RIA Novosti 07/15/13
By Maria Young

In the last two weeks, US government-funded news broadcaster Voice of America has received more than a dozen requests for news stories it has produced for foreign audiences to be made available to listeners in the United States, something that hadn’t been allowed since a law known as the Smith-Mundt Act was passed by Congress in 1948.

The law specified that US government-funded broadcasts could only be communicated to audiences in other countries.

While the act “was developed to counter communism during the Cold War, it is outdated for the conflicts of today,” said Rep. Adam Smith, a co-sponsor of new legislation called the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, that went into effect this month.

Subject to approval for each request, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act allows organizations in the United States to disseminate news content funded by the US government and intended for foreign audiences to those in the US.

The new legislation was passed as part of the Defense Authorization Bill of 2013. It affects US government-funded news entities including Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and others.

“Effective strategic communication and public diplomacy should be front-and-center as we work to roll back al-Qaida’s and other violent extremists’ influence among disaffected populations,” Smith said in a press release.

“In some ways the new regulations recognize that information on VOA websites, while created for our audience overseas, are already widely available” on the Internet, said Kyle King, director of VOA public relations, in a statement to RIA Novosti.

It could be particularly beneficial for diaspora audiences living in the United States but interested in how the US is portrayed to relatives and friends in their native land, or those who are trying to follow details of news events from home, he added.

For a relatively obscure and complex piece of legislation that affects a relatively small number of people, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act has been the subject of much angst and controversy, and underscores the lack of trust some Americans feel for the US government.

When the bill was initially filed, “Mr. Smith got all kinds of outraged emails and letters from people who were confused,” said a senior staffer from the House Armed Services Committee who worked on the legislation and asked not to be identified. He called the negative response “a deluge.”

“This is not opening up the spigots to propaganda in America,” he added.

But some media outlets see it otherwise.

“US Repeals Propaganda Ban,” read a headline in Foreign Policy Magazine.

Congressmen Seek to Lift Propaganda Ban,” read BuzzFeed before the act was passed.

Use of the word ‘propaganda’ is particularly offensive to Voice of America.

“It is our policy to report the news in an ‘accurate, objective and comprehensive’ way, and to represent responsible discussion and opinion about US policies. If facts or opinions are not favorable to the US government we still report them,” said King, adding, “We do not shy away from stories because they may be critical of the United States.”

“Congress and the administration must realize that the intended audiences – whether domestic or foreign – are smart enough to decipher what is, and what is not, material funded by the US government,” said Michael Shank, Director of Foreign Policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a nonpartisan lobbying group that advocates for peace, equality and social justice issues.

“The American people, furthermore, should be equally concerned that their taxpayers’ dollars are spent on everything from Air Force-dropped leaflets to paid journalists spinning truths about our foreign interventions. Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, or Yemenis, whether here or there, aren’t believing the hype and nor should you,” he told RIA Novosti.

That’s one of the inaccuracies that’s made its way into some media reports, said the senior staffer from the House Armed Services Committee.

In reality, the language of the act stipulates “‘the information, the program, and making it available shall be revenue neutral,’ so this idea that taxpayer dollars are being used to broadcast news from the American government to the American people is just not correct,” he added.

“The opponents say ‘we don’t care what they tell other people just don’t tell us,’ and that makes no sense,” said Helle Dale, a senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative, Washington-based think tank.

“Considering Americans are now able to receive info from all sorts of other governments including the Russian government but not their own. This we thought was a bizarre state of affairs in the 21st century,” she added.