignored by the journalists blogs like http://newsombudsmen.org/columns/npr-learns-about-new-media-accountability-the-hard-way

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