Making Radio Free Asia Permanent

In another sign that we need a strategic review of our public diplomacy – the White House / NSC Section 1055 report required by Congress provided a framework not a strategy – an element of America’s global engagement continues to exist on appropriations and not a permanent authorization. The situation was similar over sixty years ago when the State Department went to Congress to make VOA and other outreach methods and mediums permanent rather than, as was the case for a period, operating only on appropriations in the absence of Congressional authorization. As the most visibly active member of Congress on the issue of public diplomacy, Senate of House (there are Representatives on Armed Services Committees who are active behind the scenes), it is no surprise Senator Richard Lugar introduced a bill last month to permanently authorize Radio Free Asia.

U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar introduced legislation today that would promote the free dissemination of information in East Asia through the permanent authorization of Radio Free Asia (S.3104).

Sens. Kaufman (D-DE), Franken (D-MN), and Inouye (D-HI) are original cosponsors of the bill.

Congress created Radio Free Asia (RFA) in 1996 to broadcast news into Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, North Korea, Tibet and Vietnam in local languages and dialects. The hope at the time was that the nations served by RFA would loosen their grip on censorship as their economies modernized and living standards improved; however, these reforms never materialized.

The human rights non-governmental organization Freedom House, which monitors press freedom throughout the world, has noted that censorship and intimidation of the media have worsened in the areas served by RFA, particularly in the last five years as documented in its annual Freedom of the Press Index. RFA still can only reach most of its audiences through short-wave radio and via the internet using proxy servers. Governments routinely jam AM transmissions and hack into RFA’s websites and servers.

RFA has been funded by Congressional appropriations each year since it began broadcasting but it has never been permanently authorized. Rather, its continued existence is dependent on annual legislation extending its life by another fiscal year.

“Recent high-profile cyber attacks underscore the reality that certain governments still believe in blocking uncensored news from their citizens,” Sen. Lugar said. “Permanent legal authority for Radio Free Asia would send a strong signal that the U.S. supports freedom of the press across the globe.”

Tomorrow, March 12, will be the 14th anniversary of RFA.

Now if we could only get the members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors confirmed. Also, it would be helpful if we stopped pretending that freedom of the press is worldwide: we hamstring our own domestic press, as well as our global public diplomacy, by inhibiting access to RFA, VOA, RFE/RL and other information products while no such prohibition exists on Chinese, Iranian, Russian, Al Qaeda, or other material.