Seven Senators wrote to new global media director Michael Pack threatening budget cuts if the United States-supported media are politicized.
The group, in an announcement June 2, expressed “deep concern” over what they termed as a purge by the Trump administration of five senior officers of U.S. international multimedia organizations shortly after the resignation of Voice of America Amanda Bennett, director of the largest of the networks.
Signers of the bipartisan letter to the newly confirmed CEO of international media Michael Pack are: Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Dick Durbiin (D-Illinois), Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland),and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).
In their letter, the Senators wrote:
“We are at a critical moment in history where malign actors including Russia, China and Iran, are using advanced tools and technology to undermine global democratic norms, spreading disinformation and severely restricting their own free press to independent news for their citizens. As these and other authoritarian regimes further crack down domestically, their citizens turn to outside sources as their only trustworthy source of unbiased, accurate news.”
In addition to VOA, the media affected include: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic, Radio-TV Marti in Spanish and a separate fund-raising organization for the networks known as the Open Technology Fund.
Mr. Pack, who formally took office June 17, had praised his new team of acting directors: “These talented men and women, with their knowledge of the networks, and their commitment to the standards of journalism, will allow us to launch into the next exciting chapter of our agency.”
The new leaders all have served currently or recently in principal leadership roles in their respective international media outlets, an early sign of possibly more continuity (at least for now) in America’s multimedia outreach to more than 100 countries abroad.
Who’s out, who’s in
The networks are:
- the distinct federal networks Voice of America globally and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba, and
- the “surrogate” networks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic.
The newly-named interim leaders are:
- Elez Biberaj, who has served at VOA for nearly 40 years, and as head of America’s Eurasia Division since 2006, will serve as VOA’s acting director.
- Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, previously a senior adviser at Radio-TV Marti, will be the acting director of that Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) and principal deputy director.
- Parameswaran Ponnudurai, who has been vice president of programming at Radio Free Asia since 2014, will serve as RFA’s acting president.
- Kelley Sullivan, who has been vice president at the Middle East Broadcasting Network since 2006, will serve as MBN’s acting president.
- Daisy Sindelar, who has been with Radio Free Europe/Liberty for nearly two decades, will serve as RFE/RL’s acting president.
Earlier, Mr. Pack on his first day at USAGM June fired four network directors: MBN President Alberto Fernandez, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly, RFA President Bay Fang, and the Radio-TV Marti president Emilio Vasquez. (The VOA director, Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara had resigned two days before Mr. Pack assumed charge, they said, permitting him to name their successors as chief executives of the Voice).
Mr. Pack also ordered:
—the restoration of VOA editorials to daily use by all Voice services, which had lapsed in the past few years. The editorials are crafted by officials in the USAGM, and State Department clearance is mandatory. Because of delays in this process, daily editorials were often outdated. Mr. Pack pledged to streamline clearances.
—the abolition of separate advisory boards of RFE/RL, RFE, and Radio-TV Marti, in addition to one for a related fund-raising unit called the Open Technology Fund (OTF), designed to advocate additional resources for those networks.
In reaction, worried comments and a lawsuit
That Fund and three former members of the disbanded oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors have filed suit in the District of Columbia court designed to protect the Fund (Case No. 20-CV-1710).
The three former BBG board members are: Ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Karen Kornbluth and Michael Kempner and the Open Technology Fund itself. The suit claims that on June 17, within days of taking the reins as head of USAGM, Mr. Pack “attempted a wholesale purge of the officers and directors of the Open Technology Fund, RFE/RL, RFA, and MBN.
“Mr. Pack’s actions,” the complaint read, “was quickly dubbed the ‘Wednesday night massacre’ … nor did Mr. Pack have legal authority to remove or appoint officers or directors under (the) Open Technology Fund’s corporate bylaws.” As of this writing, a court decision on the case is still pending.
Numerous defenders of journalistic independence for the five U.S.-funded networks, both in the U.S. and abroad, have spoken out fervently in favor of objectivity and “telling it straight” to their collective 350 million global users every week.
Here’s a sampling of recent headlines and comments:
“U.S. GOVERNMENT BROADCASTERS HAVE LONG ADVANCED THE CAUSE OF FREEDOM. NOW, THEY’RE UNDER THREAT” —The Atlantic Council
“DECAPITATING AMERICA’S STATE-FUNDED MEDIA” — The Economist
“INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM IN PERIL”. VOICE OF AMERICA AND OTHER (U.S.) FOREIGN BROADCASTS ARE IN MR. TRUMP’S CROSSHAIRS” —A Washington Post editorial
“USAGM-FUNDED NETWORKS EACH ENJOY FULL JOURNALISTIC INDEPENDENCE, AS DEFINED AND UNDERSTOOD BY BEST PRACTICES OF JOURNALISM” — Former Broadcasting Board of Governors as quoted in The Federal Register
The new acting VOA director weighs in
The Acting VOA Director, Dr. Elez Biberaj, in a note to the Voice’s nearly 1,000-member staff, said on July 2:
“As I step in to temporarily lead our exceptionally talented journalists, technicians, and administrative staff, I will do my best to honor VOA’s Charter and mission and adhere to the highest journalistic standards and ethics.
“Anybody who has worked with me knows that I am fully dedicated to VOA’s mission — to serve as a trusted source of reliable news and information, present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions, and present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.
“Our mission today is more important today than ever, and VOA is uniquely positioned to tell America’s compelling story, provide U.S. perspectives, and serve as a model of a free press. The VOA Charter provides for independent news coverage. I will make every effort to ensure our Charter stands, free of political interference or intervention, as our audiences have come to respect.”
“As Thomas Jefferson said: “Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. VOA laments any individual or institution that limits our nation’s cherished press freedom, especially because we know — more than most — what countries look like that have none.”
May that pledge be firmly guaranteed by all the new managers of overseas publicly-funded television, radio and on-line media as the nation celebrates its 144th Independence Day anniversary.
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