BBG Watch Commentary
“We have done ourselves no favors by burdening international broadcasters with a failed bureaucracy. That has to change.” — Rep. Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Is U.S. losing ‘information war’ to Russia, China? An article in The Hill reports on an op-ed in Orange Country Register, in which Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, commented the bipartisan reform bill, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490). In his op-ed, Rep. Royce said that burdening U.S. international broadcasters with a failed bureaucracy has to stop.
Rep. Royce pointed out that the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed bipartisan legislation to carry out reforms and increase the effectiveness of U.S. broadcasts around the world.
U.S. funded media outlets are “competing against Russia, China, Iran and others with a hand tied behind their back,” Rep. Royce wrote in his op-ed.
H.R. 4490 is designed to transform how U.S. international media outreach, which includes the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), is managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) through its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).
IBB has been described by critics as a vast dysfunctional bureaucracy. Rep. Royce said that the organization is “badly broken.”
The legislation would essentially abolish IBB and free surrogate broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia (RFA), from the control of the federal bureaucracy, giving them more operational and editorial independence than they have now.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee also showed their displeasure with the management of the Voice of America and violations of the VOA Charter by including stronger language about VOA’s Charter obligation “to present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and … also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” (Public Law 94-350)
REP. ED ROYCE: “So, the Foreign Affairs Committee passed bipartisan legislation I introduced to reform the BBG and increase the effectiveness of U.S. broadcasts around the world. It makes dramatic changes to the current dysfunctional organization. Ineffective boards are scrapped, and a CEO is empowered to run day-to-day operations.” (…)
“Russia’s propaganda in eastern Europe is just the latest battle in the information war playing out across the globe. It is a struggle the United States is losing, due in large part to the determination of enemies of freedom to shut down the free flow of ideas. But we have done ourselves no favors by burdening international broadcasters with a failed bureaucracy. That has to change.”
“Repressive governments worldwide are doing all they can to keep their citizens in the dark, manipulating their access to information. Democracy is doomed under those conditions. If done right though, U.S. international broadcasting can decisively undercut the censors and propagandists abroad, helping freedom seekers and strengthening our national security.”
READ: Ed Royce: Combating Putin’s misinformation machine, Op-Ed by Rep. Ed Royce, Orange County Register, May 19, 2014
“The organizational rearrangement has been widely praised,” Julian Hattem reported in The Hill. He also reported that “a separate measure to clarify the focus of the Voice of America has led to fears that the flagship broadcaster could be turned into a propaganda machine no more accurate than those run by regimes in Russia and China.”
BBG WATCH COMMENTARY: While there is some concern about some of the wording in the bill, critics who claim that Congress wants to turn VOA into a “propaganda machine” similar to Russian or Chinese state media outlets have to be completely unfamiliar with what these outlets put out, unfamiliar with U.S. media traditions and VOA’s history, unfamiliar with the VOA Charter, unfamiliar with the current mismanagement of U.S. international media, and unfamiliar with the democratic political process in the United States. While the bill may not be 100% perfect, it addresses 95% of some of the most serious problems with the management of the Voice of America and surrogate broadcasters funded by the U.S.
The bill in fact includes major elements of the VOA Charter, which is currently being ignored by VOA executives. It has wording from the VOA Charter that VOA news must be accurate, balanced, and comprehensive.
Many VOA and BBG journalists and other employees support the reform portions of the bill and believe that without it VOA will be doomed under the current management and the current organizational structure. In their view, the current organizational structure and the current management represent a much greater threat not only to their journalistic independence, but to VOA’s survival as well.
READ: US losing ‘information war’ to Russia, China?, By Julian Hattem, The Hill, May 19, 2014
House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Markup of H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 April 30, 2014
(As prepared for delivery)
Let me begin by thanking Ranking Member Engel for his work in moving this bipartisan bill forward.
The two of us, and others on the Committee, have just returned from Ukraine. That visit underscored the need to reform U.S. international broadcasting. Traveling to Eastern Ukraine, our delegation witnessed the Russian propaganda machine – now in overdrive – and its attempts to undermine regional stability. The Russian closure of local Ukrainian radio and television stations and the jamming of uncensored sources of information demands an effective response. This Committee recently worked on legislation – signed into law – to ramp up programing into Ukraine.
But unfortunately, U.S. broadcasters – the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and others – are competing with a hand tied behind their back. That’s because the bureaucratic structure over top of these radios – the Broadcasting Board of Governors (“BBG”) – is broken.
So while our enemies are working 24/7 on their public information campaigns, the organization at the helm of ours meets once a month. That’s a recipe for failure. Indeed, then-Secretary Clinton told this Committee last year that the BBG is “practically defunct.” Reports from the Inspector General and GAO have agreed. As does nearly everyone with experience in this field, Republicans and Democrats alike.
This legislation makes dramatic changes to the current organization by clarifying the missions of our U.S. international broadcasters – consolidating six organizations into two.
One organization – “The United States International Communications Agency” – will remain a federal entity and will consist of the Voice of America and the associated technical services our broadcasters depend on. We make clear that the mission of the Voice of America is to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively” – exactly as it was intended.
Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network, the so-called “surrogates,” have a different mission: to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies and to be “a megaphone for internal advocates of freedom,” whether it’s in Iran, North Korea or elsewhere. These “freedom broadcasters” will keep their names, but consolidate into a private, nonprofit corporation that will become the “Freedom News Network.”
Both the U.S. International Communications Agency and Freedom News Network will now have empowered CEOs – and purely advisory boards. Ripping away the bureaucracy will reduce administrative overlap and allow both organizations to thrive. This legislation also mandates important reforms to the contracting practices of the BBG, and increases public-private partnerships.
Unlike decades past, today’s media landscape is highly competitive. Other countries are sprinting forward, but we are standing still. If we’re going to adapt, we need a more effective and efficient use of our finite resources, which this legislation lays out through its mission clarification and management reform.
Again, I want to thank Ranking Member Engel, who I will now turn to for his remarks.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) denied that the bill is designed in any way to limit VOA’s journalistic independence. The VOA Charter, which lawmakers have accused VOA executives of ignoring, was incorporated into the bill.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): “Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this bill maintains the requirement that U.S.-funded programming serve as objective sources of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy. It’s absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we’re trying to reach.”
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
WASHINGTON, DC—Representative Eliot L. Engel, the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, today made the following remarks regarding H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act:
“Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this mark-up of bipartisan legislation that will enhance the ability of the United States to facilitate the free flow of information and share our values with people around the world.
“Mr. Chairman, on the recent trip you led to Ukraine, we saw firsthand that the competition of ideas and the battle for hearts and minds are alive and well. Over the past few months, Moscow has used its state-controlled media to broadcast totally baseless propaganda that’s been used as a pretext for Russia’s invasion of Crimea and its destabilizing activities in eastern Ukraine.
“But Ukraine is far from the only place where objective news is in demand. In Iran, the regime closely controls the free flow of information and has actively jammed U.S. satellite transmissions. And in North Korea, the regime locks radios on certain frequencies to prevent people from listening to the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
“Unfortunately, our efforts to disseminate objective news to societies that lack a free media are not as effective as they should be. Last year, a report by the State Department Inspector General found that the Broadcasting Board of Governors—the agency that currently oversees all U.S. international broadcasting—was ‘failing in its mandated duties’ due to a flawed structure and strong internal dissension.
“The bill that Chairman Royce and I introduced, with support from many of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, will help fix this structure by improving management, enhancing coordination among the different broadcasting entities, and empowering journalists and editors to produce high-quality programming that keeps pace with the rapidly changing international media landscape.
“Specifically, the legislation creates a chief executive officer to manage the day-to-day operations of the new U.S. International Communications Agency, an umbrella organization for Voice of America and Office of Cuba Broadcasting. And it also creates a CEO to run the Freedom News Network, a new organization comprised of the three existing private grantees, which are – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
“The bill also defines the missions of VOA and the Freedom News Network to reduce the duplication of programming, and requires robust coordination between the federal and private entities—including the sharing of content and strategic plans—to maximize efficiency.
“Under the new organizational structure, Voice of America—VOA, the flagship of U.S. broadcasting for more than 50 years—will remain the primary source of information about the United States and our culture, while the three grantees that form the Freedom News Network will continue to provide news to audiences about developments in their own countries. Only by working closely together will these broadcasters be effective in providing comprehensive news and information to those who need it most.
“When I was recently with Chairman Royce in the eastern part of Ukraine, we met a lot of people who said that they really would welcome more information from the United States… that they really don’t get the balanced type of information. And we know Radio Free Europe and others were the ones that helped the Soviet Union collapse. And so this is a really smart thing for us to do.
“Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this bill maintains the requirement that U.S.-funded programming serve as objective sources of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy. It’s absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we’re trying to reach.
“Mr. Chairman, I’d like to thank you again for holding this important markup and really for your leadership over the course of many years on international broadcasting issues. This is one ball that you’ve run with for many years, even before your were chairman of this committee. And it’s very much noticed and very much appreciated. I’d also like to thank you for working with us on this legislation in a bipartisan manner. I have some votes in my other committee so I may be in and out, but this legislation is so important and should be passed with no dissension because I think this is the type of legislation this committee can be proud of, again, on a bipartisan basis.
“Thank you Mr. Chairman.”
Latest Title: United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014
Sponsor: Rep Royce, Edward R. [CA-39] (introduced 4/28/2014) Cosponsors (14)
Latest Major Action: 4/30/2014 House committee/subcommittee actions. Status: Ordered to be Reported (Amended) by Unanimous Consent.
Rep Chabot, Steve [OH-1] – 4/28/2014
Rep Connolly, Gerald E. [VA-11] – 4/28/2014
Rep Deutch, Theodore E. [FL-21] – 4/29/2014
Rep Engel, Eliot L. [NY-16] – 4/28/2014
Rep Keating, William R. [MA-9] – 4/28/2014
Rep Lowenthal, Alan S. [CA-47] – 4/30/2014
Rep McCaul, Michael T. [TX-10] – 4/29/2014
Rep Poe, Ted [TX-2] – 4/29/2014
Rep Rohrabacher, Dana [CA-48] – 4/28/2014
Rep Ros-Lehtinen, Ileana [FL-27] – 4/28/2014
Rep Salmon, Matt [AZ-5] – 4/28/2014
Rep Sherman, Brad [CA-30] – 4/28/2014
Rep Sires, Albio [NJ-8] – 4/29/2014
Rep Stockman, Steve [TX-36] – 4/30/2014