WASHINGTON – The new chief executive of the agency that oversees Voice of America has dismissed the leaders of other agency organizations, including the heads of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Free Liberty.
U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack made the move in notices issued late Wednesday.
The Associated Press reported that Pack did not give specific reasons for each dismissal, only that he was acting consistent with his authority as the new USAGM CEO.
The top two officials at VOA, Director Amanda Bennett and deputy Sandy Sugawara, resigned from their posts on Monday.
Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Pack’s actions, warning the moves could undermine USAGM’s independence.
“Mr. Pack has gone on a wholesale firing spree, removing the heads of the networks, dissolving their corporate boards, only to replace them with unqualified political people, fundamentally undermining the mission and work of the organization. It’s now obvious why the White House wanted Pack so badly, so they can transform the agency into their own personal mouthpiece,” Mendenez said at the opening of a committee hearing related to COVID-19 on Thursday. “This is a blow from which it may never recover. Once the credibility is gone, no one will ever trust a report from Radio Free Europe, Radio Martí, nor trust the tools of the Open Technology Fund.”
Alberto Fernandez, who led the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, said he was proud of the work the networks did during his three-year tenure and honored to have worked with talented journalists in the United States, Dubai, Beirut and elsewhere. He also pointed to the ongoing challenges USAGM agencies face in getting news to the viewers, listeners and readers around the world.
“Wish the incoming people at USAGM well,” Fernandez tweeted late Wednesday. “I hope they know what they are doing. They have an immediate opportunity to make a difference. Yesterday the Iraqi government shut down Radio Sawa transmitters in Baghdad, Basra and Karbala and threatened to seize USG property.”
Earlier Wednesday, Pack sent his first communication to VOA employees since being confirmed by the Senate last week, pledging in an email to uphold its mandated role of providing independent worldwide journalism even though it is a U.S. government-funded agency.
Pack wrote that he is “fully committed to honoring VOA’s charter … and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world.”
He was nominated by President Donald Trump to lead USAGM more than two years ago. But with solid Democratic opposition to his appointment, the Republican-controlled Senate voted only two weeks ago to approve a three-year term for Pack to head USAGM.
In recent weeks, Trump has criticized VOA for its news coverage of China during the coronavirus crisis. When asked about the Pack nomination on May 15, Trump said, “Voice of America is run in a terrible manner. They’re not the Voice of America. They’re the opposite of the Voice of America.”
Pack made no mention of Trump or the controversy in his email to staff. Nor did he say who he plans to name as VOA’s director.
Bennett was a staunch advocate for VOA’s independent journalism, rebuffing Trump’s recent criticism and defending the U.S.-funded news agency’s mission and reporting.
“We export the First Amendment to people around the world who have no other access to factual, truthful, believable information,” she said. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech.
“That’s why more than 80 percent of our 280 million audience in 47 languages in more than 60 countries say they find our work credible,” Bennett said.
Some outside watchdogs have voiced fears about Pack’s tenure at USAGM, citing his record as a conservative filmmaker and associate of former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon and suggesting he might not withstand White House pressure for news coverage favorable to Trump.
The New York Times said in an editorial Tuesday, “The specter of turning V.O.A. into a propaganda tool of the White House should be frightening to all Americans, regardless of political leanings.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump wants a bullhorn, not a diplomatic instrument, and he insists on loyalty.”
As Pack took over as chief executive, the directors of the Broadcasting Board of Governors — which formerly controlled VOA and its sister networks — published their own definition of independent journalism in the Federal Register of government actions.
“USAGM-funded networks each enjoy full editorial independence, as that term is defined and understood by best practices of journalism,” the statement said.
“Editorial independence includes, but is not limited to, the fact that only individuals within the network may make any decisions with respect to newsgathering or reporting,” the directors said. “USAGM networks and their employees, including the heads of each network, are fully insulated from any political or other external pressures or processes that would be inconsistent with the highest standards of professional journalism.”
Pack, in his mid-60s, has held previous executive positions at U.S. government international and public media agencies. But in recent years, he told USAGM employees, he has run a private venture, Manifold Productions, that has produced 15 documentaries that have aired in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting Service.
“These films were also my way of telling America’s story,” he said. “Although making documentaries is very satisfying work, I was eager to return to international broadcasting at this critical juncture in our history.”
He said, “America’s adversaries have stepped up their propaganda and disinformation efforts. They are aggressively promoting their very different visions of the world.”
Pack said he would seek to improve employee morale at USAGM and “examine some of the problems that have surfaced in the media in recent years.”
“Most importantly,” he wrote, “my mission will be to make the agency more effective.”