This shortwave curtain antenna at the transmitting station in Saipan serves the broadcasters of the U.S.-government-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors.
U.S. government will have fewer restrictions on its ability to communicate
directly with its own citizens via certain media platforms if proposed dissemination
changes are adopted by Congress.
of the domestic ban spelled out in the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 would allow the
U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors to recirculate content to listeners and
viewers in the United States via private broadcast partners.
on Capitol Hill believe this change is long overdue, considering that
technological advances make such content readily available in this country
already. Lifting the ban, they believe, would aid in diplomacy, increase
transparency and help the government reach international communities on U.S.
fear the legalization of government-issued propaganda. They worry about
allowing the government undue domestic influence on citizens and think BBG would
shift focus and finances away from its important foreign mission.
BBG sets policies and provides oversight of U.S. government-funded operations
that broadcast overseas. This includes the Voice of America, Radio and TV Martí,
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and
the Middle East Broadcasting Network.
William “Mac” Thornberry, R-Texas and Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced H.R.
5736, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, in May to update the law covering
how the federal government communicates to foreign audiences through broadcast
and other means. The provision has been considered outdated by broadcasters at BBG
since the spread of the Internet and satellite broadcasting.
measure was included in a version of the National Defense Authorization Act approved
by the House and forwarded to the Senate in late May, according to Alison Lynn,
Thornberry’s office press representative. The Senate was expected to take up
the NDAA in July but Lynn said it was delayed. Most observers agree it’s likely
the bill will end up in conference as the chambers resolve differences.
Smith-Mundt Act was created shortly after World War II to prevent any sitting
administration from using U.S. government media to influence the American
public and promote a specific political agenda, observers said.
5736 eliminates the existing ban on domestic dissemination of public diplomacy
material, which prohibits such material from being viewed in the United
States,” Thornberry said in a statement.
the ban updates the law to reflect technology advances, removes a barrier to
more effective and efficient public diplomacy programs, provides transparency
of these programs to U.S. citizens and allows the material to be available to
inform domestic audiences.”
also stated, “This is not 1948 when everyone was tuned to a few radio stations.
The 21st century media environment is already very diverse and open.”
bill emphasizes that the State Department and BBG are not to compete with
private news organizations.
The BBG is supporting the effort. It listed repeal as a goal in a strategic five-year plan set out late
last year, a plan that included broader changes in its identity and goals.
(Its new mission statement: “To inform, engage and connect people around the
world in support of freedom and democracy.” BBG wants to become “the world’s leading
international news agency by 2016, focused on the agency’s mission and impact,”
and hopes to reach 216 million people in global weekly audience by that time.)
A BBG spokeswoman said the
Thornberry bill “accomplishes what the agency (with the current
administration’s support) has been seeking in its FY 2012–13 authorization
request to Congress — which is an easing of the Smith-Mundt domestic
dissemination ban. The administration’s legislative request for FY ’12–13
relates specifically to BBG programming.”
Most of VOA’s material is already available online, according to the
BBG, and this amendment would
not change the BBG mission to broadcast to foreign audiences, she said.
funding is provided only to produce programming to foreign audiences. The BBG
would not produce programming for domestic use, nor would it use agency
resources to transmit programming in the U.S. The bill restates language in
previous legislation stating that the State Department and BBG shall not seek
to influence public opinion in the United States.”
bill specifies that the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 only applies to the
Department of State and the Broadcast Board of Governors.
to an analysis by Matt Armstrong, former director of the U.S. Advisory
Commission on Public Diplomacy, the Thornberry bill would “authorize the
domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States
intended primarily for foreign audiences and for other purposes.”
though the material is online and available to people in the United States, the
BBG [today] must still say ‘no’ to requests to re-use and disseminate BBG
products in the U.S. That would change if the proposed amendment is approved,”
said Armstrong, who also publishes the blog MountainRunner.us.
case often cited by supporters of the changes is that of a Minneapolis-based
radio station, which serves a large Somali-American audience. It was denied
permission to replay a VOA-produced piece rebutting terrorist propaganda.
after the community was targeted for recruitment by al-Shabab and other
extremists, government lawyers refused the replay request, noting that
Smith-Mundt tied their hands,” according to a press release issued by
BBG Chairman Jim Glassman, founding executive director of the George W. Bush
Institute, supports the amendment and believes the current prohibition is
BBG programming is readily available in the United States through websites, and
many language services are active on YouTube, Facebook and other social media
platforms,” Glassman said. “Diaspora communities in the United States, seeking
information in their native languages, can benefit from the accurate news and
information delivered by BBG language services — and they can and do pass it on
to relatives and friends in BBG target countries around the world.”
the amendment passes, Glassman predicts the BBG would use the opportunity to
increase U.S. engagement with the rest of the world through social media.
on the bipartisan bill has stirred up a “mostly small and vocal constituency,”
said Dr. Gregory Newton, an associate professor and associate director in the
School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University. He follows international
law intended to limit information flow and that is based on a 60- or
70-year-old conception of propaganda, media infrastructure, not to mention an
irrational fear of Communists in the State Department, is naïve and outdated,
at best; or worse, maybe even counter-productive,” Newton wrote in an e-mail to
audiences are sophisticated enough to recognize blatant propaganda and other
less-than-honest journalism by a government broadcaster.”
who also is president of the Broadcast Education Association, added that “there
are some voices that just want to get rid of the BBG.”
and others don’t expect BBG to spend resources on homeland dissemination. “If
BBG decides to direct resources and efforts domestically, then I’d say the
leadership failed,” Armstrong said.
However, there are observers of U.S. international broadcasting who
worry the plan will do just that and allow the BBG to propagandize American
the BBG to market their programs in the U.S. without any restrictions is a
dangerous idea because it counts on government bureaucrats to restrain
themselves on their own,” said Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America official.
He co-founded the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting, which
describes itself as a non-partisan media freedom advocate.
group also raises concerns about transparency and accountability if the changes
“Any modernization should make clear that the BBG is not allowed to
actively market their programs domestically, target any specific groups of
Americans and spend taxpayer money on domestic advertising,” according to
The Smith-Mundt Modernization
Act of 2012 amends the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act
of 1948, also known as Smith-Mundt, to authorize the U.S. secretary of state and
the Broadcasting Board of Governors to prepare and disseminate information
intended for foreign audiences abroad about the United States — including information
about its people, its history and the federal government’s policies.
The information can be disseminated through press, publications, radio,
motion pictures, the Internet and other information media, including social
media, and through information centers and instructors.
H.R 5736 states: “Except as provided, the Secretary of
State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors may, upon request and
reimbursement of the reasonable costs incurred in fulfilling such a request,
make available, in the United States, motion pictures, films, video, audio, and
other materials prepared for dissemination abroad or disseminated abroad
pursuant to this Act.”
The bill further states that no funds authorized for the
Department of State or the BBG shall be used to influence public opinion in