A man holds a sign during a 2019 rally in Hong Kong to show support for Uighurs and their fight for human rights. Radio Free Asia (RFA) was the first to report on the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China

A man holds a sign during a 2019 rally in Hong Kong to show support for Uighurs and their fight for human rights. Radio Free Asia (RFA) was the first to report on the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China

Many news consumers in the United States may have no idea that some of the world’s best reporting on what is happening in authoritarian societies and fragile democracies comes from news services that are funded by the U.S. government but led and staffed by professional journalists.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), for example, was the first to report on the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, leading to worldwide condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party’s systematic persecution of the ethnic and religious minority population.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is known for providing investigative reporting that holds governments to account in countries with limited press freedom, from Central Europe to South Asia. In Bulgaria, for example, where RFE/RL relaunched its service in 2019 in response to deteriorating media freedom conditions, the broadcaster’s investigations of high-level corruption swiftly led to the resignation of the justice minister and other officials.

Such enterprising journalism may now be in jeopardy. Early this month, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Michael Pack as the new chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees RFA, RFE/RL, the Voice of America (VOA), and their sibling news services. Almost immediately after Pack took office, the heads of several organizations under the agency were abruptly fired. The boards of each entity were also replaced with partisan appointees, many of whom have no relevant experience in international broadcasting, and spending on current projects was temporarily frozen.

Pack, a documentary filmmaker with close ties to former White House adviser Steve Bannon, promised Congress that he would respect the independence of the broadcast outlets. But his early steps, including his recent announcement that he will raise the profile of VOA editorials, have elevated concern that he will undermine the autonomy of the USAGM services and their mission to provide objective, fact-based news to millions of people around the world who live in countries without a free press, where information is censored or shrouded by government propaganda.

At a time when independent-minded reporters worldwide are subject to growing intimidation and even violence, and traditional news outlets are under intense financial strain, the USAGM’s politicization could have catastrophic effects on global press freedom. It could also deprive the U.S. government of one of its most useful soft-power tools against surging authoritarianism and democratic decay.

The influence of U.S. partisan politics on the global media agencies will likely chip away at press freedom at home and abroad in a variety of ways. USAGM reporters in the United States may be directed to toe a specific line in their coverage of certain topics or face censorship — a concern foreshadowed by the administration’s recent efforts to bar VOA journalists from interviewing officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, USAGM services operating in less free environments may be stripped of their ability to report critically about political leaders who are favored by President Trump, such as Russian president Vladimir Putin. This would be a terrible blow, coming just as RFE/RL’s Russian service gains influence and audience share. Ousted RFE/RL chief Jamie Fly recently said he was “proud that audiences are growing in Russia despite new Kremlin restrictions … and that authoritarians threaten and complain daily about @RFERL’s journalism, because they fear its power.”

Plans to relaunch RFE/RL service in Hungary this year may be scuttled given Trump’s warm regard for Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who has overseen the systematic dismantling of the country’s democracy since 2010. Hungary’s restricted information landscape stands to benefit from RFE/RL’s re-entry, which would help fill the vacuum left by the co-optation or closure of independent Hungarian outlets.

The USAGM services may maintain their objective reporting, but they could become discredited among local audiences if Pack or the White House openly attempt to direct their coverage. The administration has rebuked VOA for reporting it saw as soft on China, calling for a more aggressive stance under Pack’s leadership; VOA’s director, Amanda Bennett, defended the service’s coverage but resigned after Pack was confirmed. News consumers will be aware of such top-down mandates, which allow China’s state media to make a convincing case that RFA and VOA are simply propaganda tools of the US government.

Of course, if the new directors at USAGM succeed in politicizing the news services’ reporting in practice, the smear will be a statement of fact. This horrifying outcome would not only delegitimize the broadcasters among audiences. It would also eradicate their positive contributions as a check on abuses of power in countries where independent media are lacking. Their de facto disappearance from the information landscape would gravely harm the prospects for democracy in such countries.

Politicization of the USAGM services would also have indirect effects on local journalism in the countries where they operate. Illiberal leaders abroad have taken cues from President Trump in the past, mimicking his “fake news” rallying cry to delegitimize domestic media whose reporting they resent. The same leaders will take careful note of the changes at VOA and its sibling agencies, and follow Washington’s lead by asserting greater control over local outlets.

At the same time, a shake-up at the USAGM’s Open Technology Fund (OTF) threatens to disconnect millions of people from the secure online messaging and circumvention tools they use to access and share uncensored information. Local journalists often rely on OTF’s resources to get critical news to foreign and domestic audiences while protecting their own safety.

All of these scenarios pose a clear danger to press freedom and democracy around the world. Both the Trump administration and Congress have an obligation to uphold the independence of America’s global media agencies and support their mission to deliver objectively reported news. Millions of people — and their hopes to live in freedom — depend on it.

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