Proposed Voice of America Reforms a Step Backwards for U.S. Diplomacy

by Cameron Scherer

In the wake of a reignited battle between Russia and the West to win the hearts and minds of post-Soviet states, the United States ought to re-evaluate a proposed bill that will quietly undermine some of the very principles for which it is fighting. 

The tragic downing of MH17 last week and the chaotic aftermath have once again thrust the information war between Russia and the West back into the international spotlight.

What seems obvious to the rest of the world – that Russian separatists in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine shot down a passenger plane, killing all 298 on board – is mere fiction in Russia, where, as The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe expertly details, conspiracy theories have completely supplanted the truth.  Russia Today’s Sara Firth followed in Liz Wahl’s footprints by dramatically resigning from the network in protest of its coverage of the crash.

As the war between Russia and Ukraine rages on, the need for objective reporting to drown out Kremlin-funded propaganda is critical. And yet, Congress is silently working to undermine the principles of an independent Fifth Estate.

Last May, the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee passed with bi-partisan support the U.S. International Communications Reform Act, a seemingly mundane bill that nonetheless could have implications for the way the United States conducts diplomacy today. Co-sponsored by representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), the bill proposes broad reforms to the Voice of America, the U.S.-funded media outlet that currently broadcasts in 45 languages to reach 164 million people around the world.

The act, which has prompted mixed reactions among VOA journalists and management, would make “explicit that the Voice of America shall present the policies of the United States,” and would consolidate affiliates Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Network into the single Freedom News Network. These changes stand in subtle but significant contrast to the outlet’s 1976 charter that states:

  1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

  2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

  3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.

Recent questions surrounding management aside, since its evolution as a World War II vehicle to counter Nazi propaganda, VOA has racked up a number of successes in countries desperately in need of timely and accurate information. To cite just two examples: in 2008, before Myanmar had undergone its first democratic reforms and the country’s media sector was entirely underground, VOA and RFA broadcasts from across the border provided citizens with critical warnings about Cyclone Nargis that the state-run media failed to broadcast, thereby allowing citizens to make life-or-death decisions before the storm hit. And, as reported in Foreign Policy, in Turkmenistan, which ranked 178 of 180 in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, RFE helped spur a wave of local and national reporting that provided citizens with a much needed alternative to the strictly controlled government narrative. This bill threatens VOA’s legitimacy as a credible source of information.

While VOA and Congress do not have a combative history, VOA has not explicitly towed the government line, and at times its stories have criticized U.S. polices: just last month, the Heritage Foundation accused VOA’s Iran branch of demonstrating “anti-American bias.”

If the timing of this bill – just as Russia launched its full-offensive against Ukraine, deploying both military personnel and doubling down on its Kremlin-funded propaganda machine – hardly seems like a coincidence, that’s because it was not.

The U.S. shouldn’t be trying to beat Putin at his own game; it should be playing a different game altogether.

Royce’s April “visit to Ukraine underscored the need to reform U.S. international broadcasting,” he said in a statement announcing the bill. “The Russian propaganda machine is now in overdrive in its attempts to undermine regional stability. U.S. broadcasters are competing with a hand tied behind their back.”

Indeed, long before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine, without a robust independent media of its own, had been saturated in Russian state media, which is not subtle in its comparison of opposition forces to Nazis or fascists. The prevalence of Russian propaganda – with Russia Today (RT)as its primary vehicle – has only intensified in recent months, and undoubtedly contributed to the swell in pro-Russia mentality. (Full disclosure: Internews, where I work, implements media development programs in Ukraine.)

“Ukrainians live in parallel realities,” a Radio Free Europe journalist said to McClatchy about the discrepant narratives that exist throughout Ukraine.  Stories of differing reports coming out of the clashes in Donestk only further confirm this account. But the antidote to Russian propaganda isn’t western propaganda; it’s independent, objective, and accurate journalism.

And while this bill may have gained little traction in the U.S. media, it did not go unnoticed by the Russians: in a statement to BuzzFeed, RT’s Margarita Simonyan did not hesitate to go on the offensive:

This legislation brings nothing new. The fact is, Voice of America has been promoting the US foreign policy agenda around the world since 1942. If VOA et al. have been struggling with winning the hearts and minds of people in Ukraine and other countries, maybe it’s because their message does not resonate with their target audience, and not because the Broadcasting Board of Governors meets once a month instead of every day. 

Make no mistake: VOA should by no means aim to conform to the standards of Russian elites. At the same time, the U.S. shouldn’t be trying to beat Putin at his own game; it should be playing a different game altogether.

The United States is a country founded upon values of freedom and democracy, values that it ought to promote in repressive societies. But America is not a perfect country. It makes mistakes, and at times fails to uphold the commitments it has made to its people and to the international community.

But the hallmark of a thriving democracy is not the suppression criticism of its government’s policies; it is not even the ability to thrive despite this criticism. Rather, a truly healthy democratic society is one that welcomes criticism both from within and from beyond its borders, and one that embraces this feedback as an opportunity for growth and evolution.

It is dubious that, due to European constraints, the United States will be able to impose the degree of sanctions on Russian institutions necessary to impact Putin’s course of action. Among the steps that the U.S. can take in the meantime, however, is exposing Ukrainians to objective reporting that is now more important than ever before.

It should not be wide-eyed or naïve to demand that one’s government practices what it preaches domestically and abroad. The United States is no longer the world’s only superpower, but its capacity for influencing societies using soft power is still well documented. What better way to demonstrate to the people of Ukraine and the rest of the world that the United States proudly defends democratic, Western principles than reaffirming that the voices that really matter in a society are the voices of the people.

Cameron Scherer works at Internews, a non-profit in Washington, D.C. She is the manager of Charged Affairs.