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

From the start of his tenure as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media in June, Michael Pack and his team of political appointees aggressively sought "to fundamentally remake USAGM into state sponsored media," according to a lawsuit filed in a federal court in Washington on Thursday.   

The 84-page document, filed on behalf of five former or suspended USAGM employees, asks the court to step in and stop decisions and actions by Pack and his team that the suit argues are unlawful or retaliatory and breach the editorial firewall protecting the media networks from political interference.   

When Pack took charge of USAGM, which 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 to replace Amanda Bennett, who stepped down.    

FILE - Michael Pack, CEO the U.S. Agency for Global Media, is seen at his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Sept. 19, 2019.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have flagged several concerns about Pack's decisions regarding the Open Technology Fund, the firing of network heads and his failure to renew visas for international journalists, among other matters.    

The plaintiffs named in the filing late Thursday include former USAGM CFO Grant Turner and four other senior executives who were placed on administrative leave in August.   

The named defendants include USAGM CEO Michael Pack and five of his staff members. 

The lawsuit says Pack and his team sought to install themselves in editorial decision making; scrutinized news copy and personal social media feeds of journalists at USAGM's networks, including at VOA, for perceived bias against President Donald Trump; and retaliated against staff who flagged concerns about alleged firewall violations and mismanagement.    

The suit also argues that Pack's decisions and investigations have affected VOA's editorial independence, with journalists and senior management avoiding stories that could be deemed controversial to protect staff from potential USAGM retaliation.    

Freezes and alleged violations of the Antideficiency Act — which prevents government agencies from spending funds differently from how Congress intended — have further hampered the USAGM mission, with VOA language services drastically reducing or cutting content after losing staff, the suit says.    

"If Voice of America and the other USAGM networks are to survive Defendants' insidious stewardship, this Court must act," the suit says. "It must enforce the firewall in the way Congress wrote it and the agency's own regulation construes it."  

The lawsuit comes in the wake of protected whistleblower complaints filed to the Office of the Inspector General and Office of Special Counsel on behalf of agency employees. The OIG in September also wrote to USAGM to express concern about comments suggesting it would take disciplinary action against whistleblowers within VOA.    

In a statement shared Friday with VOA, Pack said the lawsuit was "without merit" and that all of his and his team's decisions and actions are "correct and lawful."   

"USAGM leadership will not allow any effort to distract attention away from the real issues of an agency that has been poorly run and mismanaged for years, to the detriment of national security and the American people and the agency's ability to perform its important mission of promulgating American ideals such as democracy and freedom around the world," Pack said.    

Editorial interference   

The lawsuit alleges several breaches of the federally regulated editorial firewall that prohibits anyone in the executive branch or a network outside the newsroom from "attempt[ing] to direct, pressure, coerce, threaten, interfere with, or otherwise impermissibly influence any of the USAGM networks."   

On Pack's first day in office he removed VOA standards editor Steven Springer, a veteran journalist who oversees and enforces the agency's editorial guidelines. To date, USAGM has ignored multiple communications from VOA leadership that the position is critical to the network, the suit says.    

FILE - The Voice of America building, in Washington, June 15, 2020.

The lawsuit cites a letter sent to management by an unnamed senior editor in August that argues that the extended absence of a standards editor, especially during a U.S. presidential election, "is frankly journalistic malpractice."  

"The longer the position remains empty, the more likely we will make errors that undermine our credibility," the editor wrote.    

The lawsuit also alleges interference in personnel matters including the firing of Radio Free Asia executive editor Bay Fang; attempts to reassign a newly hired New York bureau chief for VOA — an effort resisted by the newsroom; and Pack's refusal to sign J-1 visas — the special entry permits for individuals with unique talents.    

The latter, the suit argues, has resulted in several VOA language services "struggling to produce the volume and quality of content both Congress and their audience expect."  

VOA has more than 40 language services that broadcast to a weekly audience of some 280 million people.    

The lawsuit says VOA had to cancel Hausa-language service affiliation partnerships as well as "radio and Twitter content aimed at young people who are vulnerable to extremism." Actions by the defendants led to a shortage of staff for the Mandarin service and reduced programming in Russian, Iranian and Korean languages, as well as disruption to Venezuela programming, the suit says.    

Intimidation and investigations    

The lawsuit accuses Pack and co-defendants, including senior adviser Samuel Dewey, of illegally interfering with journalistic content.    

It alleges Dewey has tried to insert himself into news coverage meetings; bypassing newsroom leadership to speak directly with journalists to seek action.     

USAGM policy states that suspected editorial shortcomings should be investigated by journalists at the news networks rather than outside officials. The suit argues USAGM management does not have the authority to initiate an investigation into specific editorial issues or impose punishments.   

In one such investigation, USAGM officials questioned reporters and editors about profiles of first lady Melania Trump and Jill Biden, with an emphasis on the author of specific words about the president's comments on immigrants and his attacks on "perceived adversaries on Twitter." The line was changed before publication.   

"USAGM's attempt to root out the writer and editor responsible for these words is a reprehensible attempt to retaliate against reporters … and to penalize them for taking what they perceive to be an anti-Trump viewpoint," the suit alleges.  

Dewey also asked VOA's leadership to identify which journalists are working on which stories, the suit alleges. It says that interference by the CEO's office has led to self-censorship to avoid retaliation against staff.    

The lawsuit details a September newsroom meeting at which VOA managers dropped several political stories "because of increased scrutiny, the investigations, and the risks of retaliation by the Defendants." 

Similarly, reporting has been adjusted to prevent any possibility of the defendants interpreting content as pro-Biden.   

A senior VOA manager wrote to VOA's leadership: "[W]e have reached a point where we, in the News Center, are at least as worried about self-censorship as we are about bias and think we need to be equally vigilant against both."  

The investigations and scrutiny of staff extends beyond the news content published by the agency. The lawsuit details investigations into journalists' social media profiles and alleges Pack and his team compiled a 30-page document about White House Bureau Chief Steven Herman, who had written a letter to VOA acting director Biberaj raising concerns about Pack's actions.    

Staff in the CEO's office "have placed Herman's reporting under a magnifying glass since the letter, and have been watching Herman's private social media activity for any hint of bias," the suit alleges. 

USAGM staff shared with Biberaj the document that alleged Herman had conflicts of interest.   

The suit says the actions amount to an attempt to intimidate and undermine Herman's coverage of the administration.    

FILE - Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Tex, questions witnesses during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 16, 2020.

In response to allegations about an investigation into Herman, lead Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul of Texas said earlier this week he was "concerned about the state of affairs at USAGM and its grantees like OTF under CEO Pack's watch." OTF provides grants to create technology to facilitate the free flow of information. 

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said the investigation was "inappropriate and possibly illegal."    

"This didn't happen in a vacuum. This is all part of the growing politicization of the United States Agency for Global Media, which VOA is housed under, by new CEO Michael Pack," Murphy told VOA. "Freedom of press is crucial to a democracy. That's why I'm working on legislation to protect journalists from being targeted for their perceived political views."     

FILE - Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 24, 2020.

An Oct. 4 policy memo Pack shared about social media use and conflicts of interest is similarly viewed by the lawsuit as an attempt to control reporters and their supervisors.  

In a statement Monday on the memo, Biberaj said 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," Biberaj said.  "VOA considers any violation of the firewall or attack on its journalistic independence completely unacceptable."    

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), a nonprofit that offers pro bono legal support to journalists, said Pack's actions have "prompted broad bipartisan condemnation."   

"This lawsuit is a welcome step in restoring independence to the broadcasters so they can continue to provide crucial news services to audiences around the world, particularly in countries suffering under censorship or state-controlled media," said Gabe Rottman, director of RCFP's technology and press freedom project.  

Funding    

Since his appointment, Pack has frozen budgets at the agency, imposed hiring freezes, and attempted to redistribute funding already approved by Congress. The latter carries administrative and penal sanctions, the suit says.  

USAGM distributes grants to the networks but since June several funds have been withheld without explanation. The funds had already been allocated via appropriation bills signed into law by the president.   

Other funds were moved internally and without legal authorization, the suit alleges, including $3.4 million in Internet Freedom funds which were moved from a grantee without notifying the appropriate bodies or having them reapportioned by the Office of Management and Budget, and $1.4 million from the Office of Policy Research.