BBG Watch Commentary

American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812, continues to offer strong support for the Royce – Engel H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act, while asking for language changes in the legislation to strengthen Voice of America’s (VOA) news independence.

The union argues that the most important objective of the bill are management reforms, which AFGE Local 1812 strongly endorses in the interest of VOA’s mission and VOA employees. The union also expresses strong support for the VOA Charter.

The union’s latest editorial on the bipartisan reform bill was posted today on the AFGE Local 1812 website. BBG Watch is reposting it in full.

AFGE Local 1812

The Union an Agent for Change

By American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812

How many times have we heard management claim that the Union was an obstacle to change? Yet, the Union has publicly stated its support, with some reservations, for comprehensive changes in U.S. international broadcasting contained in the reform legislation, HR 4490. It’s interesting to see who is fighting to prevent this much needed change.

Almost no one has publicly stated that a reform of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is not needed. Section 2, Findings and Declarations of HR 4490 is an announcement that things will no longer be the same. However, among the Bill’s opponents, primarily current and former Agency management officials, are those who seem to be intent on preventing any change from happening at all.

Others opposed to this reform effort are not accurate in their portrayal of the legislation. They have described it as being “partisan”. It is demonstrably non-partisan as it was unanimously passed by a bipartisan vote in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. They have identified it as the “propaganda bill”. It is not – just the opposite — if those who are working on this effort are to be believed and we have no reason to doubt their sincerity.

Some opponents have claimed that it would place the VOA under the control of the State Department. In reading the Bill, there is nothing in the language that demonstrates that. True, during the process of creating this Bill, there was discussion among congressional staffers about the possibility of folding the VOA into the Public Diplomacy arm of the State Department. It didn’t happen. In fact, the Bill creates a brand new, separate Federal Agency: the U.S. International Communications Agency. The surrogates will be organized under the Freedom News Network.

If the Bill were to be enacted does anybody really believe the State Department would be that much more involved than it is now? The Secretary of State currently has a seat on the Broadcasting Board of Governors which has the responsibility of running the day-to-day operations of the Agency. Although some complain about the requirement to consult with the State Department, that is happening now. Does anyone really think we can fulfill Part Three of the VOA Charter without consulting those responsible for developing foreign policy? Agency officials routinely consult with a number of U.S. Government Agencies in their language service reviews. They have cooperated with A.I.D. in programming initiatives.

There are those who have now started a smear campaign against the Congress calling HR 4490 a “poorly written” or “ill-conceived” bill. There are very few congressional bills that couldn’t be nitpicked to death if that is the objective. True, there are several words, phrases and statements that should be fixed, (such as the substitution of the word “present” instead of “promote” in regard to broadcasts about U.S. foreign policy), in order to address the concerns of some, including the Union, about preservation of the journalistic integrity of the news broadcasts and information.

It’s our belief that those who have diligently worked on this reform Bill have a sincere desire to fix an Agency that is indisputably in disrepair. This legislation is a rare bipartisan and bicameral effort as both sides of the Hill are working cooperatively on it. We applaud this effort. During this process, we have discussed specific employee concerns with the Congress, tried to offer constructive suggestions, in face-to-face meetings instead of placing articles in the press. To their credit, congressional staffers have shown an interest in hearing what we had to say.

To sum it up:

1) Regarding concerns with the apparent requirement that the VOA news and information be in compliance with U.S. foreign policy, Congress explained that what they wanted the VOA to do is exactly what the Charter has always required it to do, that is: to be the source of accurate, objective, comprehensive news and information. True, the focus is to be different from that of the surrogate broadcasters. If that is done, the VOA will be operating in a manner that is consistent with and supportive of the broad foreign policy objectives of this country.

2) No one is interested in turning the VOA into a propaganda machine. Could that idea be expressed more clearly? Perhaps. There are still opportunities to work that out. We welcome the opportunity to work with Congress to make that happen.

3) One thing Congress insists on is that the VOA cannot simply be a news service because the U.S. taxpayers have shown no inclination to fund that type of operation. There are plenty of news services available globally now. When it comes to international news broadcasting, the VOA is no longer only one of a few. Times have changed.

4) The VOA needs to adapt to the changing media environment. Most important, it is the programming requirements of Article #2 and Article #3 of the VOA Charter that have become crucial to justifying funding from the federal coffers.

From the very start of the process in creating the broadcasting reform legislation by the Congress, the Union was faced with several options: 1) De-federalization of the VOA and the OCB which meant the loss of federal status, a battle we hope the employees have won. 2) Absorption into the State Department under the Public Diplomacy Office. 3) Closure of the VOA after 70+ years of existence. 4) Reform legislation such as House Bill HR 4490.

Those alternatives were well known to all Union officials who met with congressional staffers on the Hill regarding this reform effort.

As we see it, there are now two alternatives: working on this reform effort in a cooperative and open manner with the Congress or publicly condemning their efforts in the domestic media.

We have opted for change. We have opted for good-faith discussions with those in Congress who demand reform of an Agency which has become increasingly dysfunctional as the years go by.