As the Washington Post reported: “Simmering tensions between journalists and managers at the Voice of America grew into open rebellion January 14, with more than two dozen newsroom employees signing a petition demanding the resignation of their new director and his top deputy.” The number of signers has since grown to at least 30.
To quote directly from the petition:
“We, the undersigned employees of VOA demand the immediate resignation of VOA Director Robert Reilly and VOA Deputy Director Elizabeth Robbins for using VOA to stage a propaganda event for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and for the unexplained reassignments of White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara and Central News Director Yolanda Lopez”.
The petition accuses Mr. Reilly and his recently installed deputy Elizabeth Robbins, of violating VOA’s Congressionally-mandated journalistic code, Public Law 94-350. The staff protesters, according to VOA News, maintained that the Voice’s top leadership violated that law by:
— inviting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Voice’s headquarters in southwest D.C. to deliver his remarks during a live broadcast while failing to invite the outside press to be present for the event.
— airing Mr. Pompeo’s criticisms of recent Voice content, which were heard or seen overseas by millions in Africa, Asia, Europe as well as the Middle East during prime evening time (3 p.m. EST January 11) and
—demoting VOA correspondent Patsy Widakuswara, who had covered the White House but who shouted a follow up question in vain to the departing Secretary of State as he left the VOA auditorium.
—Secretary Pompeo didn’t respond, and VOA Director Reilly loudly denounced Ms. Widakuswara while others watched. Later that Monday, she was re-assigned by VOA senior management, first to the central news division and shortly after that, to the Indonesian service, her first VOA post in 2003.
Also re-assigned after the Pompeo visit was VOA Central News Director Yolanda Lopez, a key career official who had previously served as Director of the Voice’s Latin America Division.
HARSH REACTION TO THE PURGES
In a bipartisan statement by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressmen Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY) condemned the decision to remove Ms. Widakuswara as a VOA White House correspondent.
In a separate statement, Congressman Meeks, the Committee chairman, said: “It is ironic that Secretary Pompeo would praise VOA for combatting foreign propaganda while using it to spread his own.”
As Bloomberg News put it: “Michael Pompeo pressed the VOA to be less critical of the United States in its news coverage, delivering a speech at the briefing that appeared to be at odds with that news organization’s mandate to maintain its editorial independence from the U.S. government.”
Immediately after Ms. Widakuswara shouted her questions to the departing Secretary of State, Mr. Reilly shouted back at her as she was leaving the VOA auditorium: “You obviously don’t know how to behave… you are out of order!”
“Let us be clear,” the staff protest petition later responded:
“It is not out of order for VOA journalists to ask questions of U.S. government officials. It is our job.”
MR. PACK’S VIEW
In the Wall Street Journal‘s January 16-17 edition, Michael Pack wrote: “Our adversaries know exactly what narratives they want to advance, and they don’t extol liberty. These countries are ramping up their misinformation and disinformation efforts abroad and at home. China, for one, presents itself as a more economically successful superpower than what it characterizes as an America in decline. Beijing obscures the dark reality of its communist system and widespread human rights abuses to argue for the efficacy of the communist system”.
AN UNCLEAR ROAD AHEAD
It turns out that Mr. Pack during his seven-month tenure atop all five U.S.-funded international broadcasting networks has appointed several conservative-leaning figures to two-year terms at key positions throughout the system.
These included Mr. Reilly as VOA director once again (he previously held that post for eleven months in 2001 and 2002) and former VOA official Ted Lipien, who in retirement has been a frequent critic of the Voice. He is the founder of a private organization, Free Media Online. Mr. Lipien was installed Dec. 18 as president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
SUMMING IT ALL UP
Reporter David Folkenflik of National Public Radio has covered U.S. international broadcasting extensively the past few months. He notes that under the incoming Biden administration, a fresh look is likely at the five U.S. taxpayer-funded international media (VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcast Network in Arabic, and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba).
These networks reach 354,000,000 television viewers, online users, and radio listeners each week. As Mr. Folkenfik put it: “The networks historically have demonstrated American pluralism by providing balanced coverage of news events and robust political debate, regardless of how it reflects on current government officials.” VOA reaches 278,000,000 of those users.
He added: “It is expected that the Biden administration will replace CEO Pack in short order… some of his top aides have already departed ahead of the inauguration. But it’s unclear how swiftly Biden could move to replace the new network chiefs.”
What is clear is the tremendous impact of reaching more than a third of a billion people each and every week, and though many may access VOA and its broadcast cousins several times weekly, research in more than 100 countries counts each listener, viewer or on-line user only once. As the first VOA broadcast to a few thousand shortwave radio listeners said in the grim early years of World War II: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.” Those are words of even greater importance in the 21st century.
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