On April 30, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved reforms to the government news agency that require it to promote US foreign policy goals and give Congress greater oversight over its operations, notably in the Middle East.
The bill, which passed by unanimous voice vote, would replace the Broadcasting Board of Governors with a US International Communications Agency overseeing Voice of America. It would consolidate other news operations — including the Middle East Broadcasting Network — under a separate Freedom News Network.
The move comes as lawmakers — and the administration — are increasingly frustrated at the US government's inability to counter what they call Russian propaganda.
"Traveling to Eastern Ukraine, our delegation witnessed the Russian propaganda machine — now in overdrive — and its attempts to undermine regional stability," committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said at Wednesday's mark-up. "Unfortunately, US broadcasters — the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and others — are competing with a hand tied behind their back."
The bill aims to streamline a service that government auditors have long called dysfunctional. US international broadcasting would be placed under the authority of two CEOs instead of a board that only meets once a month.
Its proposed reforms to the US broadcasters' mission statements, however, have ignited a firestorm of controversy.
The bill would require that Voice of America produce "accurate" and "objective" content that nevertheless "is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States." The mission of the broadcaster, which has a Farsi service but no longer broadcasts in Arabic, would be focused more narrowly on bringing US news to a foreign audience.
The proposal has outraged many Voice of America journalists. They fear a service that has long strived to appear independent of the government will end up operating like the Russian and Chinese foreign-language services, whose broadcasts closely toe the government line.
"Trying to turn VOA into RT or CCTV — I don't think that's a very smart move, frankly," a VOA employee told Al-Monitor. "I think it would be a shame to turn it into propaganda."
Lawmakers at Wednesday's mark-up dismissed those concerns.
"This bill maintains the requirements that US-funded programming serve as an objective source of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for US foreign policy," ranking member Eliot Engel (D-NY), an original co-sponsor of the Royce bill, said at the mark-up. "It's absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we're trying to reach."
Other services — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network — would be consolidated under a single private non-profit corporation, the Freedom News Network. The network will be funded through grants provided by the US International Communications Agency but will remain independent. Its mission, however, will also need to be "consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States."
While the Ukrainian crisis is dominating the headlines, the proposed changes follow years of congressional criticism about Middle East coverage in particular.
The replacement of Voice of America's Arabic service by Radio Sawa, a mix of pop music interspersed with news, outraged many lawmakers a decade ago. Republicans have also objected to what they called the pro-Iranian tilt of VOA's Persian News Network and are now fighting plans to terminate Radio Free Iraq.
"There has been a lot controversy over Middle East broadcasting, going back to the 1990s," Helle Dale, a senior fellow for public diplomacy with the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Al-Monitor.
In a series of written questions to BBG nominees four years ago, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) spelled out some of those concerns.
"Frequently, the Persian News Network has been accused of being soft on the Iranian government, including being labeled 'the voice of the mullahs,'” Coburn wrote at the time. With regard to Radio Sawa and the more recently created Alhurra television station, he added, "These broadcasts do not appear to have any lasting positive resonance with Arab populations. Why?"
House Foreign Affairs Committee member Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) ripped into the Voice of America when he chaired the committee's oversight and investigations panel three years ago.
“Giving airtime to the dictatorial Iranian government’s position is a misguided effort to achieve so called ‘journalistic balance,’” Rohrabacher said at the time. “The American taxpayers should not be furthering the mullah’s repressive views.”
More recently, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) has objected to the proposal to shutter Radio Free Iraq, which was launched in 1998.
"These broadcast services promote the values of freedom of speech and democracy: values that must remain in the forefront of Iraqi thought, especially as our troops withdraw," Schock wrote in a March letter to the BBG obtained by Al-Monitor.
The law would give Congress more oversight power, said Dale, who helped develop reform proposals that the new legislation tracks closely.
"The Broadcasting Board of Governors was put in place to supposedly isolate US international broadcasting from political pressure," she said. "However, it has given them, sometimes, the excuse not to want to deal with members of Congress asking legitimate questions about their broadcasts.
One section of the law in particular requires the heads of the newly created US International Communications Agency and the Freedom News Network to submit a report to Congress detailing "the criteria and analysis used to determine broadcast recipient countries and regions." A House aide told Al-Monitor that the provision would give lawmakers more power to weigh in on broadcasting priorities, notably regarding the best technologies to penetrate each market.
"Congress will be able influence how these new networks choose to broadcast," the aide said. "That's an issue for the Middle East: What are the best mediums for conveying our … broadcasts?"