Committee Passes Bipartisan Measures to Reform U.S. International Broadcasting, Address the Conflict in Syria, Improve International Religious Freedom Protections

Apr 30, 2014

Washington, D.C. – Today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed bipartisan reform legislation to improve the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters, such as the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN).  The Committee also unanimously passed a measure calling for an end to attacks on Syrian civilians and expanded humanitarian access; a measure calling for establishment of a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal; and an international religious freedom measure to protect cemeteries from desecration.  [A summary of today’s Committee action, including adopted amendments, will be available HERE.]

H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, was introduced this week by Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) following their visit last week to Ukraine.

On passage of H.R. 4490, Chairman Royce said:  “Last week’s visit to Ukraine underscored the need to reform U.S. international broadcasting.  The Russian propaganda machine is now in overdrive in its attempts to undermine regional stability.  U.S. broadcasters are competing with a hand tied behind their back.  That’s because the bureaucratic structure over the top of these radios – the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG – is broken.  So while our enemies are working 24/7 on their public information campaigns, the organization at the helm of ours meets once a month.  That’s a recipe for failure.  This legislation makes dramatic reforms to the current organization to be more effective and efficiently use our finite resources.”

The legislation:

·         Fixes Well-documented Management Problems. Currently, five U.S. international broadcasting entities report to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (“BBG”), a group of 9 part-time individuals, who meet once a month to make management decisions. Important decisions can languish if the Board does not have a quorum, which is often the case. This legislation would establish a full-time, day-to-day agency head and reduce the role of the Board to a more appropriate advisory capacity. These changes have been recommended by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General and are widely recognized as needed reforms.

·         Clarifies the Mission of the Voice of America (VOA). The VOA charter states that VOA will provide a “clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States.” Over time, VOA has abandoned this mission and adopted a mission of the so-called “surrogates” to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies. This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts.

·         Consolidates “the Freedom Broadcasters.” Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) have the same mission – to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies – with different geographic reach. Consolidating these organizations into a single, non-federal organization will achieve cost savings, allow for closer collaboration, and improve responsiveness. While the consolidation would mean shared administrative staff and other economies of scale, they would retain their distinct “brand names.”

The Committee also unanimously passed: 

H. Res. 520, which Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engel introduced last month, calls for an end to attacks on Syrian civilians, expanded humanitarian access, withdrawal of U.S. recognition of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and an Administration strategy for U.S. engagement on this humanitarian and national security crisis;

H. Con. Res. 51, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), calls for the establishment of a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal. 

On passage of the Syria measures, Chairman Royce said:  “It’s been over three years since Syrian protestors peacefully gathered to call for democratic reforms, only to be fired upon my forces loyal to Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad.  Since then, the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 150,000 people and displaced millions, while fueling the expansion of terrorist groups throughout the region.  This crisis is a humanitarian nightmare.  In addition to calling for the Obama Administration to withdraw its official, diplomatic recognition of the Assad regime, the measures passed by the Committee today demand an end to attacks on civilian aid workers such as Syrian American medical professionals and call for the establishment of an international tribunal to hold accountable those responsible for the numerous atrocities in Syria.  Congressional approval of these measures will send a strong signal of support to the Syrian people.” 

Finally, the Committee unanimously passed: 

H.R. 4028, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), amends the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include the desecration of cemeteries among the many forms of violations of the right to religious freedom. 

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