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Lawmakers: US Government Broadcasters Crucial to Soft Power Outreach

U.S. lawmakers have told the directors of two U.S. government-funded international broadcasting stations, that they have an important role in projecting "soft power" to foreign audiences. We report on testimony by the directors of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty about measures taken to maintain the free flow of information via radio, television and the Internet in the face of restrictions imposed by foreign governments.

Lawmakers are concerned about obstacles in places like China, Iran and Russia to the free flow of information and independent reporting. The role U.S. government-funded broadcasters play in overcoming these barriers was the main focus of a Europe subcommittee hearing.

Members of Congress have condemned Iranian government restrictions on the Internet, and criticized steps by the Chinese government to tighten surveillance of Internet traffic, and government pressure on radio, television and print outlets in Russia.

Referring to the impact of technology amid post-election turmoil in Iran, the panel chairman Democrat Robert Wexler said VOA and RFE/RL play a crucial role as "smart power tools" as the U.S. faces foreign policy challenges, anti-Americanism, and efforts by governments to suppress media.

"This hearing comes at a critical time as the world's most repressive regimes in places such as Iran, crack down, suppress and stifle freedom of the media and expression," he said. "RFE/RL and VOA are critical smart power tools that are on the front line of international broadcasting, providing unfettered information globally in multiple languages and formats and acting as media surrogates where freedom of the press does not exist."

VOA Director Danforth Austin said the station's television broadcasts have a substantial audience in Iran, and it is careful to scrutinize information coming out of the country.

To illustrate dangers VOA journalists face, he pointed to a Taliban attack on the home of a VOA stringer in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, and constant threats against VOA news stringers by Islamist militants in Somalia.

In Russia, Austin says tightening government controls have cost VOA its radio and television affiliates, forcing the station to re-define its delivery strategies.

"In Russia, we are now a multimedia web-based service produced for a country where Internet usage is growing rapidly," he said. "At a very critical juncture in U.S.-Russia relations, this strategy allows audiences to increase their understanding of American policies, politics and culture and American views of Russia. It also frankly galvanizes conversation among its audience through utilization of these so-called Web 2.0 tools."

Critics say the decision by the non-partisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which oversees U.S. international broadcasting to end Russian-language radio and television broadcasts in favor of an Internet-focused approach damaged efforts to maintain the flow of news to people in the country.

Both the VOA director and RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin stressed that neither station is in the business of broadcasting propaganda, but do help project fundamental American ideals.

"What we do supports American interests, it supports enlightened American interests, and I believe if you believe in development and democracy, or let me put it another way, if you believe in combating and fighting things like nationalism and extremism, if you believe in fighting and combating things like anti-semitism and anti-Americanism, if you are an American policymaker you have to avail yourself of the full spectrum of policy opportunities and instruments, but I don't think you get any traction if you don't believe, support and pursue the free flow of information and ideas, discussion, debate, dissent no matter what country, what time what place," he said.

VOA Director Austin underscored that organization's commitment to programming that is consistently reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective and comprehensive, which he said allows audiences to "cut through the din of shrill propaganda and the fog of misinformation and disinformation."

Referring to both VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as "communication marketing tools", Georgia Democrat Representative David Scott said both stations must play a role in repairing a damaged American image abroad.

"We have and we must live up to our ideals, and also understand that we have got to repair the damage to our reputation around the world," he said. "Critical to this is VOA, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty."

Republican Representative Ed Royce said U.S. government-funded broadcasters, which include Deewa Radio under the VOA, must play a greater role in responding to an information challenge posed by militant radio broadcasters in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"They say to control information is to control the battlefield," he said. "In Afghanistan that is going to be increasingly true because of the amount of influence that the Gulf states are putting in terms of resources into the hands of radical Islam in that area. Fortunately, 70 percent of the Afghans now listen to [U.S-funded] Radio Free Afghanistan, but all through the region people are [still] listening to sharia radio, it is a war of ideas and you gentlemen are going to have to be part of the solution to this."

During the hearing, Representative Wexler said President Barack Obama has made international broadcasting a top priority for American foreign policy, saying it is imperative that Congress gives U.S.-government funded broadcasters the tools they need to maintain free flow of information.

Congress has proposed a $746 million budget for U.S. international broadcasting activities for the 2010 fiscal year, including VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other operations under the Broadcasting Board of Governors.