The United States Agency for Global Media’s Chief Executive Officer Amanda Bennett said Thursday the agency she leads is facing a critical time globally in which access to credible news is threatened by authoritarian regimes.
During a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, Bennett told lawmakers that Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and other news networks overseen by USAGM routinely outperform better-funded Russian and Chinese media operations in many key markets around the world because of their independent journalism.
"If we miss this opportunity to target investments to counter inroads Russia and [China] are making, we run the risk of losing the global information war,” Bennett said.
Bennett discussed efforts to improve journalistic standards at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, described USAGM news networks’ use of satellite and circumvention technologies to reach audiences in places like China and Iran, and she described the reach and impact that USAGM networks have in countering attempts by Russia to block access to credible news.
VOA censorship allegations
Bennett, who led Voice of America for four years until she resigned in 2020, said in response to lawmaker questions that she abides by the agency’s editorial firewall and was not involved in a decision to change a recent VOA article about the agency.
In a March 8 letter to USAGM, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul said he was concerned about alleged censorship at USAGM and Voice of America (VOA) in relation to an article published by VOA about its hiring process.
“As a publicly funded media organization, it is imperative that USAGM and VOA comply with these strict requirements for both integrity and nonpartisanship, keeping USAGM leadership out of the editorial decision-making process,” McCaul said.
The article reported how VOA had placed on paid leave two recently hired journalists in its Russian Service over their prior work at Russian-backed media outlets. It also detailed previous management controversies, including a case involving Seterah Derakhshesh Sieg, the chief of VOA’s Persian Service.
She was removed from her position in the Persian Service in 2020 during the administration of former President Donald Trump, after a USAGM-led investigation concluded Sieg had misrepresented her credentials and abused public funds.
Sieg was moved to a new position after a new USAGM investigation in 2021 during the administration of President Joe Biden exonerated her of those charges. Bennett was not yet confirmed as the CEO of USAGM at that time.
The previous leadership’s investigations of staff are the subject of an Office of Special Counsel investigation being carried out at the agency. The results have not yet been released.
During Thursday’s regular House Appropriations subcommittee hearing overseeing USAGM’s use of government funds, Representative Guy Reschenthaler alleged Bennett’s office had not responded to McCaul’s requests for more information.
Bennett said her office would commit to complying with all required congressional requests.
In response to allegations the article had been edited to remove embarrassing information, Bennett said, “The firewall does not permit me to reach across to influence their decisions in terms of what they do with their journalists.”
When asked about the allegations raised in the hearing, VOA spokesperson Bridget Serchak said, “VOA’s editorial firewall prohibits any interference from USAGM management in news coverage decisions. The updates to the VOA news story in question were made after a standard editorial review of the content by VOA newsroom editors.”
A spokesperson for USAGM also denied that agency was involved in the VOA’s editorial process, calling the firewall “sacrosanct.”
“Neither VOA journalists, nor any journalist at our entities, are given editorial direction from USAGM. Framing this as a 'firewall violation' is factually incorrect and misleading,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
When asked for comment in her personal capacity Thursday, Sieg said she had no comment.
Office of Cuba Broadcasting
Lawmakers also expressed concern about the state of free media in Cuba and suggested U.S. broadcasting could do more to address the problem.
"Cuba is one of the most restrictive media environments in the world," Bennett told lawmakers. "I think it has very successfully cut people off from the rest of the world. And yet at the same time, we do see — as I have some data to show you — that the Cuban people still want and crave that information and will go to lengths to find it.”
USAGM's Office of Cuba Broadcasting has been broadcasting news and information to Cubans since 1985. But in recent years, the Miami-based broadcaster has faced criticism about the journalistic integrity of its staff. Bennett acknowledged there had been significant lapses in the past and said there have been a number of reforms.
"We are really very aggressively moving towards putting in place structures that will help guarantee that," Bennett told lawmakers. "More aggressive content review to help us look and see what is going out and to assure those high standards through program reviews and basically making sure that there is no tolerance for anything other than the highest standards of journalistic ethics," she said.
Bennett was confirmed for a three-year term as CEO of USAGM last year in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 60-36. She served as the director of Voice of America from 2016-20, when she resigned prior to Trump-appointee Michael Pack taking over as USAGM CEO.
Bennett faced some Republican criticism during her confirmation process due to concerns about the security clearance process for employees during her tenure and a 2017 decision to cut short a VOA Mandarin Service interview with a Chinese dissident. Subsequent investigations into that decision found that the decision was justified.
Prior to her time at VOA, Bennett served as executive editor at Bloomberg News and was managing editor of The Oregonian newspaper. She also was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal for more than two decades, wrote six nonfiction books and has twice shared the Pulitzer Prize.
According to USAGM estimates, 394 million people access its programming each week. The federally funded agency overseen by the U.S. Congress has two federal entities, the Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. It also has four nonprofits: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Open Technology Fund.