President Barack Obama this week signed into law a provision that lifts a nearly 65-year ban on domestic distribution of BBG content. But for BBG broadcasters, it’s business as usual…
Generally known as the Smith-Mundt Act, after its sponsors, a portion of the 1948 law prevented content intended for global audiences from being broadcast or distributed in the United States. It was intended, in part, to prevent what were then wartime overseas propaganda efforts from being directed toward U.S. citizens.
Worth noting, there is much more to Smith-Mundt than the domestic dissemination ban – much of it beneficial to U.S. international broadcasting.
However, much has changed since the Cold War, making the domestic dissemination ban portion of Smith-Mundt less necessary, and even potentially problematic.
For example, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, originally a CIA-funded entity, left that agency in 1972, found its way into the United States Information Agency, which was ultimately spun into the Broadcasting Board of Governors. That’s a brief history, but one meant to show the evolution toward its current situation — one guarded by a firewall intended to protect its journalistic integrity.
Radio Martí joined VOA and RFE/RL in 1985, along with Radio Free Asia in 1996, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks eight years later.
As content offerings grew, so did requests for that content from a rising number of U.S.-based ethnic broadcasters serving diaspora populations. Under the domestic dissemination ban, those requests, which ranged from Sudanese broadcasters in Minnesota to Cuban community broadcasters in Miami, were officially denied. The truth is, however, that many ethnic broadcasters used them regardless.
As internet distribution became available, keeping a lid on BBG content in the U.S. became even more difficult. The BBG could certainly geocode the content to prevent U.S. audiences from accessing it, but censoring the internet in a country with a founding tenet of freedom of the press was seen as a non-starter.
But even geocoding would not be the end of it. VOA Russian, for example, can be seen almost daily in New York City as local cable channel operators import Russian-language channels from overseas.
Enforcing the Smith-Mundt dissemination ban would become akin to a game of whac-a-mole.
In 2010, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act was introduced, intended to lift the ban but not repeal the entire act. The Act was reintroduced in 2011, with a similar provision finally passing and signed on January 2, 2013. Lifting the ban was one of the goals set forth in the BBG’s most recent strategic plan.
For broadcasters, the change means little on a day-to-day basis – other than they need to worry less about their content popping up in the U.S.
Still, no money can be used to create content directed at domestic audiences, and there are no plans to measure any domestic audiences that may occur.