The Easiest Legislation Congress Can Pass this Year: The Ticker

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By Katherine Brown

The Persian News Network, the U.S. government's broadcasting arm to the Iranian people, was the topic of a Bloomberg View editorial today. If you haven't heard of it before, that's probably because of an antiquated clause in Public Law 80-402: the  U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948.

Popularly known as the "Smith-Mundt Act" -- named after Senator Alexander Smith and Representative Karl Mundt -- the law pertains to U.S. public diplomacy efforts that seek to engage and inform global citizens about the U.S. It authorized U.S.-sponsored international broadcasts like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. But through the course of the Cold War, legislators who wanted to shield Americans from possible disinformation and propaganda modified the law to include a ban on the domestic distribution of U.S. content created for non-American audiences.

Today, this clause seems nonsensical. It's caused frustrating, often laughable, roadblocks for U.S. officials working in an otherwise transnational, digital media landscape. For instance, when the January 2010 earthquake hit in Haiti, VOA wanted to make its Creole broadcast available to Haitians through satellite radios donated by Sirius. But it couldn't due to the chance American citizens might hear it.

U.S. citizens can watch a panoply of news channels from around the world, including Russia Today and the BBC. But the benign, journalistic programming of U.S.-sponsored international broadcasting is off limits. In 2009, a local Minneapolis radio station wanted to replay VOA news programs in the Somali language for their Somali diaspora to counter extremist propaganda from al-Shabab, a militia associated with al Qaeda. When the station sought VOA's approval, it was denied in the name of Smith-Mundt. As Matt Armstrong, the former executive director for the now-defunct U.S. Public Diplomacy Advisory Commission, pointed out in an August 2009 Foreign Policy article, "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."

Most everyone involved in U.S. public diplomacy policy seems ready for the Smith-Mundt Act's overhaul -- especially the Broadcasting Board of Governors, who oversee U.S. international broadcasting efforts. They included the repeal of the domestic distribution ban as a goal in their recently-released strategic plan for 2012-16.

In July 2010, Representative Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, and Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, introduced the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act. It would have, among other things, removed the statutory prohibition against the dissemination of State Department and BBG material within the U.S. But with just five months to pass it during an election year, the bill died in the 111th Congress.

More than a year into the 112th Congress, the bill has yet to be re-introduced. Rep. Thornberry's office told Bloomberg last week it plans to offer a new version of the bill sometime this year. It would be wise to do so as soon as possible. Even an obvious, bi-partisan initiative like this will need time if it is going to pass during another election year.

(Katherine Brown is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial staff.)

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-0- Feb/21/2012 18:35 GMT