USC scholars recommend domestic dissemination of VOA, RFE/RL.

Posted: 05 Feb 2010   Print   Send a link
"Relax restrictions on domestic consumption of news reports by Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty and other government-funded international broadcasters. These broadcasters have talented journalists in bureaus around the world, and the United States spends half again as much on international broadcasts aimed at foreign audiences as it spends on public broadcasting. Yet these entities are barred by law from distributing their news reports to an American audience. Case in point: A Minnesota radio station wanted to run broadcasts by the VOA’s Somali service so that its audience – mainly Somalis who were getting news from other entities broadcasting in the Somalian language – would hear reports by a reliable source of news. Adhering to a law adopted 60 years ago, the VOA was forced to say no. In an era when all Americans, including expatriate populations, have access to both outstanding news sources and propaganda from around the world, it makes little sense to deny them excellent reports funded by the United States. Technology is making this prohibition mostly obsolete. It’s no longer possible to quarantine newscasts by VOA, RFE/RL, Alhurra and others, which are gaining a big domestic audience on the Web. A recognition of that reality would make this nearly $700 million annual investment in news coverage more useful to the American public." David Westphal, "Public Policy and Funding the News, USC Center on Communication & Policy, January 2010. With introduction by former VOA director Geoffrey Cowan.
     "Since 1948, through congressional passage of the Smith-Mundt Act and made even more severe with subsequent legislation, Americans were essentially not to hear what their government was broadcasting to countries abroad. Today, though, technology (the Internet and direct broadcast systems) has rendered the ban meaningless. Americans surfing the Web are able to listen or watch virtually any broadcast or program intended for a foreign audience." Working paper on international broadcasting from ibid.
     The restriction is on domestic dissemination, not domestic consumption. American shortwave listeners have always been able to hear VOA broadcasts, rendering the Smith Mundt domestic dissemination prohibition meaningless. But now, as VOA phases out shortwave in favor of internet delivery, the ban is becoming feasible. As discussed in a previous post, some broadcasters use IP addresses to restrict the distribution of their content to certain parts of the world. (Savvy internet users know how to work around these restrictions, but average users don't.) VOA therefore could, if it chooses to do so, or if it is directed to do so, use this same capability to comply with Smith-Mundt.
     There are two good reasons for US international broadcasting to be excused from the domestic dissemination prohibition. The first is that immigrant communities in the United States appreciate news about their their home countries in their home languages. VOA, RFE/RL, and RFA provide such news, so this valuable public service should not be restricted via the internet or on local radio stations. (Some radio stations in the United States use VOA programming on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis. Because VOA content is generally not protected by copyright, they use it without asking the permission that VOA would not be able to grant.) Second, VOA could expand its news coverage by bartering its international reporting for the domestic reporting of US broadcasting organizations. Such an exchange would be possible only by repealing the domestic dissemination ban on VOA content.
     Legislation that eliminates domestic dissemination restrictions on US international broadcasting should be carefully worded. It must be specified that funds allocated for international broadcasting are to be used for international broadcasting. There could be the temptation for an administration to use those monies for some sort of domestic communication campaign. Senior managers of US international broadcasting might want to cater to politically expeditious US audiences, at the expense of their audiences abroad.