Until this month, a vast ocean of U.S. programming produced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks could only be viewed or listened to at broadcast quality in foreign countries. It’s being branded by proponents as an attempt at transparency, but critics of a new law say the United States government just got the green-light to use propaganda made for foreign audiences on the American public.
A longstanding federal law made it illegal for the US Department of State to share domestically the internally-authored news stories sent to American-operated outlets broadcasting around the globe. All of that changed effective July 2, when the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was given permission to let US households tune-in to hear the type of programming that has previously only been allowed in outside nations.
The restriction of these broadcasts was due to the Smith-Mundt Act, a long standing piece of legislation that has been amended numerous times over the years, The Act has ensured for decades that government-made media intended for foreign audiences doesn’t end up on radio networks broadcast within the US. An amendment tagged onto the National Defense Authorization Act removed that prohibition this year, however, and as of earlier this month those news stories meant for nations abroad can now be heard easily by American ears.
When Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced their changes last year, they said their bill would modify “a Cold War-era law that hampers diplomatic, defense and other agencies’ ability to communicate in the twenty-first century. “Effective strategic communication and public diplomacy should be front-and-center as we work to roll back al-Qaeda’s and other violent extremists’ influence among disaffected populations,” Rep. Smith wrote in May 2012 in support of his bill.
But a Buzzfeed article published days later by late journalist Michael Hastings opened a can of worms on Smith and Thornberry, and the lawmakers were forced to quickly diffuse critics who said their bill made it so that the government could effectuate propaganda on its own public.
If anyone needed a reminder of the dangers of domestic propaganda efforts, the past 12 months provided ample reasons. Last year, two USA Today journalists were ensnared in a propaganda campaign after reporting about millions of dollars in back taxes owed by the Pentagon’s top propaganda contractor in Afghanistan. Eventually, one of the co-owners of the firm confessed to creating phony websites and Twitter accounts to smear the journalists anonymously.