Monday, April 4, 2016

VOA May Soon Become “Public Diplomacy” or “Propaganda” Tool

Voice of America
Image Credit: Voice of America

The potential summer passage of H.R. 4490 which passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee in mid-May, means that a “decades-old debate in foreign policy circles about the role of Voice of America” may soon culminate in major change to the U.S.-funded news organization that “attracts 80 percent of the total U.S. international media audience.”

The New York Times summarized the current congressional conflict, with the proponents wishing to “enable the broadcast news service to counter Russian disinformation” in contrast with opponents who complain that VOA would become “an American propaganda tool.” A fact sheet published by supporters argues, “this legislation makes clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts.”

However, inside VOA, “the legislation has created widespread fear among staff members who have long considered themselves professional journalists rather than spokesmen for government policy.” Journalists argue that turning VOA employees into the latter may cause a “mass exodus” of journalistic talent from VOA and could even endanger their lives. Christophe Deloire, head of Reporters Without Borders, condemned ”attitudes of information warfare,” explaining that VOA provides the “valuable service” as ”one of the very few sources of independent news” in many countries. VOA correspondent Al Pessen elaborated, arguing that “using taxpayers’ money for objective broadcasts is the ultimate expression of confidence that people around the world will recognize the value of the United States — not because we as a nation tell them how right we are, but because Americans respect them enough to let them decide for themselves.”

But some inside and outside VOA have disagreed. Robert R. Reilly, a former director of Voice of America, emphasizes the need for VOA to be run “within the U.S. government in a command structure related to our national security,” arguing that it is “better to win the war of ideas than have to win a war.” Similarly, The Heritage Foundation insisted that “VOA should become an explicit arm of U.S. public diplomacy focused on promoting…U.S. policy.”

The VOA Union’s statement on the bill recommends passage, but with the caveat that “specific wording” be included assuring “the news product remains objective.” The statement explains that VOA has “[ignored] important statements by U.S. leaders” over the past 12 years, stopped covering American news, and “stopped fulfilling” the mandate to “present the policies of the United States.”

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