>>Pranshu Verma, The New York Times
Published: 2020-10-09 19:37:37 BdST
The 84-page lawsuit asserts that Michael Pack, the chief executive of the US Agency for Global Media, or his aides have interrogated journalists at the Voice of America who have censured Pack or written articles top officials believed were critical of President Donald Trump, instilling fear across the agency.
Pack’s aide, Samuel E. Dewey, for example, began a retaliatory investigation against the Voice of America’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, after he signed a letter in August saying Pack risked “crippling” the news outlet.
As part of that investigation, Dewey and another aide scrutinised Herman’s “private social media activity for any hint of bias” against Trump, compiling a 30-page dossier that they sent to Voice of America’s top executive “in a clear effort to pressure the acting director to take action.”
In another episode, Dewey pressed the chief of Voice of America’s Urdu service over whether it had published enough content about civil unrest over the summer that highlighted the effect of what he described as “mass rioting.”
Dewey demanded to know if the news service had covered statements by Attorney General William Barr about “those who lived in underserved communities and had their property damaged.” Trump and his supporters have repeatedly tried to cast protests against police brutality and racial inequality as riots and looting.
Inside the Voice of America studio during a broadcast, in Washington, Dec. 3, 2018. (Jason Andrew/The New York Times)
“Journalists are safe where they favour the administration but not where they don’t,” the lawsuit states.
Representatives from the US Agency for Global Media did not immediately return a request for comment.
Since taking office in June, Pack thrust his relatively unknown agency into the spotlight. In one of his first moves, he swiftly fired the heads of the four news outlets and an internet technology nonprofit under his oversight. He also replaced the bipartisan board that supervises the organisations with allies of the Trump administration.
Since then, Pack has purged staff critical of his leadership; starved organisations he oversees from basic funding; and threatened to withhold visa approvals for at least 76 foreign journalists at the Voice of America who now may be deported because he has deemed them a “security risk.”
Critics of Pack assert he has run the agency in an authoritarian manner: finding any issue that confirms his perception of liberal bias at the organisation and doling out punishment in ways that intimidate employees who have been critical of the Trump administration.
“This is very Stalinist,” said Bricio Segovia, a former White House correspondent for VOA’s Spanish language TV service, who left the agency last month. “When you have people acting out of fear, that’s actually how most companies work in countries like Russia.”
One of the most glaring examples, plaintiffs said, occurred in late July, when a two-minute video posted on the news outlet’s Urdu-language website featured former Vice President Joe Biden urging Muslim Americans to vote and criticising Trump for his “Muslim ban.”
The video was a clear breach of the outlet’s editorial standards, but it also presented Pack the ability to send a message, plaintiffs said. Pack’s top advisers participated in an investigation into the clip — once again circumventing the agency’s firewall provisions. Shortly after the investigation concluded, the four journalists involved were fired.
Aside from violating editorial guidelines, others have said Pack has also threatened his agency’s ability to combat disinformation across the globe.
Pack has withheld nearly $20 million in funding to the Open Technology Fund, an internet freedom group that his agency oversees. The fund helped create encryption products — like Signal and Tor — used by more than 2 billion people in 60 countries. Now, it has been forced to suspend 80% of its projects, many of which allow citizens in China, Iran, Venezuela and Belarus to circumvent stringent government firewalls and read uncensored news, according to internet freedom groups.
As the critiques of Pack have grown, Democrats and even some Republicans are becoming increasingly furious by Pack’s leadership.
“He’s the wrong person for the job,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “He should resign. And if he doesn’t, the president should fire him.”
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