The Voice of America building, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
FILE - The Voice of America building, June 15, 2020, in Washington.

The new acting head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media this week approved several J-1 visa applications for foreign journalists working for Voice of America, one of the networks it oversees. The applications are the first to be approved by the agency since June last year.  

USAGM leader Kelu Chao, whom the Biden administration appointed in an acting capacity last Wednesday, approved the renewal applications for journalists in several VOA language services in the Africa, East Asia, South Asia and Eurasia divisions. 

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

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which last year helped connect some of those adversely affected by the denials with pro bono counsel and other resources, welcomed the decision, saying it helped both vulnerable journalists and the audiences who depend on them for news.  

“These individuals bring journalistic expertise, localized knowledge and language skills that are essential to the ability of VOA and other congressionally funded broadcasters to effectively serve their unique audiences worldwide,” Gabe Rottman, director of RCFP’s technology and press freedom project, told VOA.  

USAGM did not respond to VOA’s request for comment, including on whether journalists whose visas recently expired will be granted extensions.  

At least one journalist, whose visa expired in mid-December, says her security will be at risk if she is forced to return to Pakistan. The reporter, whose name has been withheld, told VOA she has received anonymous threatening messages over her reporting and pressure from acquaintances to not criticize the country’s military.   

Pack: 'Lax' security

The agency’s previous CEO, Michael Pack, stopped renewing the visa applications when he took over in June. His office told VOA at the time it was conducting a case-by-case review of the applications.  

FILE - Michael Pack

In interviews with conservative media, Pack said USAGM had a “lax attitude toward security” and that the J-1 visa program was “not designed for journalists” or intended to be “open-ended and a path to citizenship.”  

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a speech at VOA earlier this month, shared a similar view, saying VOA should not be “rubber-stamping J-1 visas for foreign nationals” from countries including China, adding that the U.S. has plenty of Mandarin speakers.  

The J-1 visa is a permit that allows individuals with specialized skills to work in the U.S.  

VOA reports in 47 languages, reaching a weekly global audience of 278 million. Many VOA language services rely on foreign journalists who bring not only language skills but also in-depth knowledge of current affairs and insight about how VOA can best reach those audiences. 

VOA’s public relations office confirmed that some J-1 visa applications were approved for the renewal process this week. “VOA uses this type of visa to recruit journalists with in-depth knowledge of foreign media markets and highly specialized language skills that cannot be found in the U.S.,” a spokesperson for the network said. 

Support for visa renewals

Senator Bob Menendez, incoming chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, welcomed the news, describing the agency’s journalists themselves as crucial to the outlet’s mission. 

FILE - Senator Bob Menendez

“They demonstrate not only the value of a free and independent press in the United States but are often the only ones working to bring unvarnished and unbiased news to places where autocratic rulers are constantly trying to control the information space, sometimes to the point of harassment and threats from the governments of the countries on which they report,” said Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat .  

A spokesperson for Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, said the senator was “relieved and heartened” by the recent changes at USAGM. Merkley in September introduced a bill to temporarily extend J-1 visas at VOA and its sister networks.  

FILE - Senator Jeff Merkley

By granting these visas, “USAGM and its outlets such as Voice of America can return to providing accurate and unbiased news that connects America with the world, and Senator Merkley will keep fighting for the editorial independence and support these organizations need to do their work,” the spokesperson told VOA. 

During Pack’s time as CEO, more than 30 J-1 visas were allowed to expire. VOA is aware of only one case in which the journalist was given a definitive refusal. The others received termination letters informing them of a dismissal because they no longer had a valid work permit. 

Until Pack’s arrival, the head of USAGM generally approved renewals of the visas. When hiring foreign journalists, VOA managers must make a strong case showing no suitable candidate was available in the United States, and the journalists selected go through extensive background and security checks.  

Safety at risk

USAGM received bipartisan condemnation last year about the decision to not renew visas, with both Democrats and Republicans warning Pack that his actions could result in journalists coming to harm if forced to return to hostile countries.

In one case, USAGM dismissed a journalist in the Mandarin Service and asked what date the journalist would like to return to China, a move that likely would have put the person at risk.

In an interview in December, Pack said he had been told a lot of the journalists would be subject to persecution and that he was sympathetic but USAGM was “not an asylum-granting agency.”   

FILE - Representative Gregory Meeks

“The J-1 debacle risked putting people in real danger by sending them back to countries where journalists are routinely targeted and harassed by authorities,” Representative Gregory Meeks, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told VOA on Thursday. 

“The Biden administration is showing its commitment to U.S.-supported international broadcasting efforts — and more importantly, its support for a free press and journalists around the world — by reversing Pack’s xenophobic and ill-advised policies and restoring the professional integrity of VOA,” said Meeks, a Democrat from New York. 

Several of the journalists told VOA at the time that they felt discriminated against and doubted a review of their applications had actually taken place. Some had been already living and working in the U.S. when they joined the agency and had changed their existing visa status to J-1 at USAGM’s request. 

The nonrenewal of visas was cited in a lawsuit alleging editorial interference and mismanagement at VOA, and by the Office of Special Counsel which ordered USAGM in December to investigate allegations of mismanagement and abuse of authority since June. Chao, who was then VOA program director, testified against USAGM in the lawsuit concerning VOA. 

Rottman, of the reporters committee, said, “Ensuring that the USAGM networks have the resources and staff to do their work is also an important step toward rebuilding the statutory firewall protecting the broadcasters' editorial independence.”