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Congressional hearing focuses on USAGM on policy, budget, personnel issues

U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Amanda Bennett testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, July 9, 2024 in this photo from taken from video.
U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Amanda Bennett testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, July 9, 2024 in this photo from taken from video.

U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Amanda Bennett, newly sworn-in Voice of America Director Michael Abramowitz, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Stephen Capus faced tough questions before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday about the networks’ budget, priorities and challenges.

Republican Representative Scott Perry started the hearing by asking Bennett if she considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization. Bennett responded, “I will accept the definition given by the United States, which has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.”

Perry grilled Bennett about an emailed memo that circulated to VOA journalists shortly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of some 1,200 Israelis saying staff members should “avoid calling Hamas and its members terrorists, except in quotes.”

Not mentioned at the hearing, the memo also said it was appropriate to describe Hamas’ actions “as terrorist attacks or acts of terror.”

Bennett said agency policy is to use the word “terrorist” carefully and when it's “appropriate.”

She also said the agency is now using artificial intelligence to ensure all 48 language services at VOA are following the agency’s editorial policies.

Committee Chairman Michael McCaul praised USAGM as a “beacon of freedom, supplying the truth to those living under tyranny and oppression.” However, he said there are serious problems in how it is being managed.

McCaul and other lawmakers asked about long-running issues, including the rehiring of a person at VOA who had been fired under a previous administration and who had been accused by an unnamed whistleblower who questioned her conduct and credentials.

Representative Tim Burchett questioned Bennett about the handling of the personnel issue, asking whether it was appropriate for the agency to still employ someone accused of harassing staff.

Bennett declined to answer, calling it “inappropriate to respond to questions about personnel in an open forum.” She said the issue had been thoroughly investigated by the agency’s human resources department and was also investigated by the committee.

Budget cuts

The hearing also focused on budget cuts and operations. The heads of VOA and RFE/RL expressed concern on how they will affect the mission. Capus said the impact will be “devastating” and that RFE/RL “without a doubt are a target by Russia, Belarus, Iran and China.”

Capus said that if RFE/RL stopped working in the region, audiences will be left vulnerable to those countries and their propaganda.

Abramowitz, who was sworn in three weeks ago, also said the lack of resources will affect the issues the committee and VOA care about, giving as an example the coverage of Iran and Russia.

"It will be quite devastating,” he said, adding that audiences in those countries often go to VOA “because we are the only source of information that counters the false information that is coming from the government.”

Democratic Representative Dina Titus asked Capus about reporter Alsu Kurmasheva, who has been in Russia in pretrial detention since October 2023.

The RFE/RL president updated the committee on Kurmasheva’s case, saying he believes “the charges had been brought against her because, we believe, she works for us.”

Russia has charged Kurmasheva with not registering her U.S. passport with authorities, failing to self-register as a foreign agent and violating military censorship laws.

She has not been designated as “wrongfully detained” by the U.S Department of State. Some members of the committee expressed concern about why U.S. officials have not yet designated her as wrongfully detained.