The Voice of America's entrance hall, leading to VOA offices and studios. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet)
The Voice of America's entrance hall, leading to VOA offices and studios. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet)

WASHINGTON - Two U.S. lawmakers said Thursday they are “outraged” by the dismissals that Michael Pack, the new chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the agency that oversees Voice of America, has ordered.

Pack dismissed the heads of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Open Technology Fund.

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Congressman Eliot L. Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, both Democrats, said in a joint statement, “That Mr. Pack took this drastic measure in his first week on the job is shocking, and we have deep concerns that he takes the helm of a critical agency with the intent to prioritize the Trump administration’s political whims over protecting and promoting independent reporting, which is a pillar of freedom and democracy.”

The Republican leader on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Michael McCaul, and Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn issued a joint statement saying they were troubled by the dismissal of Laura Cunningham, head of the Open Technology Fund, and its board of directors. 

The statement said the Open Technology Fund “has funded the development of open-source, security-tested tools to help those living under authoritarian regimes or those living in vulnerable situations, such as in Hong Kong, to access the internet and to communicate freely with one another without the fear of reprisal.”

The Associated Press reported that Pack did not give specific reasons for each dismissal, only that he was acting consistent with his authority as the new USAGM CEO.

The top two officials at VOA, the director, Amanda Bennett, and deputy, Sandy Sugawara, resigned from their posts on Monday.

Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also criticized Pack’s actions, warning the moves could undermine USAGM’s independence.

“Mr. Pack has gone on a wholesale firing spree, removing the heads of the networks, dissolving their corporate boards, only to replace them with unqualified political people, fundamentally undermining the mission and work of the organization. It's now obvious why the White House wanted Pack so badly, so they can transform the agency into their own personal mouthpiece,” Menendez said at the opening of a committee hearing related to COVID-19 on Thursday.  “This is a blow from which it may never recover. Once the credibility is gone, no one will ever trust a report from Radio Free Europe, Radio Martí, nor trust the tools of the Open Technology Fund."

Lowey and Engel said Pack replaced the corporate boards “with new boards comprising himself, his chief of staff, Trump Administration appointees, and the senior counsel of an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group.”

Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka and Michael Doran, a former State Department official under President George W. Bush, were among conservatives who publicly said they were disappointed at the firing of Alberto Fernandez, who led the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, The Washington Post reported.

“Ambassador Fernandez was the greatest asset America had in foreign broadcasting,” Gorka posted on Twitter on June 17.  

Fernandez said he was proud of the work the networks did during his three-year tenure and was honored to have worked with talented journalists in the United States, Dubai, Beirut and elsewhere. He also pointed to the ongoing challenges USAGM agencies face in getting news to the viewers, listeners and readers around the world.  

“Wish the incoming people at USAGM well,” Fernandez tweeted Wednesday. “I hope they know what they are doing. They have an immediate opportunity to make a difference. Yesterday the Iraqi government shut down Radio Sawa transmitters in Baghdad, Basra and Karbala and threatened to seize USG property.”

FILE - Michael Pack, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, is seen at his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Sept. 19, 2019. Pack's nomination was confirmed June 4, 2020.

Earlier Wednesday, Pack sent his first communication to VOA employees since being confirmed by the Senate last week, pledging in an email to uphold its mandated role of providing independent worldwide journalism even though it is a U.S. government-funded agency.

Pack wrote that he is “fully committed to honoring VOA’s charter ... and the independence of our heroic journalists around the world.”

He was nominated by President Donald Trump to lead USAGM more than two years ago. But with solid Democratic opposition to his appointment, the Republican-controlled Senate voted only two weeks ago to approve a three-year term for Pack to head USAGM.

The vote proceeded even though the Washington, D.C., attorney general’s office announced last month that its office is investigating whether Pack illegally moved money from a nonprofit group to his profit-making film company.

The USAGM said yesterday Pack had made critical changes to “steer the agency back toward its mission.” As with any transition, Pack had made a series of changes, in accordance with the law, and had brought in a leadership team “committed to eradicating the known mismanagement and scandals that have plagued the agency for decades,” the statement said. 

In recent weeks, Trump has criticized VOA for its news coverage of China during the coronavirus crisis. When asked about the Pack nomination on May 15, Trump said, “Voice of America is run in a terrible manner. They’re not the Voice of America. They’re the opposite of the Voice of America.”

Pack made no mention of Trump or the controversy in his email to staff. Nor did he say who he plans to name as VOA’s director.

Bennett was a staunch advocate for VOA’s independent journalism, rebuffing Trump’s recent criticism and defending the U.S.-funded news agency’s mission and reporting.

“We export the First Amendment to people around the world who have no other access to factual, truthful, believable information,” she said. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

“That’s why more than 80% of our 280 million audience in 47 languages in more than 60 countries say they find our work credible,” Bennett said.

Some outside watchdogs have voiced fears about Pack’s tenure at USAGM, citing his record as a conservative filmmaker and associate of former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon and suggesting he might not withstand White House pressure for news coverage favorable to Trump.

The New York Times said in an editorial Tuesday, “The specter of turning V.O.A. into a propaganda tool of the White House should be frightening to all Americans, regardless of political leanings.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump wants a bullhorn, not a diplomatic instrument, and he insists on loyalty.”

As Pack took over as chief executive, the directors of the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- which formerly controlled VOA and its sister networks -- published their own definition of independent journalism in the Federal Register of government actions.

“USAGM-funded networks each enjoy full editorial independence, as that term is defined and understood by best practices of journalism,” the statement said.

“Editorial independence includes, but is not limited to, the fact that only individuals within the network may make any decisions with respect to newsgathering or reporting,” the directors said. “USAGM networks and their employees, including the heads of each network, are fully insulated from any political or other external pressures or processes that would be inconsistent with the highest standards of professional journalism.”

Pack, in his mid-60s, has held previous executive positions at U.S. government international and public media agencies. But in recent years, he told USAGM employees, he has run a private venture, Manifold Productions, that has produced 15 documentaries that have aired in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting Service.

“These films were also my way of telling America’s story,” he said. “Although making documentaries is very satisfying work, I was eager to return to international broadcasting at this critical juncture in our history."

He said, “America’s adversaries have stepped up their propaganda and disinformation efforts. They are aggressively promoting their very different visions of the world.”

Pack said he would seek to improve employee morale at USAGM and “examine some of the problems that have surfaced in the media in recent years.”

“Most importantly,” he wrote, “my mission will be to make the agency more effective.”