A long-time and historic voice of journalistic integrity is set to become a mouthpiece for the federal government.
Voice of America has been recognized as a key component toward ensuring that the American interpretation of U.S. foreign policies is heard.
Since World War II, when it started every live broadcast into Germany with “Today, and every day from now on, we will be with you from America to talk about the war … The news may be good or bad for us — We will always tell you the truth,” Voice of America has been the projection of the United States’ voice abroad.
Despite its role in promoting American interests internationally, VOA has always held itself to the highest journalistic integrity. Much of the organization’s journalistic code — including the use of two sources when reporting third-party, taking care to present a story in an unbiased and balanced way, and not using special privileges or access in reporting on an issue — has been embraced by the news industry as part of journalistic integrity.
This is reflected in the September 2001 VOA report that contained excerpts of an interview with then-Taliban leader Mullah Omar Mohammad and in the April 2007 report, that featured the interview of Jundullah leader Abdul Malik Rigi — described by VOA as “the leader of popular Iranian resistance movement” — on VOA’s Persian service have won VOA praise for not bowing to government influence in reporting the news, reflected in the service’s winning of the 2002 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.
Some in Congress, however, feel that this sense of editorial freedom and integrity compromises VOA’s function as America’s mouthpiece. On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will vote on a bill that will significantly reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA’s sponsoring agency. The changes will make it clear that VOA and other BBG-backed broadcasts are not neutral news platforms, but messaging devices for the federal government.
“The free flow of information and ideas is at the core of a democratic society,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R – Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement.
“Across the globe … freedom of information is key to the success of our national security objectives. Unfortunately, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency charged with leading the U.S. effort to inform and empower foreign audiences, is badly broken. It is time for broad reforms; now more than ever, U.S. international broadcasts must be effective.”
The legislation has bipartisan support, with a corresponding bill working its way through the Senate. The bills represents a year of negotiations between the two sides.
The bill will change the composition of the BBG from part-time board members, including the U.S. Secretary of State, to a single full-time appointable agency head to handle day-to-day operations.
The bill will consolidate Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network with the VOA and Radio/TV Marti into a federally-owned non-profit corporation, and will cut the number of federal contractors assigned to the new organization to reduce costs. Finally, the bill will realign the VOA’s and fellow broadcasters’ missions to reflect its goal as a propaganda engine.
In 1976, then-President Gerald Ford, recognizing that since the 1950s — during which VOA began to function as the only non-compromised source of the news in politically repressed areas — VOA has moved away from countering foreign propaganda to telling the news as it is, signed into law that VOA’s mission is to “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”
The recent move by the Congress to control VOA has raised comparisons to Russia and its use of its foreign-facing mouthpiece, the television network RT, to denounce Western involvement in Ukraine and to attack the Kiev government as right-wing fascists. With Congress passing a bill last month to expand VOA and Radio Free Europe in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, what was one of the greatest founts for journalistic integrity is slowly being returned to what it once was: a propaganda weapon.
“This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts,” read a press release of the House bill. “The VOA charter states that VOA will provide a ‘clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States … Over time, VOA has abandoned this mission.”