BBG Watch Commentary
Thursday, May 21, 2015, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed bipartisan legislation to reform U.S. international media outreach overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
In introducing H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) said that “there is widespread agreement that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency charged with guiding U.S. international broadcasting, is practically defunct, and this is not good news for our U.S. government effort to counter the propaganda of both terrorists and dictators.”
Rep. Royce said that the bipartisan bill carries out much needed reforms of U.S. international broadcasting, which have been championed by a broad coalition of supporters.
Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) said: “I’m also glad that Chairman Royce has reintroduced the United States International Communications Reform Act which I’m proud to co-sponsor.”
“This bill brings much needed overhaul to the Broadcasting Board of Governors,” Rep. Engel said.
H.R. 2323 reiterates the reforms proposed in H.R. 4490, legislation Royce and Engel introduced in April 2014. The Committee unanimously passed H.R. 4490 in April 2014; the House passed H.R. 4490 in July 2014; the Senate never considered H.R. 4490.
Al Pessin, a VOA foreign correspondent, criticized the original bill in his The Los Angeles Times op-ed, “Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real.”
While the title of the op-ed was probably chosen by the editorial staff, the author, who represented only himself, kept referring to the bill as “the Royce bill,” even though the 2014 legislation was fully bipartisan, as is H.R. 2323.
In H.R. 2323, lawmakers dropped a requirement, which was included in the 2014 bill, that VOA programming be designed to promote the broad foreign policies of the United States. The word “promotes” in H.R. 4490 was replaced with “presents” in H.R. 2323. The new bill also introduced a requirement for VOA to report on U.S. foreign assistance programs: “Producing content and related programming that provides a comprehensive understanding of the impact of United States foreign assistance programs and United States international philanthropy, complementing other media outlets.”
However,draft report language for H.R. 2323 seen by BBG Watch strongly suggests that Voice of America’s role should be to support U.S. public diplomacy through credible journalism:
“This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America (“VOA”) is an indispensible element of United States public diplomacy efforts by serving as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news on the United States, its policies, people, and the international developments that affect the United States.”
Such language may still be unacceptable to some Voice of America reporters even if nearly all appear to be in favor of some management reforms. Some hope that management overhaul and the clarification of VOA’s mission may make VOA’s future more secure as a federal entity and avoid de-federalization of VOA and/or future budget cuts from dissatisfied Congress. Still others may want to continue produce programs as they do now under the current Broadcasting Board of Governors policy firewall between the Voice of America and other parts of the U.S. government.
Voice of America Online Video, WW II Victory Anniversary Flyover in Washington, DC, May 8, 2015
U.S. policy and technology heavyweights, including former Secretaries of State, former BBG chairmen and members, current and former members and staff of Congress from both sides of the aisle, and various other foreign policy and industry experts, expressed their support for the BBG reform legislation.
VOICE OF AMERICA COVERAGE OF HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE VOTE
The VOA News report was posted online Thursday, May 21, 2015 12:31 PM ET. As of Friday May 22, 8:27 AM ET, the VOA News report on the House Foreign Affairs Committee vote is showing 0 (zero) Facebook Likes/Shares, 6 (six) Tweets, 0 (zero) Google Plus+1 and 1 (one) comment.
May 21, 2015 12:31 PM
WASHINGTON—The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Thursday advanced a bill that its members said would reform government-supported civilian international media to better counter sophisticated propaganda from countries such as Russia and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
Chairman Ed Royce, in opening the markup session, said the U.S. International Communications Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 2323) is needed to contend with “weaponized information” that spreads conspiracy theories and undermines national security.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Eliot L. Engel of New York, said the bill “would bring a much-needed overhaul” by revamping management structure, consolidating various broadcasting organizations and clarifying roles.
Currently, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency, oversees networks including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).
Those networks’ directors now report to the BBG, whose nine part-time members meet every other month. To streamline decision-making, the legislation mandates installing a full-time chief executive. The BBG would assume an advisory role.
The bill calls for consolidating several of the networks into the nonfederal “Freedom Broadcasters” group. Its members – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network – would continue to offer uncensored news. In restrictive countries, “they act as a free press would – if one were allowed to operate,” Engel said.
Committee members said the consolidation would save money and improve collaboration among the networks.
Engel said the measure also “clarifies the role” of the Voice of America. Instead of requiring VOA to “promote” U.S. policies, the revised legislation instructs the agency to “present” them. The distinction removes an advocacy expectation.
“Some of the networks’ journalists have been wary that their reporting might be misshapen or tainted by association with U.S. public diplomacy,” Donald M. Bishop, a member of the nonprofit Public Diplomacy Council, wrote in an opinion piece published by The Hill this week. “So long as the VOA Charter remains in the law, these concerns are misplaced.…”
The charter states not only that “VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive,” but that it “will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.”
The bill will advance to the full House for consideration and, if it passes, go on to the Senate.
The BBG says its programing, offered in 61 languages, has a measured audience of 215 million in more than 100 countries.
END OF VOA NEWS REPORT
HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE PRESS RELEASE
MAY 21, 2015
Royce : “U.S. is confronted by an unconventional threat – the weaponization of information.”
Engel: “Today, America’s rivals spend massive sums to spread violent messages and disseminate propaganda.”
Washington, D.C. – Today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed bipartisan legislation to improve the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters, which are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015 was introduced last week by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Committee’s Ranking Member. [A section-by-section summary of H.R. 2323 is available HERE.]
On April 15, the Committee examined the destabilizing role that Russia is playing across Europe by its weaponizing of information and the abject failure of the U.S. to respond effectively.
Upon passage of H.R. 2323, Chairman Royce said: “Today, the U.S. is confronted by an unconventional threat – the weaponization of information. This new threat, employed by ISIS, Putin, and Iran, undermines stable democratic governments, uses conspiracy theories to incite violence, and stokes anti-American sentiment. BBG, the agency charged with leading the U.S. response effort, is crippled by an inefficient bureaucracy and incoherent leadership structure. We cannot allow these problems to fester any longer at an agency that is so important when the stakes are so high. The reforms proposed in the legislation the Committee passed today are justifiably far-reaching, and I will work to see this legislation enacted into law. I am proud to have Ranking Member Engel as a partner in this important effort.”
Ranking Member Engel said: “Today, America’s rivals spend massive sums to spread violent messages and disseminate propaganda. Unfortunately, our ability to respond has fallen behind the techniques employed by Russia, ISIS, and others. This bill creates a new management structure to oversee our international broadcasting efforts, streamlines our broadcasting organizations, and modernizes our tools for getting our message out. I’m proud to join Chairman Royce in sponsoring this legislation that will provide a much-needed overhaul to American international broadcasting.”
- 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 present the broad foreign policy of the United States and “tell America’s story.”
- 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.”
H.R. 2323 reiterates the reforms proposed in H.R. 4490, legislation Royce and Engel introduced in April 2014. The Committee unanimously passed H.R. 4490 in April 2014; the House passedH.R. 4490 in July 2014; the Senate never considered H.R. 4490.
Also today, the Committee considered and passed the following measures:
- H.R. 1853, introduced by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), directs the President to develop a strategy to obtain observer status for Taiwan in the International Criminal Police Organization;
- H.R. 2100, the Girls Count Act of 2015, introduced by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), authorizes the Secretary of State and the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development to provide assistance to support the rights of women and girls in developing countries;
- H. Res. 213, introduced by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), condemns the April 2015 terrorist attack at the Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya, and reaffirms the United States support for the people and Government of Kenya;
- H. Res. 235, introduced by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), expresses deepest condolences to and solidarity with the people of Nepal following the devastating earthquake on April 25, 2015.
A summary of the Committee action, including adopted amendments, is available HERE.