As the Obama Administration searches for a strategy to counter the propaganda challenge from radical Islamist groups, reform of U.S. international broadcasting remains in limbo. Yet, even with the rise of social media, broadcasting remains the U.S. government’s most important and direct way to communicate with foreign publics. In troubled regions, such as the Middle East, U.S. broadcasting tools must be sharpened.
On July 28, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act. The bill eliminates the dysfunctional Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency that oversees U.S. civilian international broadcasting. Its decisions have for years been marred by strategic errors—like eliminating broadcasting to Russia and Ukraine.
The reform bill modernizes and sorts out U.S. government-funded broadcasters according to their mission. It also gives the broadcasters new advisory boards and executive directors, making broadcast management more logical and accountable to Congress. Through streamlining, the legislation would save $160 million over five years, as scored by the Office of Management and Budget. It reflects bipartisan agreement that something must be done. The bill passed unanimously through the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was adopted by a voice vote by the full House.
Reform has support from a plethora of experts and former directors of broadcasting services. Aspects of the bill are also supported by the White House, in the person of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who addressed the BBG meeting on August 13. Rhodes argued that the State Department needs a stronger voice in the leadership of Voice of America (VOA). This stronger voice is mandated in H.R. 4490, though the provision has caused gnashing of teeth at VOA, where some staff want to be a government-funded CNN, “pure” of policy content. In fact, VOA management continuously tries to downgrade or eliminate VOA editorials that explain U.S. foreign policy.
But action in the Senate is still pending. A companion bill to H.R. 4490, sponsored by Senator Bob Corker (R–TN), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remains in drafting. With Congress back for just a brief September session before the November elections, time is short.
While there is time, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should consider the following changes to improve H.R. 4490:
- Remove the new broadcasting advisory boards from any role in selecting a director. Directors should be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
- Support continued shortwave broadcasting, which is being eliminated by the current BBG in favor of Internet messaging. Vast areas of the world are not on the Web, or even have electricity.
- Move the Office of Cuba Broadcasting in with the other surrogate radio broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, whose mission is to promote democracy and broadcast news to countries under authoritarian regimes.
The Senate must move quickly to consider its bill. The United States needs strong messaging to troubled regions of the world. This no time for complacency or delay.