Is Congress trying to neuter Voice of America’s journalism or save it?

BBG Watch Commentary

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas

In a new Columbia Journalism Review article, former Voice of America (VOA) senior correspondent Gary Thomas leans heavily in favor of arguments against what he calls “the Royce bill.” The bill, however, is bipartisan. All Democratic and Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously voted to approve what is known as the H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act, which in fact has two sponsors: Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and many co-sponsors from both parties.

Thomas, himself a strong critic of the Voice of America, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) management, quotes arguments of several opponents of the Royce – Engel legislation who fear that “Congress tries to neuter Voice of America’s journalism.”

Thomas also quotes Ted Lipien, whom he identified as publisher of BBG Watch (the site is published and edited by a number of current and former VOA journalists and others) and as a strong supporter of management reforms proposed in the bill, but being less concerned that the proposed legislation might move VOA heavily toward policy-advocacy for the U.S. government.

Gary Thomas spent 27 years at Voice of America before retiring in 2012. He was a senior correspondent and news analyst specializing in national security and intelligence issues. He served in Islamabad and Bangkok and covered stories throughout South and Southeast Asia. He had published an earlier article in Columbia Journalism Review on problems with U.S. international media outreach. (“Mission impossible,” July/August 2013).

Lipien, whom Thomas interviewed by phone for his latest article, is a journalist, writer, former listener to VOA and Radio Free Europe in Central Europe under communism, former director of VOA’s Polish Service during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy, former IBB regional marketing director for Eurasia, former VOA Eurasia division director and briefly acting associate director in charge of VOA Central English News division. He co-founded with Ann Noonan the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), an independent NGO which supports the work of journalists and broadcasters employed by Voice of America, Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB – Radio and TV Marti), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa).

Lipien has some minor reservations about the Royce – Engel bill’s wording, but he believes that this issue can be easily resolved by including the whole text of the VOA Charter in the final legislation and making a few other minor textual modifications in the final version of the legislation.

He provided BBG Watch with several additional explanations in connection with Thomas’ Columbia Journalism Review article.

Lipien said that the phrase referring to VOA programming as being “consistent with the broad foreign policies of the United States” is perfectly acceptable for a U.S. taxpayer-funded public institution and had been used in the founding documents for Radio Free Europe which has never been seriously accused of being a public diplomacy tool of the U.S. government and in fact often reports criticism of specific U.S. policies abroad. Being consistent with “the broad foreign polices of the United States” means that journalists and broadcasters are not in favor of human rights abuses and dictatorship, he observed.

Lipien suggests, however, that the word “promotes” in relation to “the broad foreign policies of the United States” be removed from the legislation to avoid any confusion. VOA should always deliver accurate, balanced and comprehensive news and report fully not only on U.S. policies but also on criticism of these policies, as already required by the VOA Charter, Lipien said.

Supporters of the Royce – Engel bill are convinced that only major structural and management reforms proposed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee can save Voice of America from its current defunct and dysfunctional state.

Lipien gave an example of International Broadcasting Bureau executives ordering a public opinion poll in just annexed and virtually occupied Crimea without checking with the government in Kyiv, conducting a faulty survey among a highly intimidated population, especially Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, promoting predictably pro-Kremlin propaganda results as perfectly valid, and getting Voice of America to also report them, no questions asked. This would be similar to the U.S. government ordering a poll in Austria after the 1938 Anschluss or in the Baltic states after their forceful incorporation into the Soviet Union and then bragging about the the results showing enormous popularity of Hitler and Stalin, Lipien said.

He noted that this destructive federal bureaucratic interference from the IBB is also damaging far-better managed BBG’s surrogate broadcasters. He strongly supports the Royce – Engel bill’s provision of making grantee media outlets completely independent from the IBB and placing them under a separate oversight board.

Lipien said that the central bureaucracy — composed of government officials and government executives — has an enormous destructive influence not only on the management of VOA but also on VOA’s program content. The bureaucracy has been responsible for decimating the VOA Central Newsroom and eliminating numerous VOA broadcasts while the number of bureaucratic IBB positions has grown by nearly 40 percent in the last seven years, he observed.

Thomas quotes Sonja Pace, who ran the VOA’s Central News operation before she retired a few months ago, who disagrees with Lipien on the destructive influence of the current agency bureaucracy on program content. “I understand the frustration. The bureaucracy has been an impediment, for instance, in things like getting funds transferred for news coverage,” she says. “But that is not a threat to our journalistic independence.”

Thomas sides mostly with Pace and other critics of the bipartisan bill:

“US international broadcasting is in need of reform, no question. But in its current form, the International Communications Reform Act just makes a bad situation worse. Giving public diplomacy more weight than straight journalism in the VOA’s mission disrupts the delicate balance that the VOA’s journalists have worked hard to establish and maintain in the face of internal and external pressures.” 

READ MORE: End of an era? Congress tries to neuter Voice of America’s journalism, Gary Thomas, Columbia Journalism Review, July 1, 2014.

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