The newly-installed CEO of five publicly-funded multimedia overseas networks, Michael Pack, wasted no time during his first day in office June 17 in announcing his dismissal of four civil service heads of the networks. They are:
- President Jamie Fly of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a recently named specialist in Russia and Eastern Europe
- President Bay Fong of Radio Free Asia, also a recently installed career staffer, and
- President Alberto Fernandez of the Middle East Broadcasting Network, a well-known expert in that region and South Asia
- Director Emilio Vazquez of Radio-TV Martí in Spanish to Cuba
All this, just three days after the two senior officials at the largest of the networks, the Voice of America, veteran journalists Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara, resigned. They said they did so to enable Mr. Pack, the Trump-appointed CEO of all the publicly-funded networks, to appoint their successors.
The way is now clear for what in effect is presidentially-approved chief executives of all five networks, renowned globally as accurate, balanced and reliable news sources about America and the world. As VOA said when it went on the air during World War II on February 1,1942: “The news may be good. The news may be bad for us. We shall tell you the truth.”
As a retired VOA Deputy Director, I’ve participated in or written about international broadcasting since 1962. I can’t recall the simultaneous departure or removal of principal officials of all the federally-funded U.S. overseas media organizations in a single week.
Mr. Pack was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by its Republican majority, 53-38 on June 11. His nomination had been pending nearly two years before the Senate foreign affairs subcommittee approved it the same day, also on a strictly party-line vote of 10-8.
President Trump had assailed VOA during a nationally-televised news briefing in early April, repeating an allegation in a White House newsletter that the Voice had reported how China had dealt in combatting the pandemic. In the President’s words: “It was disgusting!” (VOA had broadcast numerous criticisms of PRC human rights abuses, but also had aired a video of a celebratory re-opening of the city of Wuhan residents after several months of the shutdown early in the covid-19 crisis).
The Latest Removals, in Context
Multiple U.S.-funded overseas media have existed since the 1940s. VOA was inaugurated on February 1, 1942, at the height of World War II. Later in the late 40s and early 50s, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) went on the air, commonly known as surrogate sources of targeted information for their audiences during the Cold War. They formally merged in 1976 and today broadcast to 23 countries in Europe, Central and South Asia.
Three other U.S.-funded surrogate overseas networks were established between the 1980s and 2002:
- Radio Free Asia (RFA) in eight languages including Mandarin Chinese
- The Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), replacing VOA’s half century old Arabic program in 2002 with a service initially known as Radio Sawa. MBN expanded to TV around the clock in 2004 at a cost six times that of VOA Arabic.
- Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba
Voices of Concern
On June 17, the ousted President of MBN, Arabic-speaking Alberto Fernandez, expressed pride in his accomplishments during his three-year tenure, and said he “was honored to have worked with talented journalists in the U.S., Dubai, Beirut and elsewhere.” According to VOA, he also pointed to the challenges confronting the oversight agency of the five networks now headed by Mr. Pack, the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
As Mr. Fernandez put it:
“I hope they know what they’re doing. They have an immediate opportunity to make a difference. Yesterday (June 16), the Iraqi government shut down Radio Sawa transmitters in Baghdad, Basra, and Karbala and threatened to seize U.S. government property.”
According to the U.S. Federal Register:
“U.S. government-funded networks each enjoy full editorial independence, as that term is defined and understood by the best practices of journalism. 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.”
The Washington Post on June 20 ran a Page 1 article titled “Voice of America’s upheaval amplifies concern.” Its lead editorial is entitled “Independent journalism in peril.”
In his introductory message to the staffs of the five overseas U.S. networks, the newly-empowered CEO Michael Pack said: “I am fully committed to honoring the VOA Charter, the missions of the grantees (RFE/RL, RFA, MBN, and Radio-TV Martí to Cuba), and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world. I look forward to the day when we can have face-to-face communication and give-and-take listening sessions.”
That day is now.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More