16 January 2009

Smith-Mundt Symposium

There was a symposium this past week here in Washington on the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. We’ve written about this legislation before because it formally bars the dissemination in the United States of official American information aimed at foreign audiences. That includes the news and information generated by the Voice of America.

In fact, here is what the act says: “information produced by VOA for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.”

Of course, the legislation has been somewhat outdated by technology. Audiences with access to the Internet or satellite TV or even a shortwave can still access VOA programming --- even if they live in the United States.

The point is, VOA is not allowed to intentionally target the U.S. audience. (And there is nothing illegal about Americans viewing, reading or listening to VOA material.)

In any case, the symposium heard a variety of voices on the subject of Smith-Mundt and the broader topic of U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Some 200 people attended -- officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress as well as former U.S. Information Agency officials, some representatives from VOA and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, members of the academic community and others. There was no immediate consensus on whether Smith-Mundt should be thrown out altogether, made less restrictive or made tougher.

But former VOA Director David Jackson, a panelist at the symposium, did make a couple of points we believe are worth repeating here. First of all, he stressed that all those working in the VOA headquarters in Washington are journalists. He said U.S. officials can “no more tell them what to write” than they can tell journalists at the Washington Post (newspaper) what to write. And he suggested that removal of the Smith-Mundt restrictions on VOA could help silence critics who claim the contents of VOA shows must be suspicious if the American people aren’t allowed to see them.

Well, we’ll just have to wait and see if Congress and the next administration consider this a priority.

In the meantime, more information about the symposium can be viewed at the “Mountainrunner” website of its organizer, Matt Armstrong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am originally from Taiwan, and listened to VOA before. It was refreshing vs the local government controlled media. I deeply understand the post WWII mentality fear of a Nazi type media control run by the government to brainwash domestic Americans. However, it is my opionion times have changed with internet, and its many facets of information desimination. That the news provided from VOA is of particular importance and interest to local domestic Americans 30% of which have ties to countries overseas, and are concerned about news from there. All radio stations and media have their slant, for better or worse. US domestic media has enough viewpoints to give a diverse view of every subject. I would like to see this Smith-Mundt law repealed and allow this important news source to gain more access. It has been the first in many wold wide news scoops including the quake in China, and the Tibet uprising, and the recent 8.8 Taiwan mudslides. We need VOA be heard here too with equal access.