At Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Portman Presses Biden Administration Nominee on Role of U.S. Media Agency in Combating Russian, North Korean Disinformation and Censorship

June 7, 2022 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) pressed Amanda Bennett, nominee to be the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), on the importance of the agency reestablishing trust with its audiences so that it can more effectively promote independent, objective reporting and fight the threat of disinformation by authoritarian regimes around the world. Portman highlighted U.S. broadcast organizations working to fight disinformation in places like North Korea, including Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and the real-life impact of their work. Senator Portman highlighted his bill, the Otto Warmbier North Korea Censorship and Surveillance Act – bipartisan legislation that would provide $10 million annually for the next five years to counter North Korea’s repressive censorship and surveillance state, while also encouraging sanctions on those that enable this repressive information environment both in and outside of North Korea. Portman was also concerned by Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation about their invasion into Ukraine, noting how important it was that the world see the good work that America does as liberators and questioned whether Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty should recommence its physical operations in Russia to better counteract the disinformation in that country.

A transcript of Senator Portman’s questioning can be found below and the video can be found here.

Senator Portman: “Thank you very much Chairman Kaine and to Ranking Member Barrasso. Thank you all for having this hearing and Ms. Bennett, I appreciate your willingness to step up and serve our country again after your service at the Voice of America. And welcome to your family, including your husband Don Graham, who I see back behind you somewhere lurking. I want to talk a little about my concern about what’s happened to the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Without having leadership in place, it’s been kind of adrift. It’s my sense that the staff has had some morale challenges and that stable leadership is really needed right now. I think you probably know better than most, having been director of Voice of America, the importance of USAGM’s reliability and consistency in terms of the foreign audience that trusts them, and therefore, sets them apart from other news sources. So my question to you is, if confirmed, it would be up to you to re-establish that trust – and by the way, with Congress and the American people as well, but certainly the foreign audiences – what are your plans and how would you empower the networks to protect freedom and democracy in countries that are increasingly, as we’ve heard today, under threat from Russia, from China, from other authoritarian regimes?”

Ms. Amanda Bennett: “Thank you Senator. And I’m glad you used the word trust because one of the hallmarks of my leadership throughout my career has been the fact that I want to cultivate trust with everyone that our news organization touches – with the staff, with its stakeholders, with its audiences. Trust is one of the most important things. Without it, you can’t do anything going forward. So going in and reestablishing trust inside USAGM, I hope will go a long ways towards helping improve the morale there because I saw that even in the most difficult circumstances, even when the morale was the lowest, no one ever, ever, ever abandoned  their faith in the mission or their passion for the mission. And so helping people get the tools, and the processes, and the support that they need to do that mission, I think will go a long way toward restoring trust and restoring a morale that is essential to operating effectively.”

Senator Portman: “Well thank you Ms. Bennett. I think you have your hands full and, again, with your background you will come in with some credibility with the other journalists there and I hope that we can, at this critical time, have a very effective message countering the disinformation and propaganda that’s increasing out there in every format, particularly online. I want to ask you a specific question if I could, with regard to North Korea. Along with Senator Brown and Senator Coons and others, I wrote and introduced what’s called the Otto Warmbier Countering North Korea Censorship and Surveillance Act. It passed this Committee actually in October and we’re hoping to get a vote on the floor soon. It seeks to combat the North Korean regime’s oppressive information environment, which is flooded entirely with regime-sponsored propaganda, as you know. And it actually censors outside news. What’s your understanding of Radio Free Asia’s and Voice of America’s programming to the North Korean audiences?”

Ms. Bennett: “Senator, thank you very much. And my understanding, based on my time there, is that there is substantial programming that helps the people in North Korea see and understand what’s happening in a truthful way that they can’t access any other way. And also gives them a look at what life is like in other parts of the world, an insight that they’re largely forbidden to have. And I think I would like to say even right now, there is a surprising audience inside North Korea for truthful news and information. I’ve been lucky enough to read some reports that really surprised even me about the extent to which Voice of America and Radio Free Asia’s content is available. And, I wonder if I might be permitted – I was so struck by this that I carried this statement with me. I had it laminated, I put it in my purse, carried it with me, and read it to anyone who would listen. It’s about North Korea and it’s a statement that says, ‘My name is Thae Yong-Ho. I am the former Deputy Ambassador of North Korea to the United Kingdom and today I would like to say that Voice of America has been playing a very important role to bring back the human rights to every citizen of the world. And so far, VOA has played a very important role to push the world to a better world. And when I was in North Korea as a diplomat in the Foreign Ministry I read every morning and afternoon the materials. We called them radio reference materials of VOA. And the North Korean regime also pays great attention to the content of VOA. So I think its very important that VOA should strengthen its activity and also its also contents so that one day I hope VOA is remembered by the North Korean people as kind of, you know, the main player who contributed a lot to the reunification of the Korean peninsula.’ Now, he was speaking on VOA broadcast, therefore the emphasis on VOA. But Radio Free Asia also has the same kind of impact inside North Korea and I think it is one that we can build on and accentuate going forward.”

Senator Portman: “Great, well thank you very much. We also understand that there is some damage to some of the antennas that have been used in the past to build a broadcast into North Korea and there’s a need to repair those antenna so should you be confirmed I would love to work with you on that. And also the Open Technology Fund has some tools to be able to circumvent some of the censorship and I’m going to be sure that you are working with the as well – you can benefit from our legislation. Do you have any exposure to that group? To the Open Technology Fund?”

Ms. Bennett: “Yes Senator, I do. I have met with and talked to the people on the Open Technology Fund. I have nothing but respect and admiration and frankly great excitement about the possibly of going there, working with them, and helping develop those essential tools. So yes, Senator, and I will welcome discussions and support from anyone in helping achieve that mission.”

Senator Portman: “Great. What’s your assessment of RFE and Radio Liberty’s coverage of the war in Ukraine?”

Ms. Bennett: “Senator, I think that the entire U.S. Agency for Global Media are doing just an extraordinary job of covering that conflict and providing useful information to the people there and also to the people around the world. As we mentioned earlier it’s very important to make sure that the rest of the world also knows this and I think that there is so much more that can be done to build on the work that is being done right now. To make sure that more people see it, more people hear it. A bigger audience around the world gets that news and information. I really look forward to working to build on the wonderful work that is being done currently. And make it even more available.”

Senator Portman: “Do you think that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty should recommence its physical operations in Russia. Has that been an issue in terms of, as Senator Barrasso asked, allowing the Russian people to get the facts as to what’s really going on in Ukraine?”

Ms. Bennett: “Senator I apologize but I am not very familiar with that particular issue right at the moment but I look forward to looking into it and getting back to you if you’d like.”

Senator Portman: “Well that would great. I think that broadcasting news to our Russian audience is really important right now and that’s something to think about is whether we should try to recommence our physical operations there. Well, thank you very much for your testimony today and again your willingness to step up and be involved in another leadership role, helping to spread truth and frankly allowing people around the world to know what American is really up to, which is we are involved in liberating people and helping people, in Ukraine and trying to avoid atrocities from occurring from Russia thanks to an unjustified, illegal, unwarranted invasion of that country and so my hope is that you will be able to help to communicate that message. And that is such a critical message right now. Particularly again with all the disinformation and propaganda out there, particularly on social media, so thank you and best of luck. Thank you Mr. Chairman.”