U.S. funded news coverage overseas no longer illegal in U.S.

A ban on the United States delivering government-originated programming directly to its citizens has been quietly lifted and the Twin Cities Somali audience is one reason why, the journal Foreign Policy reports.

Up until two weeks ago, the Smith-Mundt Act prohibited domestic access to information intended for foreign audiences. Informing the domestic audience, Congress said, is the work of the nation’s private news industry.

Foreign Policy said a target audience of government news agencies — such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, operating under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors — is the Somali audience:

A former U.S. government source with knowledge of the BBG says the organization is no Pravda, but it does advance U.S. interests in more subtle ways. In Somalia, for instance, VOA serves as counterprogramming to outlets peddling anti-American or jihadist sentiment. “Somalis have three options for news,” the source said, “word of mouth, al-Shabab, or VOA Somalia.”

This partially explains the push to allow BBG broadcasts on local radio stations in the United States. The agency wants to reach diaspora communities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota’s significant Somali expat community. “Those people can get al-Shabab, they can get Russia Today, but they couldn’t get access to their taxpayer-funded news sources like VOA Somalia,” the source said. “It was silly.”

This became an issue in 2009, when a Twin Cities community radio station allegedly asked to retransmit a Voice of America segment on  al-Shabab, Foreign Policy says. It was denied by authorities, citing the Smith-Mundt law, and led two congressmen to push for its repeal in a defense reauthorization bill. They also cited the Minnesota story as justification.

At the time, Foreign Policy’s Matt Armstrong argued for its repeal:

U.S. radio and television stations can broadcast news and information programs produced by foreign governments and terrorists … but not VOA. It’s impossible to say whether those Somali-language VOA broadcasts would have deterred any of the four Somali-Americans who have died in the last year fighting for al-Shabab (including the first American suicide bomber — a feat that al Qaeda has yet to match). But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

Now, the FBI is investigating the recent disappearances of more than 20 young men suspected of traveling to Somalia to join the militia. Two others from the community have been indicted for supporting al-Shabab. The charges include fighting for a terrorist organization.

“The changes recognize that in the digital age, complete bans on domestic dissemination of materials produced for overseas audiences are outdated,” VOA’s chief David Ensor writes. “That should make it easier for Americans to learn more about what we do.”

Indeed, the VOA already provides a website directed toward an audience in Somalia. The programming is available to anyone in the United States with a computer. Since the law was lifted earlier this month, some radio stations in the U.S. have inquired about carrying VOA foreign language programming, VOA spokesman Kyle King said today.

“One would think of diaspora audiences in the United States. We will evaluate all requests for use of our programs and if we conclude that the release of the program in the United States will help further our overseas mission we now have the authority to grant the request,” he said.

And that makes sense, the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy at the University of Southern California, says:

Technology is making this prohibition mostly obsolete. It’s no longer possible to quarantine newscasts by VOA, RFE/RL, Alhurra and others, which are gaining a big domestic audience on the Web. A recognition of that reality would make this nearly $700 million annual investment in news coverage more useful to the American public.

The Center repeats the Minneapolis radio station story but, like every other instance of the tale, does not identify the station involved.

KFAI Radio in Minneapolis is one of the few broadcast sources for Somali news in the country. Messages to the station management have not yet been returned, however.

Coincidentally, he VOA launched a Somali language TV program today.