“Freedom of information is a fundamental human right, and the touchstone of all the freedoms, as well, to which the United States is consecrated. This is our touchstone as well. We seek a free flow of information with others, across Iron Curtains and stone walls.” — President John F. Kennedy, 1962
“To millions in closed societies, your broadcasts are the voice of truth. We in America believe every man, woman or child on earth has the right to free sources of information. We do not think a mind can, or should be imprisoned.” — President Ronald Reagan, 1987
Eloquent testimonies of two American presidents, each visiting the Voice of America to commemorate VOA celebrations of its 20th and 45th anniversaries.
If only these guiding principles could be assured for all five U.S. overseas networks today: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), founded in 1949, Radio Free Asia (RFA), founded in 1994, the Middle East Broadcast Network (MBN), founded in 2004, and Radio-TV Martí, founded in the 1980s, as well as VOA, the oldest of the networks established in 1942 during World War II.
All five networks report to what is known as U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). These days, all of them report to agency’s chief executive, in office since last June, Michael Pack. In five months, he has altered USAGM more than any of his predecessors at the helm of that agency since its establishment as the Broadcasting Board of Governors in the 1990s.
Pack’s latest move
On December 8, the new chief executive of the agency named former VOA Director Robert Reilly, as its new director, replacing Elez Biberaj, a 40-year veteran manager at the Voice.
Reaction from Capitol Hill was swift. Representative Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “Michael Pack should be packing up his office (to pave the way for the new Biden administration) not packing the leadership of U.S. international broadcasting with right-wing ideologues and bigots.
“Mr. Reilly,” he added, “is best known for spreading anti-LGBT hatred in print and on the airways. The idea that he’s been given the reigns of an institution with the history and legacy of VOA is a disgrace and an embarrassment. VOA journalists shouldn’t have to endure the reputational harm of having to work for someone with views so backward and out of step with American values.
“Mr. Pack should believe VOA’s coverage of the November 3 election, embrace reality, and acknowledge that Joe Biden won. Then he should instruct USAGM personnel to help the President- Elect’s transition team find its footing at USAGM.”
So far, Mr. Pack has refused to meet with Mr. Biden’s transition team.
According to NBC reporter Dan De Luce: “The reassignment of the Acting VOA Director, Elez Biberaj, is the latest move by Pack, a conservative filmmaker who worked with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. Is he aiming to install partisan loyalists in senior positions before President-elect Biden enters the White House in January?”
In a statement announcing Reilly’s appointment, Mr. Pack said, “Bob’s inimitable experience and proven leadership as both a public servant and a private citizen will greatly benefit the entire agency. Mr. Reilly has dedicated his career to — and, indeed, succeeded in — promoting the national interest and advancing U.S. foreign policy.”
The high stakes at play
A Washington Post editorial December 10 asserts: “U.S. international broadcasting could be gutted before Mr. Biden can stop it.” This would imperil all five networks, which have collectively amassed a weekly global audience of 354,000,000 million TV viewers, on line users and radio listeners.
“It’s worth considering what could happen to VOA’s global influence if the new editor’s influence (Mr. Reilly’s) is translated into news coverage and commentaries.” The recently re-assigned acting VOA Director Elez Biberaj spelled out the stakes in a departure memo to the staff. The high cost: “our hard-won credibility at a time of global backsliding and increased international threats to America’s values and moral leadership.
“President-elect Joe Biden appears to understand: he has appointed a distinguished former State Department official and journalist, Richard Stengel, to oversee his USAGM transition team. But the new administration will have to act quickly, with help from Congress, if it is to save U.S. (international) broadcasting from lasting damage.”
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