It is forbidden by the laws of the United States for Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Farda to broadcast directly to American citizens. When I point this out to many people, their knee-jerk reaction is to say “but I can get it on my satellite/internet!” So, what!? Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is also accessible through the same sources. So are the Egyptian, Cuban, Russian, Chinese, etc. state-run stations. Are all these state-run stations sanctioned to broadcast in US? The fact is that jamming radio and TV signals is not easy, and it will also make selling the democracy and free speech claims harder if the government was to engage in suppression of information. As it stands, the American citizens are not exposed to VOA propaganda as much as they would be if the broadcasts were direct.
The history of propaganda in the US is as old as the country itself. After all, what else can justify eradication of millions of Native Americans on the grounds that they’re savages or enslavement of millions of others because their color is a sign of their inferiority? However, for the moment, we can look at post-WWII history and all the relevant US laws.
VOA is controlled by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which also runs Radio and TV Mari (targeting Cuba), Radio Sawa and AlHurra TV (in Arabic), Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (targeting eastern Europe), and Radio Free Asia. All these stations can be accessed via the internet. Radio Farda is actually a joint project of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcast from Prague, Czech Republic. The secretary of state is a member of the BBG, hence reiterating the role of the BBG as a government agency. In 1999, BBG was made an independent federal agency in charge of non-military broadcasting by the US government.
BBG and the stations it governs are only a few strands in a much larger web of propaganda organizations used by US government. United States Information Agency (USIA) is a central component of this web of propaganda. USIA’s motto is “telling America’s story to the world.” In reality, its job is SELLING CORPORATE AMERICA’S INTRESTS TO THE WORLD. For a short primer into how all these organizations were created and function you can read Nancy Snow’s “Propaganda, Inc. Selling America’s Culture to the World.”
The oldest law that bans targeting of American citizens by VOA is the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Section 501 of this law explicitly states that “information produced by Voice of America for audiences outside of United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.” This act is a double edged sword. While it protects the American citizens against US government propaganda, it also protects the US government from scrutiny by the very same citizens whose taxes pay for VOA. According to a 1998 ruling by the US Court of Appeals, VOA is exempt from releasing information to the public in response to requests made per Freedom of Information Act.
The Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1972 added a ban on dissemination within United States of any “information about the United States, its people, and its policies which are prepared for abroad.” The Zorinsky Amendment also added a new prohibition that “no funds authorized for United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States, and no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States.”
In 1994, USIA started providing internet services for VOA. At least the legislative branch takes exposure of American’s to misinformation serious enough that VOA was forced to use computer servers from outside of US for its internet broadcast. All internet servers that provide broadcast of the BBG propaganda stations are placed outside of US.
And if these laws are not enough, we can look at the case of Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Kenneth Tomlinson, who used to work for VOA and is the head of the BBG. He was appointed to run CPB by Bush. Congress created CPB in order to provide Americans with non-commercial broadcasting. CPB provides funding for public networks such as National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting System. The Bush cartel has always known the effective value of propaganda and has been masterful at using it. CPB was the quintessential fly in Bush cartel’s ointment. Under the guise of bringing balance to CPB, Kenneth Tomlinson was appointed as its chairman. For two years, Tomlinson ran CPB in the same manner as BBG, turning it essentially into a propaganda arm of the Bush administration. He was finally forced out after a report by the CPB inspector general found him in violation of federal laws and ethics rules. This indirectly confirms that the rules by which BBG operates are unethical and illegal when applied to domestic broadcasting.
It is clear that at least the legislative branch of the US government considers VOA and all the other stations ran by the BBG (including Radio Farda) to be propaganda and has enacted laws to protect the American people. One has to wonder, why would a democracy need such a elaborate propaganda scheme? A democracy’s strength comes from the fact that the sovereign power is the people. And all the people need in order to exercise their power is the truth. The only thing that a democracy needs to do is to tell the truth domestically and internationally. If the US government wants to tell America’s story to the world, then it only needs to tell the truth. The absolute truth, that’s America’s story and it’s the most effective way of combating dictatorships abroad, unless the aim is something else.
And ultimately, the aim IS something else. I had a conversation with a gentleman who had just come from Iran. I was quiet speechless with his bold declaration that life in Afghanistan is better than life in Iran!!! Remember, this is a comparison between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is far more misery, suppression of basic human rights, and fundamentalism in the former than in the latter. And, of course the main difference is the ‘news’ broadcast into Iran by VOA, the prime source of ‘news’ for this gentleman and millions of Iranians.
Even after I explained to him the propaganda aspects of VOA, he told me that he would still trust it for as a source of news. This, in my opinion, is the ultimate manifestation of a mind rotten to its core by age old imperialism. Many Iranians, outside and specially inside of Iran, would rather run away from the arms of domestic propaganda and embrace foreign propaganda, all the while not exerting the effort to find the real truth. Many Iranians would shy away with disgust at the suggestion of working for the IRIB, while they would eagerly pounce at a chance to become a cogwheel in the great propaganda machine called VOA.
It reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” In Huxley’s novel, people are genetically engineered to belong to a particular class. The genetic engineering is reinforced by mental conditioning in the form of messages that are repeated over and over. Each class in the various strata of the society has its own propaganda designed to make them happy to be whatever they are. Equivalently, the US government has created one set of propaganda to brainwash its domestic audience, and a different, inferior set to brainwash the grunts outside of its borders. Sadly, a good portion of the grunts are eager to take in their designated dose of propaganda and keep on being grunts. What a brave new world we live in. To quote from Huxley’s original inspiration, Shakespeare:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world
That has such people in’t!”