U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday faced more questions about his treatment of journalists after dropping a National Public Radio reporter from a weekend trip though Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
During stops in Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Pompeo called for loosening press restrictions amid criticism over his decision to remove NPR reporter Michele Kelemen from his traveling press pool after a recent dust-up with one of her colleagues.
Pompeo abruptly ended a Jan. 24 interview at the State Department with NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly when she changed the topic from Iran to Ukraine and challenged his claim that he supported former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
Pompeo then allegedly unleashed an expletive-filled tirade about being questioned on Ukraine before challenging Kelly to find Ukraine on a map.
On Sunday, Aigerim Toleukhanova of Radio Azattyq, Radio Free Europe's Kazakh Service, asked the top U.S. diplomat "what kind of message" such "confrontational" behavior sends to "countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Belarus, whose governments routinely suppress press freedom?”
"Yeah, I didn't have a confrontational interview with an NPR reporter any more than I have confrontational interviews all the time," he said. "In America, that's the greatness of our nation. Reporters like yourself get to ask me any questions. All questions; we take hundreds and hundreds of questions. We talk openly, we express our view. They ask their questions. That's how we proceed in America.
"And with respect to who travels with me," he continued, "I always bring a big press contingent, but we ask for certain sets of behaviors, and that’s simply telling the truth and being honest. And when they’ll do that, they get to participate, and if they don’t, it’s just not appropriate – frankly, it’s not fair to the rest of the journalists who are participating alongside of them.”
"But what kind of message will it send to our..." Toleukhanova began asking before Pompeo continued to speaking over her.
"It’s a perfect message, the perfect message about press freedoms,” he said, adding that an NPR reporter had been at his Saturday press conference and that he hopes the rest of the world will follow America's "wide open" press freedoms.
However, Shaun Tandon, president of the State Department Correspondents’ Association, notes that State Department press corps have been significantly reduced under the current administration.
"Two print reporters, a three-person television crew and one photographer are traveling to pool Secretary Pompeo's current trip; there would have been a seventh journalist until the radio pool reporter from NPR was removed," Tandon said in statement to VOA. "A press contingent of 13 journalists routinely covered secretaries of state of previous administrations from both Republican and Democratic administrations."
Tandon also said that although the organization agrees with Pompeo's statement journalists should be free to ask him "any question and all questions," NPR reporter Michele Kelemen should not have been removed from the press pool.
" ... We do not think that removing a longtime member of the traveling press corps after he criticized another journalist from her organization sends a 'perfect message,'" he said. "The State Department Correspondents' Association is united in our belief that the radio pool reporter from NPR should have been on the plane."
Al Tompkins, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, a press freedom advocacy organization, told VOA he is concerned the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict and control the press at home give authoritarian governments more latitude to censor the media and imprison journalists with impunity.
"There is a certain viral effect that happens when the president of the United States, when the secretary of state, act this way. It encourages those in other places that have even less press freedoms to do it even more,” he said.
President Donald Trump last Tuesday praised Pompeo for his handling of Kelly, who Pompeo allegedly shouted at, cursed and denounced as a liar. John Lansing, NPR’s President and CEO has vigorously defended Kelly, saying she is “one of the most respected, truthful, factual professional and ethical journalists in the United States.
Lansing is the former CEO and director of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the U.S. government agency that oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
Voice of America reporters are also part of the diplomatic press pool that regularly travels with the secretary of state.