By Jordan Warlick, Policy Advisor
Access to accurate, unbiased information is imperative for a functioning democracy. Citizens need access to credible news in order to make informed decisions about the future of their nation. According to the most recent U.S. National Security Strategy, “an informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation. For generations, [U.S.] society has protected free press, free speech, and free thought.”
As part of its commitment to press freedom worldwide, the United States supports the development of local independent media in countries where government-controlled media dominates the information landscape. It also brings independent media to these information-starved spots through specific services—like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and others—under the aegis of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
The mission of USAGM, which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, is vital to the U.S. national interest: “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” USAGM networks reach more than 350 million people across the globe, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news.
Because providing access to credible media is a more effective tool of diplomacy than attempting to push U.S. propaganda overseas, USAGM and the media organizations it oversees are deliberately, legally structured against acting like a propaganda mouthpiece for the U.S. government. The credibility and reliability of Voice of America and other USAGM networks hinge on a statutory firewall that protects them from political interference and has been in place since President Gerald Ford signed Voice of America’s charter in 1976. More than 40 years of bipartisan support for USAGM has been critical to its success.
In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the International Broadcasting Act, which established the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)—now USAGM—to oversee Voice of America and its sister networks. The legislation specifically mandated that broadcasting overseen by the BBG must “be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism.” It also required that the Director of BBG to “respect the professional independence and integrity” of the U.S. international broadcasting services it oversees.
When the BBG became the U.S. Agency for Global Media in 2017, USAGM retained the same statutory commitments to protecting the independence of its networks, including that the Chief Executive Officer of USAGM must “respect the independence and integrity” of the broadcasting services.
Voice of America’s mission today—“producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media”—would not be possible without this political firewall. Like any other privately owned media outlet, these networks must remain free to produce independent reporting, including that which is critical of U.S. government policies.
Unlike many other state-controlled international media outlets, including Russia’s RT and Sputnik or China’s CCTV, USAGM networks have a storied history of bringing credible, reliable news to audiences behind the Iron Curtain, the Great Firewall of China, and beyond. It would be particularly damaging if the United States was perceived to be attempting to tear down the legal firewall protecting Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the other international broadcasters from political interference.