They need not worry. The proposed change pertains only to government-funded, civilian international broadcasters. Changing the law as H.R. 5736 proposes would have no effect on restricting the Department of Defense or other government agencies from producing content for audiences in the United States or elsewhere, because the law doesn’t currently impose any.

That’s not to say the proposed repeal shouldn’t raise questions. It should, but not questions about propagandizing US citizens. The questions should focus on why we’re so worried about the content we screen overseas, and why we haven’t gained official access to said content sooner in the current porous media environment.

We can’t, as of now, really know whether the content of VOA is in fact truthful or propagandistic, routinely biased for or against the United States, whether the content champions or condemns American foreign policy. This content, broadcast to audiences around the world, can be exempted from American freedom of information requests, and American ethnic media outlets are prevented from rebroadcasting news that would serve their communities. With the ban, all we know for certain is that content is financed by the US government. This doesn’t necessarily make it propaganda, but it certainly does make the content worthy of the same scrutiny savvy audiences apply to all media.

Smith-Mundt also needs amending because it doesn’t make sense to officially restrict content that US citizens can easily find online. Case in point: a documentary about opium production in Afghanistan can’t officially be shown on a US college campus even though the footage is easily available on YouTube. Domestic barriers to access have impeded coverage stateside, preventing the kinds of investigative reports and scholarly studies allowing journalists and academics to look at how the US depicts itself internationally. It’s appropriate to begin pulling back the veil on discussion of all these issues.

The proposed change to the Smith-Mundt Act will bring the law into the 21st century and give Americans access to the same content as audiences around the world. What took so long?

To learn more: For a treasure trove of information about Smith-Mundt, its history and proposals for its revision see, generally, this site. For a detailed post about H.R. 5736, see this post.

Emily T. Metzgar is a former US diplomat and a professor at the Indiana University School of Journalism