Reps Mac Thornberry and Adam Smith push bill to ease Smith-Mundt domestic dissemination ban on US international broadcasting (updated).

Posted: 21 May 2012   Print   Send a link
Washington Times, 15 May 2012, Shaun Waterman: "Two lawmakers — a Democrat and a Republican — are pushing a bill to update a Cold War-era law on propaganda efforts by federal agencies that critics say hinders the U.S. war of ideas against Muslim extremists. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was designed 'to counter communism during the Cold War, [and] is outdated for the conflicts of today,' said Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat. ... At issue are provisions of the law banning the domestic dissemination of government-produced or -funded communications aimed at a foreign audience, to keep anti-communist and other kinds of U.S. propaganda out of America. But experts say such restrictions do not make sense in the Internet age. ... The two lawmakers, authors of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (HR 5736), say the current law restricts the broadcast in the United States of any programs produced by Voice of America. In 2010, for instance, emergency broadcasts in Creole, aimed to help the stricken survivors of the Haitian earthquake, could not be carried by Sirius satellite radio, according to a joint statement from Mr. Smith and Mr. Thornberry."

Reps Thornberry and Smith press release, 15 May 2012: "[I]n 2009 the law prohibited a Minneapolis-based radio station with a large Somali-American audience from replaying a Voice of America-produced piece rebutting terrorist propaganda. Even 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. Due to legal questions surrounding interpretations of the law, domestic news organizations have been reluctant to use U.S. international broadcasters for source material. Private news organizations are also hampered by some of the restrictions. In 2009, the Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Reuters each inaccurately reported poll results, based on a single Honduran newspaper source, that a plurality of Hondurans supported the coup against the government. VOA reported the Gallup poll results about the coup accurately."

In general, I favor the repeal of the Smith Mundt domestic dissemination prohibition. American have a right to see or hear what US international broadcasting is telling the world, and US ethnic radio stations can provide a useful public service by relaying news from USIB outlets. On the other hand, any such legislation must have language to ensure that the budget and resources of US international broadcasting are not expropriated into a domestic public relations campaign.

The domestic dissemination prohibition was enacted in part to prevent the US government from engaging in a domestic propaganda campaign. If US international broadcasting adheres to the principles of balanced and objective journalism, which it must do to maintain an audience, propaganda is no longer an issue. Competition with US domestic media was another reason for the prohibition, and this becomes even more of an issue as US private media that cover international news move behind paywalls.

As I have written several times before, the "internet age" has not made the domestic dissemination prohibition obsolete. To the contrary, it has finally made the prohibition enforceable by dint of geoblocking. Content of US international broadcasting websites can be geoblocked, preventing access by US IP addresses, should the executives of USIB choose to observe Smith-Mundt. On the other hand, VOA and RFE shortwave broadcasts were routinely heard in the United States, and no internet technology could block them.

See also, 23 Feb 2012, Matt Armstrong: "A Brief History of the Smith-Mundt Act and Why Changing It Matters."

Update: BuzzFeed, 18 May 2012, Michael Hastings: "The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. 'It removes the protection for Americans,' says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. 'It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.'"

@mountainrunner Matt Armstrong, 21 May 2012: "The irony: pundits propagandize Smith-Mundt does something it doesn't: never applied to all of Gov."

@PD_Dan, 21 May 2012: "@mountainrunner mentioned piece also confuses #publicdiplomacy with #Defense Information Operations and Public Affairs - quite off the mark."