The Washington Post and New York Times have been joined by the National Press Club and PEN America in requesting newly-appointed U.S. international broadcasting CEO Michael Pack to quickly extend guest visas of non-citizen VOA staff members. These 76 journalists are essential to the Voice, the nation’s largest government-funded global multimedia overseas network that reaches 270 million on-line, TV and radio users each week.
THE U.S. CONGRESS IS CONCERNED
Earlier in July, Joint statements by 11 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and seven colleagues in the U.S. Senate also expressed urgent concern about Mr. Pack’s recent firings of directors of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic, and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba.
This flurry of removals occurred just after VOA Director Amanda Bennett and her deputy resigned two days before Mr. Pack assumed his position as a newly-empowered CEO of all five networks and an associated Technology Support Fund (also replaced).
According to a July 10 VOA report, 76 of its staff members “are facing the possibility that their visas, many of which expire at the end of July, may not be renewed.” (J-1 visas are a category of non-immigrant entry permits for individuals with unique skills — in this case, journalistic and language skills —who are approved to participate in work-and-study programs). “They typically are issued for a period of several years and are subject to renewal or extension,” according to the VOA report. “But the J-1 is also among several visas that were temporarily banned by the Trump administration in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic,” the VOA report continued, “because the administration believes such visa holders take jobs away from U.S. citizens.”
VOA broadcasts in 47 languages. It is difficult to find enough Americans with the needed language skills to keep all its programs — especially those relatively unknown in the U.S. — on the air. One example is the new VOA Rohingya language service for more than a million refugees who have recently fled Burma and are now living in packed camps in neighboring Bangladesh. To this audience, denied access to broadcasts in its own tongue, VOA Rohingya is a vital, exclusive source of news and information about their own plight, the U.S. and the world.
As National Press Club President Michael Freedman put it: “We know of no sensible reason to deny VOA’s foreign journalists renewed visas. “These men and women provide an essential service to VOA by reporting from the U.S. and telling the American story to their audiences overseas. They have the language skills and cultural background to perform this work. They are not taking jobs away from American workers.”
NPC Journalism Institute President Angela Greiling Keane adds: “Failure to renew visas for VOA’s foreign journalists could be tragic. Instead of fulfilling its mission of standing for press freedoms, the U.S. Agency for Global Media would be chasing journalists out of the United States and putting them in harm’s way” if they were forced to return to their home countries.
As a participant and observer of international broadcasting for more than six decades, I believe there’s no substitute for The Three Cs — communicate, communicate, communicate.
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the new administration of U.S. international broadcasting now headed by Chief Executive Michael Pack layout a detailed vision for the future of its five networks (VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, the Middle East Broadcast Network (MBN) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB). He might well announce this to the staff of the five networks and the Open Technology Fund that helps enhance their reach technically.
The clearer the path ahead for all, the better. As the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in a July 8 letter to Mr. Pack:
“We welcomed your statement on June 18 committing yourself to “honoring VOA’s Charter, the missions of the grantees (the four other networks and their technical enhancement support agency, the Open Technology Fund), and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world.”
“However, your dismissal without cause of the senior staffs at the agencies and dissolution of their bipartisan advisory boards has generated intense concern, which we share, that your true intention is to turn the news services into what has been derisively referred to as ‘Trump TV’ — that is, agencies focused on promoting the political agenda of the current administration through their coverage decisions and editorial slant of news stories.
“As you begin your tenure as CEO, we urge you to take vigorous steps to ensure the safety and independence of journalists who work at these agencies so they can continue their essential work.”
As The Economist put it on June 27: “At risk is the credibility these agencies have built over (more than) half a century of independence. Their reporters are worried. ‘We are so stunned by the news that no one knows what to expect,’ says a staffer at an RFE/RL subsidiary in Eastern Europe. Mr. Pack’s new appointees must respect their agencies’ editorial freedom. Otherwise, audiences will think them just as untrustworthy as those controlled by their own oligarchs and politicians.”
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