Updated at 8:08 p.m.
Legislation to restructure the organization overseeing the government-funded media outlet Voice of America advanced in the House this week, a measure that proponents say would bring it closer in line with U.S. policy but critics fear could turn the storied news service into a a propaganda tool.
The U.S. International Communications Reform Act, which passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, would, among other things, make “clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts,” according to a summary of the bill. The bill’s authors say that over time, VOA has abandoned the mission outlined in its charter to provide a “clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States.
“We pay for the VOA to provide news that supports our national security objectives,” Shane Wolfe, a spokesman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by bill co-sponsor Rep. Ed Royce (R—CA), told TIME. Supporters hope the measure will strengthen VOA by streamlining operations and clarifying the VOA mission.
“Unlike decades past, today’s media landscape is highly competitive," Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who chairs the committee and co-sponsored the bill, said Wednesday. "Other countries are sprinting forward, but we are standing still. If we’re going to adapt, we need a more effective and efficient use of our finite resources, which this legislation lays out through its mission clarification and management reform."
Voice of America was created during World War II as an answer to Nazi propaganda, but it shifted to a more diplomatic role under the State Department umbrella during the Cold War. Under its 1976 charter, VOA is supposed to “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news” that is “accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” VOA estimates it reaches about 164 million people around the world weekly, many of them living in societies that lack reliable, independent sources of news.
The bill would replace the Broadcasting Board of Governors that currently oversees VOA with a new office to be called the U.S. International Communications Agency led by a new chief executive. Three related broadcast outlets—Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network—will be merged into one “Freedom News Network,” and continue in their mission “to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies,” according to the bill summary. It's unclear how the bill would fare before the full House or the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"I had my criticism on VOA’s non-100% editorial independence before, but I think this will make it even worse," said Negar Mortazavi, a Washington-based Iranian freelance journalist. Mortazavi worked for three years as a TV host at VOA Persian, which broadcasts into Iran. "There’s nothing wrong with the government having it’s own foreign language PR,” she said, but ”you can’t mix media and government PR, or propaganda, or whatever you call it."
It can be difficult for the average American to appreciate the role outlets like VOA and BBC play as an alternative news source in societies like Iran, where media is often tightly controlled. But the VOA can be a welcome irritant to a restrictive government for some. Tehran has denounced both VOA and BBC as arms of foreign intelligence agencies and the regime is routinely accused of trying to jam the satellite signals that beam the services into the country, an accusation Tehran denies. Mortazavi, who was born in Tehran and came to the U.S. for college at age 20 in 2002, hasn’t been back to Iran since 2009, she says, due to work for VOA.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the legislation and the ranking Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, doesn't think VOA's value would be undermined by the bill. “The legislation clearly requires U.S.-funded programming to serve as an objective source of news and information, and not as a mouthpiece for American foreign policy," Engel told TIME. "That said, providing access to unbiased, credible news and advancing American foreign policy interests aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, when we promote a free press and freedom of information around the world, we’re promoting some of our most cherished values.”
Shane Wolfe dismissed the idea that supporting U.S. “public diplomacy efforts” is tantamount to propaganda. “The U.S. spends a lot of money every year to help people in foreign countries; we do a lot of good in the world. Unfortunately, those stories don’t make it to BBC, Al Jazeera, RT (Russia Today), or CCTV (China),” he said. “Most of those outlets tell stories that often deride the United States. If VOA is not in the business of telling those good stories, and otherwise reporting on U.S. policy, who is?”
This article was updated with a statement from Shane Wolfe