Can Congress Make Journalists Do Propaganda?

A House bill seeks to change Voice of America from a news provider to a U.S. promoter.

Voice Of America Afghan Service broadcaster Daoud Sediqi listens to a caller during a 2009 show.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
May 1, 2014, 10:57 a.m.

It’s not of­ten the U.S. gov­ern­ment tries to emu­late its Rus­si­an coun­ter­parts. But a bill cur­rently mak­ing its way through the House dir­ects a U.S.-fun­ded news out­let to mir­ror the Krem­lin’s pro­pa­ganda ma­chine.

Rus­sia’s in­cur­sion in­to Ukraine has been backed with strong mes­saging, said For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Royce, and the U.S. needs to counter-mes­sage.

“The Rus­si­an pro­pa­ganda ma­chine is now in over­drive in its at­tempts to un­der­mine re­gion­al sta­bil­ity,” Royce said after the In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Re­form Act passed his com­mit­tee. “U.S. broad­casters are com­pet­ing with a hand tied be­hind their back.”

Royce’s bill changes the mis­sion of Voice of Amer­ica, a fed­er­ally fun­ded news out­let that provides ra­dio broad­casts and In­ter­net me­dia around the globe. VOA says its mis­sion is to provide “ac­cur­ate, ob­ject­ive, and com­pre­hens­ive news,” es­pe­cially in closed so­ci­et­ies.

One gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who has worked on in­ter­na­tion­al broad­cast­ing is­sues de­scribed VOA’s role as “put­ting it­self out of busi­ness.” While it provides cit­izens with in­form­a­tion they wouldn’t oth­er­wise get, its goal is to pro­duce free and open so­ci­et­ies where VOA is no longer needed.

“[VOA is] provid­ing the news and in­form­a­tion that so­ci­et­ies lack,” said the of­fi­cial. “It op­er­ates where the me­dia doesn’t ex­ist, or where it’s con­strained, or where people don’t have ac­cess…. It cre­ates an en­vir­on­ment in which the people are em­powered, be­cause it doesn’t just dis­sem­in­ate in­form­a­tion; it cre­ates a con­ver­sa­tion.”

But Royce thinks that role needs to change. “This le­gis­la­tion makes clear that the Voice of Amer­ica mis­sion is to sup­port U.S. pub­lic dip­lomacy ef­forts,” said his re­lease.

RT, Rus­sia’s pro­pa­ganda out­let, trolled VOA in a Wed­nes­day post. “Re­form le­gis­la­tion in the House would change the lan­guage of Voice of Amer­ica’s mis­sion to de­mand ad­her­ence to U.S. for­eign policy dir­ect­ives, “¦ call­ing in­to ques­tion how much ed­it­or­i­al in­de­pend­ence Voice of Amer­ica will have left,” RT wrote.

Com­par­is­ons between VOA and Rus­sia’s pro­pa­ganda are in­furi­at­ing, said the of­fi­cial. “A pro­pa­ganda agency doesn’t spend tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to open up the In­ter­net,” he said, em­phas­iz­ing the agency’s ef­forts to cre­ate a free flow of in­form­a­tion — wheth­er it comes from VOA or not. “The way they framed this [le­gis­la­tion] sets VOA up to be­come a pro­pa­ganda agency, be­cause it now be­comes a mes­saging plat­form rather than a news plat­form.”

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