Efforts afoot to make State Dept. blogs, Tweets and websites legal

You know the old joke: If “pro” is the opposite of “con,” what is the opposite of “progress?”

According to The Cable, Congress is finally looking at amending the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 that forbade the non-military foreign policy agencies from communicating directly to the American people. (Much ado about State Department propaganda) That means Congress is finally understanding that more people get their information from sources other than the afternoon newspaper and three radio networks.

The original idea was fine: The law banned the US government from using its outreach programs, such as The Voice of America, to influence US audiences. Some smarter members of Congress and the Truman Administration did not want to have the US equivalent of Pravda or The People’s Daily.

But then came the Internet. And I  remember how VOA worried that they had a real problem.

If, they argued, the VOA started posting news on this new thing called the Internet, how could they make sure that none of their output was seen or heard by a domestic US audience? There was actually talk back in the day to set up the VOA site so no American ISP could access it.

In the end, cooler and smarter heads prevailed. Now anyone can see and hear what VOA is sending around the world.

And this brings us to the State Department’s use of the Internet.

Just about every US embassy has a website. (Yes, the design sucks, but it was built as a one-size fits all out of Washington. I understand that is changing soon.) To get around the restrictions of the website design and to reach a wider audience, many embassies also have Facebook sites. (Click here for the US embassy in Honduras site.)

Many ambassadors also Tweet (As in my wife: @USAmbHondruas) and blog. These two items have developed into an excellent way for ambassadors to reach out to audiences not only in their host countries but also to people around the world concerned with the issues raised by the ambassadors. And it gets a discussion going.

According to Josh Rogin, maybe all this Internet outreach has been on the edge of illegal. Let’s all hope the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 passes.

Why is it important that  the State Department and other non-military foreign affairs agencies be allowed to communicate with the American people?

Basically it is to help educate the American people about what is being done in their name. And to educate them on how inexpensive all that work really is.

A large majority of Americans think the non-military foreign affairs budget accounts for about 25% of the US budget. A smaller majority thinks 5% is about the right amount to spend on diplomats and development aid programs. The actual number is less than 1% of the federal budget.

And there are those who want to cut that even more.

If the American people can more easily see that visits of music and sports stars to other countries help build trust or that a small development program convinces a small farmer to stay in his country instead of illegally coming to the United States, then maybe that is not so bad. Maybe if the American people see that there are thousands of US diplomats working each day to make sure treaties are enforced and that American citizens are treated fairly and that US businesses have a fair chance at exporting goods, then maybe it’s not so bad that the Smith-Mundt law has not been harshly enforced.

It would just be nice if the diplomats and VOA could keep doing what they are doing legally.

The update for Smith-Mundt was intended to recognize that U.S. public diplomacy needs to compete on the Internet and through satellite channels and therefore the law preventing this information from being available to U.S. citizens was simply obsolete.

Oh, and in case anyone is worried that if the changes occur, VOA will run the US media out of business (yes, there are some people who are so concerned), here is the answer:

Section 1437 of the existing legislation requires the State Department to defer to private media whenever possible and Section 1462 requires State to withdraw from a government information activity whenever a private media source is found as an adequate replacement.

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Filed under Connections, Freedom of access, Freedom of Information, Story Ideas

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