Last November, the Russian government-sponsored news outlets, RT and Sputnik News, registered as foreign agents in the US at the orders of the Department of Justice. Soon after, a congressional committee stripped them of their accreditation to report from the US Congress.
These moves followed allegations by US intelligence agencies that the organisations formed part of the Kremlin “propaganda machine” alleged to have interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
As debates about the influence of foreign-funded media on the American public spilled from the halls of Congress into TV studios and newsrooms, a fact commonly overlooked was that the US government itself is hardly a stranger when it comes to broadcasting into other countries.
Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are the flagships in a network of TV and radio stations that spans 100 countries.
Today, the operation is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a federal agency whose budget – which, at $685m dwarfs the Kremlin’s estimated annual spend on foreign media – comes from the Department of State after approval from Congress.
US international broadcasting began with Voice of America, which was started during World War II by the Office of War Information as a vehicle to counter Nazi propaganda.
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty began life during the early years of the Cold War as products of “psychological warfare” projects run by the CIA, which provided their funding and even senior staff into the 1970s.
According to Arch Puddington, a historian of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and a former journalist there, “the idea behind Radio Free Europe was that this would be like an opposition broadcasting station in the Communist world. When you look back at the broad history of the Cold War, RFE and RL played an important role, and the evidence is that when these countries got their independence, their leaders and their freedom fighters, if you will, gave great credit to RFE and RL journalists.”
The CIA’s involvement in funding Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty was exposed and swiftly terminated in the early 1970s. Likewise, an official charter was signed into law in 1976 that brought an end to the close relationship between the United States Information Agency – the body within the Department of State that oversaw Voice of America – and the CIA by introducing a barrier, a kind of firewall, to prevent government interference.
US foreign-funded media undoubtedly do provide public-interest journalism in countries with limited press freedom. Yet the umbilical relationship between VOA and RFE/RL and the US government has led many to dispute their claims to be providing objective news to their audiences around the world.
“Their budget comes from the state. There is no independence,” maintains Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University. “Yes, news is being communicated. But in a way that pushes forward a mobilisation of support, solidarity, ideological conformity with American foreign policy.”
That notion, that US state-sponsored broadcasters are merely a soft facade for the Department of State’s often more brutish behaviour, is one that Amanda Bennett, the current VOA director, rejects out of hand.
“We are journalists, and we believe that we promulgate American values by promulgating the basic things that are important to America …The legal charter under which we operate specifically addresses the fact that we’re to operate independently of the US government,” she says.
Yet Dan Robinson, VOA’s former chief Washington correspondent, insists that in his experience such a separation, between journalism and government influence, was sometimes more theory than reality.
“For example, in the run-up to the 2003 invasion [of Iraq] … one of the discussion shows received a very specific message that we didn’t want to go into too much of the information regarding developments in Iraq at the time, and in fact, one of the main correspondents … was kind of taken off doing these shows because of this kind of pressure,” says Robinson.
In response to US actions against RT and Sputnik, Moscow has since forced Voice of America and Radio Free Europe to register as foreign agents in Russia. Whether one considers their output journalism or propaganda, the US’s attack on Kremlin-funded media may well have ended up jeopardising their own state-sponsored media operation.
Amanda Bennet, director, Voice of America
Arch Puddington, author, Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty
Dan Robinson, former chief Washington correspondent, Voice of America
Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies, Columbia University
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