Censoring the Voice of America

Censoring the Voice of America: Why is it OK to broadcast terrorist propaganda but not taxpayer-funded media reports? by Matt Armstrong, 6 August 2009, in ForeignPolicy.com

Earlier this year, a community radio station in Minneapolis asked Voice of America (VOA) for permission to retransmit its news coverage on the increasingly volatile situation in Somalia. The VOA audio files it requested were freely available online without copyright or any licensing requirements. The radio station’s intentions were simple enough: Producers hoped to offer an informative, Somali-language alternative to the terrorist propaganda that is streaming into Minneapolis, where the United States’ largest Somali community resides. Over the last year or more,al-Shabab, an al Qaeda linked Somali militia, has successfully recruited two dozen or more Somali-Americans to return home and fight. The radio station was grasping for a remedy.

It all seemed straightforward enough until VOA turned down the request for the Somali-language programming. In the United States, airing a program produced by a U.S. public diplomacy radio or television station such as VOA is illegal. Oddly, though, airing similar programs produced by foreign governments — or even terrorist groups — is not. As a result, the same professional journalists, editors, and public diplomacy officers whom we trust to inform and engage the world are considered more threatening to Americans than terrorist propaganda — like the stuff pouring into Minneapolis. …

But compare this scenario with what might have happened if the community radio station had instead asked to broadcast a program made by a foreign government-owned channel, say China’s CCTV or the Kremlin’s Russia Today. At one time, broadcasters were required to label media from foreign governments as “political propaganda” under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act. Not anymore; as part of the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, Congress changed the law and replaced the mandatory “propaganda” label to a discretionary one, “informational material.” In practice, the disclosure is hardly used. CCTV, Russia Today, BBC, and other foreign government-financed broadcasts are increasingly available inside the United States.