U.S. President Barack Obama has approved legislation that would consolidate oversight of U.S. nonmilitary broadcasting in the hands of a single chief executive, an overhaul that supporters laud as a much-needed reform but critics warn could endanger journalistic independence.
The legislation, part of a larger bill on U.S. defense spending in 2017 that Obama signed into law on December 23, restructures the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency that oversees civilian government broadcasting and media operations such as RFE/RL and Voice of America.
The new law will replace the BBG's bipartisan board with a presidentially appointed advisory board that will not have decision-making powers. Instead, those powers will be placed in the hands of a CEO appointed by the White House and subject to Senate confirmation.
Proponents of the law, which was spearheaded by Representative Ed Royce (Republican-California) and backed by Obama's administration, say it will improve performance of U.S. international broadcasting by scrapping a board consisting of members who served part-time and met infrequently.
But critics have raised concerns that it could damage the journalistic integrity of the media outlets under the agency's umbrella. Such powers in the hands of a White House-appointed CEO, they argue, could impinge on editorial firewalls between the outlets and the government.
The BBG's current CEO, John Lansing, remains in that position, which was created last year. But opponents of the bill have warned that President-elect Donald Trump -- who has had a contentious relationship with the press -- could seek to install a loyalist who would wield the agency as a tool of Trump's agenda.
In an interview published by Fox News on December 13, Royce dismissed these warnings as "spin" and "hysteria.
"It's a smokescreen that some have put up. This has nothing to do with the incoming president of the United States. This has nothing to do with Donald Trump," Royce was quoted as saying.
Lansing said in a note to staffers earlier this month that the legislation makes "no change to the firewall between the federal government and the journalists of our five networks."
"Maintaining our journalistic independence, and our credibility worldwide, remains of the utmost importance," Lansing wrote.
In a White House statement after the signing of the bill, Obama said: "My Administration strongly supports the bill's structural reform of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which streamlines BBG operations and reduces inefficiencies, while retaining the longstanding statutory firewall, protecting against interference with and maintaining the professional independence of the agency's journalists and broadcasters and thus their credibility as sources of independent news and information."
While VOA and Radio Marti, which broadcasts to Cuba, are federal agencies that are formally part of the U.S. government, RFE/RL and its sister organizations Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks are independent corporations with their own editorial boards, funded by Congress. All, however, are overseen by the BBG.