Transparency in government took a huge step forward on January 3. On that day, President Obama signed into law the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act as an amendment to the 2013 Defense Authorization Bill. With the new revision, State Department foreign programming may be broadcast in the United States, though it may not be specifically produced for American consumption.
Incongruously for a country founded on democratic values and freedom of expression, Americans have until now been banned from accessing information and programming produced by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) for foreign publics—as though it was too toxic for domestic consumption. With the new revision, programming may be broadcast in the United States, though it may not be specifically produced for American consumption.
The original intent of the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (introduced by former Senators H. Alexander Smith (D–NJ) and Karl Mundt (R–SD)) was to establish the institutions of U.S. public diplomacy as part of the country’s Cold War arsenal in the war of ideas against Soviet Communism. It created the government’s international broadcaster Voice of America and the U.S. Information Agency (folded into the State Department in 1999), which housed its exchange and cultural programs. The Act was amended two decades later to prevent the U.S. government from propagandizing its own citizens, banning the domestic broadcasting of its informational products.
The consequences have been unfortunate anomalies. Americans are now able to access via cable television the programs of government broadcasters from around the world: China’s CCTV, Russia Today, the BBC World Service, and France 1, to name a few. But Voice of America and the government’s other broadcasting units remained off-limits.
At the same time, Congress has not been able to perform proper oversight, having Smith–Mundt conflicts cited to them by State Department and BBG lawyers. The BBG is famous for its defiance of congressional directives, and mismanagement of its services has been rampant.
In December, the director of Radio Liberty (a semi-independent U.S. government broadcaster targeting the former Soviet Union), Steven Korn, was terminated by the Broadcasting Board of Governors for summarily and without warning or reason firing most of Radio Liberty’s Moscow staff. Meanwhile, the Persian service of Voice of America again stands accused of pandering to the Iranian leadership, skewing its broadcasts so as not to offend the powers in Tehran.
It is high time transparency was brought to bear on these key tools of U.S. foreign policy, and with the revision of the Smith–Mundt Act, the work can now begin. American taxpayers deserve to know what their government is broadcasting and disseminating to other countries in the name of the United States.