A U.S. federal judge has ruled in favor of Michael Pack, the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, in a lawsuit over Pack’s decision to fire the heads of government-funded international news agencies.
District Court Chief Judge Beryl Howell denied a request to reverse Pack’s decision to replace the agency heads, saying the decision belongs “at the ballot box” rather than in court.
The judge ruled last week that the suit filed on behalf of the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit corporation that supports global internet freedom technologies, had “fallen short of making the requisite showings.”
The fund had argued 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 last 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.
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. government-funded civilian broadcasters, including the power to set budgets and terminate funding for agencies the CEO no longer sees as effective.
Howell noted, “Congress has decided to concentrate unilateral power in the USAGM CEO, and the Court cannot override that determination.”
The lawsuit by the Open Technology Fund argued that the agencies of USAGM are protected from political interference by a “strict 'firewall' embodied in statutes, regulations, and binding contract provisions.” The suit contended that Pack’s actions “constitute the most egregious breach of that firewall in history."
Howell said, “Pack’s actions have global ramifications, and plaintiffs in this case have expressed deep concerns that his tenure as USAGM CEO will damage the independence and integrity of U.S.-sponsored international broadcasting efforts.”
However, Howell said, “If Pack’s actions turn out to be misguided, his appointment by the President and confirmation by the Senate points to where the accountability rests: at the ballot box.”
In an email last month 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.
Pack told the Washington Examiner last month that the reason he fired the four agency heads was to create a fresh start and said “it is not atypical to do that” at the beginning of an administration.
“It was my view that on day one, by changing senior leadership, I could create this change,” he said.
Pack said he is seeking to “bring objectivity and balance” to the programs run by the USAGM. “All I’m trying to do is bring the agency back in keeping with its mission,” he said.