A group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers is pressing the Trump administration to release $20 million in congressionally approved funds aimed at promoting internet access throughout the world, especially in authoritarian countries such as China and Iran.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, “The Open Technology Fund provides a lifeline for people living under oppressive regimes.” He added, “Unfortunately, this critical programming is on the brink of collapse.”
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the funding hold “a gift to repressive governments in China, Iran and elsewhere,” according to the Washington Post.
Lawmakers spoke out after Laura Cunningham, the acting chief executive of the Washington-based Open Technology Fund, accused USAGM and its leader, Michael Pack, of forcing the OTF to halt 49 of its 60 internet freedom projects that assist human rights and pro-democracy advocates in about 200 countries, because of the funding lapse.
USAGM responded to Cunningham’s letter in a statement to VOA that did not say whether the agency plans to release the funds but said “advancing internet freedom and protecting the safety of journalists and activists are among USAGM’s highest priorities.” The statement also accused OTF of unspecified security failures that jeopardize its mission and the security of people working to advance internet freedom.
The Open Technology Fund is one of several government-funded global media entities, including Voice of America, overseen by Pack as chief executive of USAGM. He assumed control of USAGM in June after a protracted fight in Congress over his appointment by President Donald Trump.
USAGM announced last month that the agency is looking into “long-term security failures” at all of the organizations it oversees, without specifying what those failures are, or how the agency proposes to address them.
When he took over USAGM, Pack fired several heads of the government-funded media entities. But a federal appellate court in Washington recently blocked him from dismissing the board and officials at the Open Technology Fund, saying it believed the officials would eventually win their case contesting Pack’s ability to oust them.
In her letter, Cunningham said, “This arbitrary and unnecessary delay in funding has now compromised the work of our projects and jeopardized the lives of millions of users who rely on our technologies worldwide.
“This funding delay is needlessly undermining USAGM’s reach and impact abroad,” she said. “According to USAGM’s own analytics, 85% of USAGM’s audience in Iran and 40% of USAGM’s audience in China rely on OTF-supported technologies to access USAGM content.
“Most troubling is that these actions will directly strengthen the hands of internet freedom adversaries, like the Chinese and Iranian governments, who are actively working to undermine freedom and democracy around the world,” Cunningham said.
She asked Pack to release the funding “so that we can resume the truly critical work of countering repressive censorship and surveillance abroad.”