U.S. House Democrats published an open letter Friday expressing concern about the recent firings of heads of several news agencies under the U.S. Agency for Global Media, urging more transparency in its strategy and suggesting lawmakers should “consider fencing portions of USAGM funding.”
Eleven representatives sent the letter to the heads of the House Appropriations subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programs, declaring they were “deeply concerned about the firings of qualified leadership” and “reports that USAGM has frozen funds and grants" for programs aimed at evading censorship and providing tools for internet freedom in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
Signed by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and other top Democrats, the letter expresses alarm about changes made by USAGM's CEO, Michael Pack, whom the Senate confirmed to lead the agency last month.
Beyond personnel and budgetary matters, the lawmakers expressed concern that the agency's "truth-based reporting and programming" would be jeopardized if its editorial independence was eroded.
The letter was sent ahead of Monday's scheduled congressional hearing on oversight of the agency by the subcommittee that helps set funding for America's outreach to the world.
Earlier in the week, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Pack saying they planned to review USAGM's funding in light of recent developments. The senators said they were “deeply concerned” by Pack’s decision to fire the chiefs of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, as well as the Open Technology Fund, which supports the free flow of information to countries that restrict press freedom.
“These actions, which came without any consultation with Congress, let alone notification, raise serious questions about the future of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) under your leadership,” the senators wrote.
Pack and the USAGM have not responded to questions from VOA about the lawmakers’ letters.
In an email to USAGM staff shortly after his arrival, Pack promised to respect VOA’s charter and the editorial independence of the news agency, as is mandated by federal law. This week, Pack nominated career employees at VOA, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as acting heads of each agency.
At the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Pack named Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a lawyer, legal analyst and reporter who worked for the Breitbart news website before becoming an adviser at OCB in 2017, as acting director and principal deputy director.
The Senate confirmed Pack on June 4, two years after President Donald Trump nominated him to head the agency that oversees U.S. government-funded news networks. Pack said the appointments announced Tuesday “will serve critical roles in allowing our networks to become higher performing and to more effectively serve our audiences.”
Together, the five USAGM news networks, including VOA, have a weekly global audience of more than 350 million listeners, viewers and internet users in 61 languages.
Trump recently accused VOA of being pro-China in its reporting on Beijing's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
At the time, VOA's then-director, Amanda Bennett, defended 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. “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.”