The United States government operates an entire network of broadcasters that distribute news in languages from English to Uzbek, but an "anti-propaganda" law has prevented their news from being aired domestically — until now. Earlier this month a legal change went into effect that many are worried will enable government-run organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe — all arms of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — to distribute their federally-funded radio and TV shows to the unsuspecting public. But even with the change, major advocacy groups don't think that the government is planning to flood the airwaves with propaganda.
“There’s always a natural suspicion of government funded things.”
The BBG's aim is to broadcast news into countries where state-run media makes it impossible to get objective journalism. Its staff has the freedom to write and publish what they please, and they're legally barred from attempting to sway public opinion in the United States. But as a BBG spokesperson told The Verge, “There’s always a natural suspicion of government funded things.”
That very suspicion helped to create the ban in the first place. During the Cold War, fear of Soviet infiltration led to Congress blocking domestic transmissions by the BBG. But even if the organization was used for propaganda in the past, advocacy group Free Press doesn't think that's the case any longer. "In its current incarnation, [the BBG] isn't really used explicitly in that way," Josh Stearns, the organization's journalism director, told The Verge. Instead, the BBG has worked to become a reputable organization for journalism. "I don't think we need to be any more skeptical of it than traditional commercial broadcast media," Stearns said.
But because American citizens largely haven't been able to see what the BBG reports, public oversight of the organization has been limited. "At least now we can access the content, listen for ourselves, and hold the government accountable," Stearns said. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also come out in favor of the change on the grounds that it should increase government transparency.
Until now, even requests made through the Freedom of Information Act couldn't be used to access news by the BBG. But despite the tight restrictions, the organization has actually been publishing its reports and broadcasts online for years now. "They could Google it," a BBG spokesperson said, "But we weren't legally allowed to send them a link!"
The outward motive is transparency, not propaganda
Now that the law has changed, the BBG still doesn't plan on broadcasting to the American public — at least not directly. Other organizations are welcome to play back reports that were made by the BBG, which could be a useful service for Americans who don't speak English but do speak one of the other 60 languages that the organization operates in.
The broadcast restrictions were done away with by an amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act, which was passed last year but didn't go into effect until July 2nd. In a piece commenting on the amendment, the ACLU suggested that more safeguards could be included to prevent propaganda — but it didn't really think that the BBG's news would become an issue: "The American public will be able to take government public diplomacy communications with a sufficient grain of salt."