The Cable

Exclusive: New Bill Requires Voice of America to Toe U.S. Line

A powerful pair of lawmakers in the House of Representatives have agreed on major legislation to overhaul Voice of America and other government-funded broadcasting outlets that could have implications for the broadcaster's editorial independence, Foreign Policy has learned.

The new legislation tweaks the language of VOA's mission to explicitly outline the organization's role in supporting U.S. "public diplomacy" and the "policies" of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.

"It is time for broad reforms; now more than ever, U.S. international broadcasts must be effective," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement.

The bill is the result of a year's worth of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans working hand-in-glove with their counterparts in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It has the support of the committee's most senior Democrat, New York Congressman Eliot Engel, and will get a vote on Wednesday in the committee. Corresponding bipartisan legislation is currently in the works in the Senate.

Besides clarifying VOA's mission, the bill reorganizes the federal agency responsible for supervising U.S.-funded media outlets, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Instead of being led by a group of part-time board members, the bill establishes a full-time, day-to-day agency head. It also consolidates Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network -- other foreign-facing broadcast outlets -- into a single non-federal organization, and aims to save costs by downsizing the number of federal contractors at the outlets in the years to come.

Within VOA, the proposed reforms to its mission may prove the most controversial. Founded in 1942 as a part of the Office of War Information, the VOA was originally tasked with countering Japanese and Nazi propaganda. In the 1950s, it moved to the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency where it focused its efforts on countering Communist propaganda. In later years, VOA concentrated on providing news to individuals living under repressive regimes. In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed its principles into law, emphasizing VOA's mission as an "accurate, objective, and comprehensive" source of news, as opposed to a propaganda outlet.

For many years since then, employees at the TV and radio broadcaster have insisted on viewing themselves as objective journalists as opposed to instruments of American foreign policy. On some rare occasions, that sense of independence has resulted in news stories that depict the United States in a less than favorable light.

"The persian News Network of Voice of America has been documented to show anti-American bias," the conservative Heritage Foundation alleged in a policy brief this month.

Such instances have led congressional overseers to wonder why they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a news outlet without a more explicitly pro-American editorial focus.

"This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts," reads a summary of the new bill. "The VOA charter states that VOA will provide a ‘clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States ... Over time, VOA has abandoned this mission."

Lynne Weil, a spokesperson for the BBG, declined to weigh in on the proposal. "The agency does not comment on pending legislation," she said.

The timing of the bill comes as the crisis in Ukraine has prompted a renewed information war between Washington and Moscow. In recent weeks, the Kremlin has put its TV network RT into overdrive to castigate Western involvement in Ukraine and denounce the Kiev government as right-wing fascists.  Meanwhile, Congress passed a bill last month providing more authority to VOA and RFE/RL to expand broadcasting into Ukraine and eastern Europe. The BBG's budget request for fiscal year 2015 is $721 million. A copy of the bill appears below:

 

Bbg Reform Text (Final)

The Cable

Russian Debt Downgraded as Western Leaders Talk Sanctions

Western leaders say they're readying further sanctions on Russia for meddling in Eastern Ukraine over the past few weeks. Though so far it's just talk, the threats are already having the desired effect of pushing Russia's economy further into recession by making investors wary of what might come next.

Rating company Standard & Poor's downgraded Russia's debt Friday and warned that it could be further demoted to "junk" status if more sanctions are imposed. S&P said the downgrade was a result of increased risk to the Russian economy because people have moved so much money -- $51 billion so far this year -- out of the country. That compares to just $63 billion in all of 2013.

"The tense geopolitical situation between Russia and Ukraine could see additional significant outflows of both foreign and domestic capital from the Russian economy and hence further undermine already weakening growth prospects," the ratings firm said in a statement.

Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev dismissed the downgrade, saying it was "partially due to a politically motivated decision," according to a state-run news report.

President Barack Obama spoke with the leaders of France, Germany, Britain, and Italy on Friday about coordinating further costs to be imposed on Russia. The leaders agreed that Russia had failed to live up to a April 17 agreement to lessen tensions by asking pro-Russia militants in eastern Ukraine to lay down their arms, according to a White House statement.

So far, the U.S. and the European Union have levied only limited sanctions against a handful of individuals and one bank, but the threat of further sanctions, especially against the Russian financial sector, has cast a cloud over the Russian economy that has accelerated already poor conditions. While western countries aren't yet expected to sanction whole sections of the Russian economy, Obama said in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday that the U.S. was laying the groundwork for broader sanctions that could be deployed if Russia invades eastern Ukraine.

Following the downgrade of Russian debt, the country's central bank increased benchmark interest rates a half point to seven percent to combat inflation caused by the declining value of the ruble, which has fallen almost eight percent against the dollar so far this year. That's on top of a one and a half point rate hike in March, which the bank had initially said was only temporary. The bank said in a statement Friday that uncertainty about the "international political situation" was holding back production and investment.

Standard Bank analyst Tim Ash said the downgrade was "bad for investment, bad for capital flows, and bad for broader political, economic reform."

But it's unclear whether this bad economic news affects President Vladimir Putin's decision-making. Putin said Thursday that sanctions were hurting the Russian economy, but not critically.

"Overall they are harmful for everyone, they destroy the global economy (and) are dishonorable on the part of those who use those types of tools," Putin said in St. Petersburg, according to Reuters.

Western leaders have said many times that Putin could choose to calm the crisis in Ukraine, but President Obama didn't sound optimistic that would happen. Speaking at a joint press conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, he said that a new round of targeted sanctions wouldn't "necessarily solve the problem."

"What we've been trying to do is to continually raise the costs for Russia of their actions while still leaving the possibility of them moving in a different direction," Obama said.

EPA/ARTUR SHVARTS