Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”
VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.
The Pashto service isn’t alone. Many Iranians have questioned why VOA’s Persian Service and Radio Farda have in the past (I haven’t followed it in recent years) seemed so sympathetic to pro-regime reformists. Indeed, many mocked them as “Radio Khatami.” While diplomats might understandably think more favorably toward Iranian reformists than Iranian hardliners, the fact of the matter is that neither represents the broad array of Iranians who are, at best, overwhelmingly apathetic toward the regime imposed upon them, if not actively hostile to it.
It’s clear that VOA should not be simply an ordinary news service. The private sector handles that better, and CNN, CNBC, and even Fox are increasingly available abroad. Even in autocratic countries like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, residents can access a plethora of satellite stations, even when such access isn’t really legal.
So, here’s a modest proposal: The Broadcasting Board of Governors should identify in each country hostile to the United States or behind an iron curtain what journalists in that country aren’t allowed to pursue. In Iran, it could be stories about the leaders’ moral and financial corruption, strong women, or the arguments of dissident religious leaders. In Turkey, journalists are not able to cover fully Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s corruption and that of his cronies, or explore fully Kurdish issues.
In Algeria, it could be interviews with refugees who have escaped their captivity in the Tindouf refugee camps or the plight of the Berbers; and in North Korea and Eritrea, it could be just about anything. Given limited resources, VOA broadcasting to that country should focus on those banned subjects. That would guarantee relevance, an audience, and invariably bolster American interests as well.