We Have Great News, but We Can't Let You Hear It – Smith-Mundt and the 2.0 World

July 14, 2011

By Ursula Oaks

In Dearborn, Michigan, where the country's largest concentration of Arab-Americans and a significant diaspora from the Arab world live, there's a great demand for Arabic-language news. Al Jazeera is a readily available option; Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa, produced by the U.S.-funded Middle East Broadcasting Networks, are not.

In Minneapolis, a Somali-language FM radio station that serves a community from which many young men have been recruited to the Islamist extremist group Al-Shabab was turned away when it inquired about airing Somali-language content from the Voice of America.

Radio Marti broadcasts from its Miami studios to the island of Cuba – but it cannot legally be aired on the radio in Florida.

What's going on?

Within the borders of the United States, American citizens have no legal access, via traditional broadcast and print media, to programming developed by their own government for non-U.S. audiences. This is because of the Smith-Mundt Act, otherwise known as th e U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, or Public Law   80-402.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy convened a public meeting to discuss the implications of the legislation in the global information age. The topic isn't a new one for the commission, but there appears to be new momentum behind the idea that something needs to be done about Smith-Mundt. In today's world, the blurring of physical borders by the Internet and social media make a ban on the domestic consumption of certain news and information produced by the American government untenable, if not laughable. Worse, as panelists and audience members at the meeting pointed out, it is hampering U.S. public diplomacy and America's relationships with the world in troubling ways.

Matt Armstrong, who became executive director of the commission this spring, is a significant force behind the renewed dialogue. Matt wrote about Smith-Mundt and its impact in World Policy Review last year:

American public diplomacy has been the subject of many reports and much discussion over the past few years. But one rarely examined element is the true impact of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which for all practical purposes labels U.S. public diplomacy and government broadcasting as propaganda. The law imposes a geographic segregation of audiences between those inside the U.S. and those outside it, based on the fear that content aimed at audiences abroad might "spill over" into the U.S. This not only shows a lack of confidence and understanding of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, it also ignores the ways in which information and people now move across porous, often non-existent borders with incredible speed and ease, to both create and empower dynamic diasporas.

The impact of the "firewall" created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you're likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why -- and how -- would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name.

To Matt's last point above, the director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors , Jeff Trimble, shared with the commission an exchange he had with a Russian official about the ban. The official asked him how the U.S. government could possibly expect Russians to consider programming by U.S.-funded broadcasters as anything other than blatant propaganda given that it doesn't consider that programming appropriate for consumption by its own citizens. The BBG, led by a bipartisan nine-member board, is responsible for U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio Sawa, and Alhurra Television. It recently began shopping a proposal on Capitol Hill that would lift the Smith-Mundt ban on BBG-produced programming.

The conversation at Tuesday's meeting was food for thought on some key issues. One of them was this: BBG's programming is readily available on the Internet, where Americans can readily view and listen to it. Why shouldn't Americans be able also to receive that content on television – which is still how the majority of Americans get their daily news - or from radio and print sources? Good, reliable international news is difficult to find in the United States, particularly as major networks have slashed spending on foreign news bureaus. NAFSA, in its advocacy, has often talked about the need to develop a stronger "domestic constituency for foreign policy." One important way to do that is to ensure that Americans have access to news about what their government is doing in other countries and how U.S. policies are impacting people around the world. Another key point, drawn out by Andrew Cedar, a senior advisor in the office of the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, is that it is counterproductive for the United States to make it difficult for credible influencers such as bloggers and diaspora communities here at home to access this content. The capacity of these individuals to be effective conveyers of information, through word of mouth and social media, far outweighs that of the U.S. government.

When Smith-Mundt became law, U.S. policymakers were highly motivated to ensure that the emergence of propaganda machines like those seen in Nazi Germany and behind the Iron Curtain would not be seen here. The ban was aimed at avoiding the propagandizing of foreign news produced by the U.S. government – and there was also concern that U.S.-supported foreign news outlets would be unfair competitors for domestic media. For these reasons, today's debate includes significant discussion of what kind of structure is needed to guide and maintain the integrity of U.S. public diplomacy (which extends far beyond foreign broadcasting, of course) in the 2.0 world. Dozens of reports have thrown out ideas, but none have had much staying power yet. Legislation to "modernize" the Smith-Mundt Act has been introduced by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R – Tex.), but it is not clear whether Congress has the political will or enough interest in this issue to take it on once and for all. And of course, the debate continues about which agencies should be resourced to do public diplomacy, and who should lead it. The Department of Defense has moved decisively into this area of work and today dominates in the area of "strategic communications" – a critical role, said panelists at Tuesday's meeting, given the military's on-the-ground need to communicate quickly and effectively with foreign audiences in the countries where Americans soldiers are deployed. Still, some in Washington are calling for a retooling of the balance of activity and resources, with a tilt back toward the State Department.

Add your view: How do your international students get news from home? Do you hear study abroad returnees talking about hearing Voice of America or Radio Liberty in the countries where they studied? In what ways do you think international education is impacted by U.S.-government communications with the rest of the world, and by the lack of access by American citizens to those news sources?


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