A lawsuit filed in Washington alleges that Michael Pack, the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, acted illegally last week when he fired the heads of government-funded international news agencies.
The suit filed Tuesday on behalf of the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit corporation that supports global internet freedom technologies, contends that Pack did not have the legal authority to dismiss Libby Liu, the chief executive of Open Technology, or fire the chiefs of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
Pack, who took control of USAGM this month, also oversees Voice of America, but the lawsuit pertains to Pack’s dismissals of the heads of the USAGM entities, not his oversight of VOA.
Michael Pack is the first Senate-confirmed CEO of USAGM following a major overhaul of the agency’s leadership structure that Congress approved in late 2016 and former President Barack Obama signed into law. The changes gave expansive new powers to the CEO over all of the U.S.-funded civilian broadcasters, including the power to set budgets and terminate funding for agencies the CEO no longer sees as effective.
At least one former board member who helped oversee U.S. broadcasting while the 2016 legislation was being written has said that Pack’s firings clearly fall within the powers that Congress gave the CEO.
Let's be clear: @USAGMgov CEO may not only independently name RFERL's president and governance board but under 22 USC 6207(d) he may replace @RFERL with another entity, RadioFreeBannon for example. Or replace @RadioFreeAsia under 22 USC 6208(g) with a new org, FalungGongMedia. https://t.co/AEFW6p3ItA— Matt Armstrong (@mountainrunner) June 23, 2020
However, the lawsuit said the independence from political interference at the four agencies affected by Pack’s dismissals of their leaders “is protected by a strict 'firewall' embodied in statutes, regulations, and binding contract provisions.”
The suit contended, "Mr. Pack's actions this past week constitute the most egregious breach of that firewall in history."
The lawsuit requested that a federal judge declare Pack’s actions “null and void.”
Neither USAGM nor Pack has responded to questions about the controversy from VOA or other news outlets that have published stories about his brief tenure as head of USAGM.
Pack, in his mid-60s, said at his Senate confirmation last fall that he would defend the independence of the news organizations. “The whole agency rests on the belief the reporters are independent, that no political influence is telling them how to report the news and what to say,” he said. “Without that trust, I think, the agency is completely undermined.”
In an email last week to VOA’s hundreds of broadcasters, editors, writers and support staff, Pack pledged to uphold the government’s mandated independence from outside political interference over VOA.
However, some outside watchdogs and news organizations, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have voiced fears about Pack’s willingness to resist political pressure, citing his record as a conservative filmmaker and associate of former Trump chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon.
U.S. Democratic critics of the Trump administration have also taken note of Pack’s actions.
On Wednesday, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and other lawmakers said the Open Technology Fund has “long followed a policy of only funding projects that are released as open source, have been approved by OTF’s independent technical advisory board, and have been subjected to an independent cybersecurity audit.
“This is vital, both to prevent taxpayer dollars from being wasted and to prevent design flaws in technology that might put users in authoritarian countries at risk from deadly retaliation,” the lawmakers contended. “We are concerned by statements from OTF’s former CEO that USAGM is now seeking to steer its funds to programs that do not meet these necessary qualifications."