U.S. political support growing for H.R. 4490, but some Senate Republicans want radical broadcasting reforms

EXCLUSIVE BBG Watch Commentary

CEEC LogoA key political constituency for many members of Congress, Central and East European Coalition (CEEC – ceecoalition.us) has expressed its strong support for the passage of “the Senate version of H.R. 4490, the bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, sponsored by Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), to ensure that U.S. international broadcasting efforts effectively counter Russian disinformation.”

Established in 1994, the Central and East European Coalition is composed of eighteen national, membership-based organizations representing millions of Americans of Armenian, Belarusan, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian descent.

April 8, 2014 -  CEEC meeting with National Security Council staff regarding Ukraine

April 8, 2014 – CEEC meeting with National Security Council staff regarding Ukraine

The Coalition regularly meets with numerous Congressional leaders and has testified before a number of Congressional committees including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House International Relations Committee, Senate Appropriations Committee, and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. CEEC has excellent relations with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Sources among congressional staffers told BBG Watch that while CEEC members are urging members of the Senate of both parties to act on the legislation as soon as possible, a growing number of Republican Senators think H.R. 4490 doesn’t go far enough and more radical changes are warranted – including some changes that would be unacceptable to the unions and Democrats. The Senate is still interested in moving legislation, one source said but did not speculate when it might happen.

According to our sources, H.R. 4490 is still the most likely version to pass since it is bipartisan and has the support of key ethnic constituencies, including CEEC, the unions, the Heritage Foundation, former BBG members and other stakeholders and experts.

But it appears that some negotiations are likely to occur on the Senate side first, congressional staffers told BBG Watch.

BBG Watch was able to confirm that members of Congress and congressional staffers are paying attention to the input from the AFGE Local 1812 Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) union, which has expressed strong support for H.R. 4490, with only minor reservations about the bill’s wording with regard to the Voice of America’s mission.

No one on the Hill commented to BBG Watch this time on earlier statements from a few senior VOA English correspondents who had voiced strong opposition to H.R. 4490 on the grounds that the bill would diminish VOA’s journalistic independence by turning VOA into a public diplomacy arm of the State Department and the National Security Council at the White House. One VOA senior correspondent said that VOA might be forced to take directions from the Pentagon and the CIA.

Reforming International BroadcastingIn the past, the same congressional sources dismissed these concerns to BBG Watch as vastly exaggerated. They pointed out that the VOA Charter, the law which protects integrity of VOA news, was included in the new legislation.

Some called demands made by VOA English newsroom critics of H.R. 4490 as politically unrealistic and harmful in their fallout among members of Congress to the very cause they espouse.

Ironically, VOA’s senior management, which had decimated the VOA newsroom to the point that it appears dark and empty even in the middle of a weekday, was reported to quietly encourage a few senior VOA correspondents who are left to continue to voice their opposition to the legislation. VOA senior officials were instructed by BBG Chairman Jeff Shell to be publicly quiet about the pending legislation and have remained quiet at least publicly.

In response to critics, Rep. Engel (D-NY) said that Congress has no intention to undermine VOA’s journalistic independence or to turn it into a propaganda machine for the U.S government.

But at least some VOA staffers do not believe him. Many others do and actually welcome the legislation as promising more robust journalism and more secure future for VOA, BBG Watch has learned by talking with some members of VOA language services.

What may be bad news for critics of H.R. 4490 on the grounds that it is too radical, it appears that the current choice in the Senate is between H.R. 4490 as it emerged as a bipartisan compromise in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and later approved by the whole House, or even more radical changes favored by some Republican Senators who want U.S. international media outreach to be even more closely aligned with U.S. public diplomacy.

The CEEC’s Fall Policy Paper (see PDF version), published September 15, 2014 and being distributed to members of the House and the Senate, says that “the United States needs to counter Putin via the airwaves, to expose Moscow’s lies and present our values via competent and fully-funded U.S. international broadcasting.”

“The CEEC supports important reforms to address the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ management structure, clarify the mission of our international broadcasters, and empower our journalists,” the Policy Paper says, expressing strong support for the speedy passage of the Senate version of H.R. 4490.

The CEEC appears satisfied that the House version of H.R. 4490, if passed by the Senate and signed by the President, will “empower” Voice of America journalists. Many VOA language service journalists with whom BBG Watch is in touch welcome the legislation as the only way of ensuring strong long-term congressional support for the VOA budget under a federal structure.

But some current and former VOA English correspondents consider the legislation deeply flawed. A VOA senior correspondent, writing on his own behalf, stated his opposition to the bill in an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, “Op-Ed Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real.”

Congressional staffers from both parties and members of Congress told our sources that the op-ed and reported support for it expressed privately by senior VOA officials were not helpful.

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The CEEC’s Fall Policy Paper, September 15, 2014, “DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, THE RULE OF LAW, AND THE INFORMATION WAR” section:

The CEEC staunchly supports democracy and the indispensable elements of the rule of law, human rights, minority rights, freedom of the press and historical accuracy, all of which are especially important in the CEE region, considering its history, previous Soviet domination, and ethnic, national and religious diversity. While democracies have emerged and developed in CEE since the collapse of communism, issues remain to be resolved. An autocratic regime still reigns in Belarus. Vestiges of intolerance and discrimination against national minorities linger even within some countries that have joined Western institutions. Denial of crimes against humanity, including the Armenian and Ukrainian Genocides of 1915 and 1932-33, respectively, undermines the pillars of democracy.

Action Needed:

– Ensure that Magnitsky Act sanctions against the Putin regime are fully implemented. The United States should continue to closely monitor human rights and corruption issues in the Russian Federation as required by the Magnitsky Act.

– Co-sponsor a human rights bill affirming the Armenian Genocide, H.R. 227, introduced by Rep. David Valadao (R-CA), which calls on the President to work toward: (1) equitable and durable Armenian-Turkish relations based upon Turkey’s acknowledgment of the facts and consequences of the Armenian Genocide, and (2) a comprehensive international resolution of this crime against humanity.

– Pass the Senate version of H.R. 4490, the bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, sponsored by Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), to ensure that U.S. international broadcasting efforts effectively counter Russian disinformation.

The Russian government uses many avenues in its attempts to dominate the countries of the CEE region. Putin’s ongoing war in Ukraine is just one example. Others include economic manipulation (e.g., blocking energy transit, trade barriers, and cyber attacks), accusations of alleged maltreatment and discrimination against people of Russian descent living in CEE countries, and also disinformation and propaganda. In 2008, Russian troops forcibly annexed the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, keeping heavy military presence in close proximity to the strategic East-West transportation corridor. In 2014, Russian troops forcibly annexed Crimea, and are attempting to take over parts of Eastern Ukraine.

Russia sees the aspirations of neighboring CEE countries toward integration with the European Union as a threat. As a reaction, it has threatened economic ramifications should aspiring countries advance EU Association Agreements and has pressured them to join an alternative Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union. U.S. foreign policy, countering Russia’s attempts to reestablish a “sphere of influence” in the region, should emphasize the promotion of democratic principles and institutions within the Russian Federation. The CEEC urges the United States to condemn Russia’s blatant intimidation and attempts to undermine the independence of countries in the region. U.S. policies towards Russia in this regard should be pursued in a forceful and proactive manner.

To deter Russia, the CEEC urges strong sanctions – visa restrictions and asset freezes against individuals. The CEEC strongly supported the Magnitsky Act, which was passed into law during the last Congress as part of the Russia Trade bill (Public Law No. 112-208). In the spirit of that law, the CEEC believes that the provisions need be fully implemented and expanded to include other human rights violators in the Russian Federation. While Putin’s crimes against Ukraine are growing, Moscow’s increasing crackdown against its own citizens is troubling for Russia’s internal growth. This also does not bode well for its neighbors in CEE, and for the United States. Until human rights are respected by Russia, both outside of and within its borders, it is critical that the United States continue to help expose violations by the Russian Federation, and to defend internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.

Russian revision of history denies or excuses Stalin-era atrocities and actions, such as the Holodomor (Famine-Genocide) in Ukraine, Soviet occupation of CEE countries, murder and deportation of millions of CEE nationals. Russia’s propaganda distorts and falsifies both current events and history. It is a powerful tool used to discredit and attack perceived adversaries. Democracy in Russia is threatened, as demonstrated by the repression of NGOs, election fraud and rampant corruption. The United States needs to lend its moral voice against human rights abuses. The United States needs to counter Putin via the airwaves, to expose Moscow’s lies and present our values via competent and fully-funded U.S. international broadcasting. The CEEC supports important reforms to address the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ management structure, clarify the mission of our international broadcasters, and empower our journalists.

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