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Blinken Affirms Independence of VOA, Discusses Threats to Reporting in Russia

FILE - Signage is seen on the Voice of America building in Washington, June 15, 2020.
FILE - Signage is seen on the Voice of America building in Washington, June 15, 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stressed his commitment to the editorial independence of Voice of America and other foreign news outlets overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Blinken’s State Department does not oversee the government’s global news organization, but he met Tuesday with acting USAGM chief executive Kelu Chao “to discuss the vital role that free and independent media play” in U.S. foreign affairs.

“The editorially independent reporting of these networks is particularly important in countries with repressive media environments, including where independent journalism is censored or freedom of expression is restricted or punished,” the State Department said in a readout of the meeting.

Last year, Chao was among a group of whistleblowers who filed a legal complaint against the agency’s previous leader, filmmaker Michael Pack, arguing that the Trump administration appointee had taken unlawful actions and violated the statutory firewall set up to prevent outside interference with the news organizations overseen by USAGM.

Pack maintained he had been “solely focused upon reorienting the agency toward its mission.” But a judge issued a temporary injunction in the case in November in favor of the whistleblowers, ordering Pack to stop interfering in personnel decisions and conducting editorial investigations into alleged breaches of ethics at the networks.

Pack resigned within hours of President Joe Biden taking office in January. Chao, a longtime journalist and news executive at the agency, was named USAGM’s acting CEO.

Concerns over Russia

In an email to staff, Chao said she and Blinken discussed Russia’s efforts to restrict media freedom and its recently imposed labeling requirements requiring certain news organizations that receive foreign funding while they are working in Russia to label their content as produced by foreign agents.

“The secretary agreed that the Russian government’s efforts to silence independent journalism only harm the citizens it is meant to serve,” Chao wrote.

The first organizations designated by the Russian Ministry of Justice as foreign agents were Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and VOA. However the two U.S.-funded news outlets, because they are independent of government control, have refused to label their content as produced by foreign agents.

In filing allegations of almost 400 violations of “foreign agent” regulations, the Kremlin has specifically targeted nine of RFE/RL’s reporting projects: Radio Liberty, its main service for Russia; the Current Time 24/7 television and digital network serving a global Russian-speaking audience; the regional reporting projects North.Realities, Siberia.Realities, Caucasus.Realities, Idel.Realities, and Crimea.Realities; the Tatar-Bashkir Service; and the fact-checking website Additionally, in late December, the Kremlin named three RFE/RL freelance reporters as individual “foreign agent” journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said Russia should repeal the foreign agent law to “ensure that the country’s regulator is not used to censure journalists and harass and threaten media organizations.” Amnesty International has said Russia’s foreign agent law “further erodes freedom of expression and association” in the country.

Aside from overseeing VOA, USAGM runs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. The agency is funded by the government but operates under an editorial “firewall” that protects its independent news-gathering operations. The White House has not yet named a permanent CEO to run the agency.