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WASHINGTON, Jul 17 2013 (IPS) - Following the amendment of a long-standing U.S. law, people in this country will now be exposed to news which is produced by the U.S. government.
On Jul. 2, a change to the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act, also known as the Smith-Mundt Act, came into effect, reversing a ban on the State Department and U.S. international broadcasting agencies which had prevented them from disseminating their programme materials within U.S. borders.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the U.S. federal government agency which oversees all U.S. government-supported media internationally, notes that individuals residing in the U.S. will now have access to vast amounts of new information.
“This is quality, award-winning journalism,” Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for BBG, told IPS, “so why shouldn’t Americans be able to see and hear it in broadcast quality?”
The BBG will now be able to respond positively to requests for content from “U.S.-based media, universities, non-governmental organizations, and individuals.” This means that local and national news providers in the U.S. can relay material produced by BBG sources if they so desire.
Opponents complain government-sponsored news being delivered domestically is akin to propaganda, but the BBG argues that it actually represents an advance for U.S. transparency, as citizens now will have a better understanding of what kind of information its government propagates abroad.
It deserves noting, however, that U.S. citizens have always had access to BBG material through the internet.
BBG agencies include the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).
Weil points out that even prior to the change, U.S. independent media could cite reports from these organisations and even rebroadcast them if they were pulled from the internet or by other means. The difference is that now these media can request and receive entire government-sponsored reports in broadcast quality, which they can then relay to U.S. audiences.
In its mission statement, the BBG says it seeks to “engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
Unlike traditional, independent news sources, the BBG has on its board representatives from the State Department and is funded entirely with tax dollars designated for “public diplomacy”.
“[P]ublic diplomacy,” according to the University of Southern California (USC) Center on Public Diplomacy, “was developed partly to distance overseas governmental information activities from the term ‘propaganda’, which had acquired pejorative connotations.”
The Smith-Mundt Act was established in 1948, at the outset of the Cold War, to authorize the government to conduct public diplomacy abroad, and it has faced significant opposition ever since.
In the 1970s, toward the end of the Vietnam War, U.S. Senator William Fulbright led the move to block U.S.-sponsored news agencies from having access to domestic consumers. He wrote a book in which he denounced government news as propaganda and said the agencies “should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.”
Weil rejects outright accusations that BBG organisations engage in propaganda.
“Propaganda is a pejorative term and should not be applied to what our journalists do. They report the truth and apply proper journalistic standards to the work they do,” Weil told IPS.
She asserts that the term “propaganda” is limited to information which is untrue or inaccurate, but media watchdog groups note that not all propaganda is made up of falsehoods.
“There can be subtle propaganda, as well as less subtle propaganda which actually ‘spins’ the facts,” Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a non-profit investigative reporting group, told IPS.
Dictionary definitions seem to support Graves’ position. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, for example, includes a definition of “propaganda” as “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.”
Semantics aside, the agencies under BBG do have a mandate to present accurate news and are prohibited from acting as mouthpiece for the government.
“VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government. They accept no treatment or assistance from U.S. government officials or agencies that is more favorable or less favorable than that granted to staff of private-sector news agencies,” the VOA code states, for example.
The BBG agencies are also prohibited from producing material in order to influence U.S. public opinion.
Graves says she “appreciates” these guidelines but is not confident they will be enforced.
“The nature of news is that it influences public opinion,” Graves says, “so how do you prove or prevent news that seeks to do that?”
According to Weil, the BBG agencies are “tasked with presenting accurate information in places where this is otherwise difficult or impossible.” She notes that BBG journalists have died or gone missing because of their work.
Graves says she also appreciates the importance of public diplomacy in areas where access to information is limited, but she is sceptical that the U.S., with its vast array of media sources, qualifies.
Also, she is concerned that many citizens do not pay close attention to the ultimate source of the news they receive.
“Some people are very specific about how they get their news, but others won’t necessarily realise where the information is coming from,” she told IPS.
“I don’t know that many people will recognise or even know what Voice of America is.”
Since the change went into effect, Weil says the BBG has received a multitude of requests for content, including some from major media outlets.
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