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House Panel Advances Reforms of US International Media

FILE - Islamic State militants use propaganda, such as a video purportedly showing conquest of Ethiopian Christians, to portray themselves as fierce and powerful.
FILE - Islamic State militants use propaganda, such as a video purportedly showing conquest of Ethiopian Christians, to portray themselves as fierce and powerful.

The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Thursday advanced a bill that its members said would reform government-supported civilian international media to better counter sophisticated propaganda from countries such as Russia and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.

Chairman Ed Royce, in opening the markup session, said the U.S. International Communications Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 2323) is needed to contend with "weaponized information" that spreads conspiracy theories and undermines national security.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Eliot L. Engel of New York, said the bill "would bring a much-needed overhaul" by revamping management structure, consolidating various broadcasting organizations and clarifying roles.

Currently, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency, oversees networks including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).

Those networks’ directors now report to the BBG, whose nine part-time members meet every other month. To streamline decision-making, the legislation mandates installing a full-time chief executive. The BBG would assume an advisory role.

The bill calls for consolidating several of the networks into the nonfederal "Freedom Broadcasters" group. Its members – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network – would continue to offer uncensored news. In restrictive countries, "they act as a free press would – if one were allowed to operate," Engel said.

Committee members said the consolidation would save money and improve collaboration among the networks.

Engel said the measure also "clarifies the role" of the Voice of America. Instead of requiring VOA to "promote" U.S. policies, the revised legislation instructs the agency to "present" them. The distinction removes an advocacy expectation.

"Some of the networks’ journalists have been wary that their reporting might be misshapen or tainted by association with U.S. public diplomacy," Donald M. Bishop, a member of the nonprofit Public Diplomacy Council, wrote in an opinion piece published by The Hill this week. "So long as the VOA Charter remains in the law, these concerns are misplaced.…"

The charter states not only that "VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive," but that it "will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies."

The bill will advance to the full House for consideration and, if it passes, go on to the Senate.

The BBG says its programing, offered in 61 languages, has a measured audience of 215 million in more than 100 countries.

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    The Voice of America provides news and information in more than 40 languages to an estimated weekly audience of over 326 million people. Stories with the VOA News byline are the work of multiple VOA journalists and may contain information from wire service reports.