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USAGM Officials Breached Firewall, Committee Chair Says

FILE -- The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 22, 2019. (VOA)

The acting director of Voice of America should ignore any attempt by the U.S. Agency for Global Media to “improperly interfere” with its work, the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs said Monday.

The statement came in response to allegations, reported by NPR Sunday, that USAGM officials collected a dossier on VOA White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman. It also cited a memo from USAGM CEO Michael Pack circulated to agency staff about revisions to USAGM’s social media policy.

Pack in June took charge of USAGM, a global U.S. agency that oversees Voice of America and four other international media organizations. He fired the chiefs of four of the news organizations and named Elez Biberaj as acting VOA director.

“This latest action builds on [Michael Pack’s] alarming record of improper and retaliatory behavior,” since being installed as CEO in June, the statement by Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, said.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the lead Republican of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was looking into reports that political appointees investigated a VOA journalist.

Ranking Member Michael McCaul, R-Tex., questions witnesses during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing looking into the firing of State Department Inspector General Steven Linick, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Ranking Member Michael McCaul, R-Tex., questions witnesses during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing looking into the firing of State Department Inspector General Steven Linick, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

“If true, this is very troubling and potentially illegal,” the Texas Republican, said in a statement shared with VOA Monday. “I remain very concerned about the state of affairs at USAGM and its grantees like OTF under CEO Pack’s watch.”

The memo cited by Engel was emailed on Sunday to staff at VOA, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, RFE/RL, RFA, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. It focused on conflicts of interest and instances where journalists should recuse themselves from reporting.

The memo said that to protect the credibility of the agency and its reporting staff, journalists should “remain neutral and objective” in all public spaces including on social media and said journalists personally affected by a governmental action should not cover that issue.

The memo included scenarios describing when reporters should recuse themselves from covering a topic. One example said, “a journalist who on Facebook “likes” a comment or political cartoon that aggressively attacks or disparages the President must recuse themselves from covering the President.”

A USAGM spokesperson said via email that the agency and its networks “have long had policies on the books governing journalist’s conflicts of interest and use of social media.”

“These policies were developed and promulgated by CEO Pack’s predecessors, and the CEO has made clear they will be enforced,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the agency would not comment on the allegations about an investigation into Herman. “[The matter] involves the leak of privileged information. This is an internal VOA management issue being handled by the VOA leadership,” the spokesperson said.

As of Monday, the broadcaster had not communicated with its journalists on whether the guidelines will be enforced and how they could impact the network’s reporting. A revised version of the social media guidelines has not yet been published on its website.

In a statement late Monday, Biberaj said all VOA journalists are expected to adhere to VOA’s social media policy as laid out in the Best Practices Guide and that VOA handles potential infractions in accordance with its policies and federal law.

"VOA’s independence, integrity, and credibility of our reporting are of paramount importance. Anything that threatens that--whether a lack of objectivity or a violation of the firewall that is part of the law protecting VOA from political interference--is in violation of our values," Biberaj said. "VOA considers any violation of the firewall or attack on its journalistic independence completely unacceptable."

Engel’s statement described the social media memo and the compiled report on VOA’s White House correspondent as further attempts to interfere with the broadcaster’s statutory firewall.

NPR reported that two senior advisers in the USAGM CEO’s office, produced an internal report on Herman that claimed his reporting and social media showed bias against US President Donald Trump.

Herman was one of more than 40 current and former VOA journalists who signed a letter sent to Biberaj, the acting VOA director, about the staffing changes and comments made by Pack during an interview.

VOA has made no changes to Herman’s assignments, which include coverage of the White House and presidential campaigns.

McCaul and Engel’s comments come after they and other members of the committee raised concerns at a Sept. 24 hearing about changes Pack has implemented at the USAGM since June. Pack cited a scheduling conflict and ignored a subpoena to testify at the hearing.