VOA a step closer to some domestic broadcast privileges

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. Lawrence Jackson/AP
The Voice of America, which for 70 years has been barred from broadcasting to domestic audiences, would benefit from a House measure to ease restrictions on dissemination within U.S. borders of VOA’s foreign-language material using digital technology.

An amendment attached to the House version of the pending Defense Department authorization bill by Reps. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Adam Smith, D-Wash., would modify the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act to allow government broadcast entities under the State Department and the Broadcast Board of Governors to use the Internet to reach key foreign communities living in the United States. VOA favors the change to allow it to counter propaganda from terrorist groups seeking U.S. recruits as well as provide emergency information to U.S.-based nationals from countries experiencing disasters.

An oft-cited example of the law’s crimping effect on VOA’s agenda is a 2009 incident involving a Minneapolis-based radio station that serves the Somali-American community, which housed several young men arrested for traveling to commit terrorism in that troubled African nation. The station owner sought permission to replay a VOA program designed to counter al Qaeda propaganda, but VOA programmers nixed the proposal, citing Smith-Mundt.

Smith-Mundt was originally enacted in part because private U.S. broadcasters did not wish to compete with the government. The law also offered some assurance that U.S. audiences would not be targeted with propaganda.

Many liberal advocacy groups have expressed fear that the House amendment would give the government a chance to influence domestic thinking without checks and balances.

Co-sponsor Smith in late May put out a statement of rebuttal. “The Thornberry-Smith amendment does not authorize any U.S. government agency to develop propaganda for a domestic audience nor is that our intent,” he wrote. “This amendment is intended to provide greater transparency and to ensure the U.S. government can get factual information out to foreign audiences in a timely manner for many reasons including countering extremist misinformation and propaganda.”

Smith said the change would maintain “requirements that the information must be fair, factual, prepared for and aimed at a foreign audience.”

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