Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts in 47 languages to over 280 million people around the world, including in countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar. VOA, founded in 1942, serves “as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news … [representing] America, not any single segment of American society,” according to the organization’s charter, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Today, though, journalists at the news outlet fear they are being treated like journalists in some of the countries to which VOA broadcasts, where press freedom is under constant attack. According to one current employee, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, the current atmosphere is like living under Stasi control, a reference to the reviled East German secret police. Management recently sent out an email asking employees to come forward, anonymously, with any concerns about the work environment. But there is no trust that anonymity will be kept, this person says: “You can’t really open your mouth anymore without being marked. Many people are afraid, especially those who need a visa.”
“I have covered media for more than 20 years, and I have covered controversies in Voice of America before,” says NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this. This is the kind of war being waged upon broadcasters and the agency by the leadership of the agency itself.”
The trouble began soon after President Donald Trump appointed Michael Pack CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM,) VOA’s supervising agency. He took his seat in June, shortly after Trump fiercely attacked VOA for its coverage of Covid-19, characterizing it as “disgusting” and a “disgrace.”
Within weeks, Pack fired the heads of the agency and many senior staff. A new structure within the agency, which dismantled a previous bipartisan board, meant Pack basically answers to no one but the president. At the end of September six senior officials at USAGM filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Department’s inspector general and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, alleging that they were retaliated against for raising concerns about Pack. Their 32-page complaint, obtained by Politico, accuses USAGM leadership of violating the law and mismanaging the organization. The lawsuit describes, for example, how in an editorial meeting in September 2020, newsroom “managers at Voice of America killed multiple stories on political issues specifically because of the increased scrutiny, the investigations, and the risks of retaliation” by USAGM’s political leadership.
Earlier this month, NPR reported that VOA’s longtime White House correspondent Steve Herman has been investigated by political USAGM appointees, allegedly for being unfair to President Trump on his social media accounts. Around the same time, VOA employees received an email broadening the definition of “conflict of interest” to include criticism of Trump.
Journalists within VOA are using words such as “fearful,” “sad,” “scary,” and “terror” to describe their working environment. Many are reluctant to talk openly, fearing they might lose their jobs. Others have even more to lose.
Some VOA employees who are not American citizens rely on their positions to keep their legal status in the U.S. Some come from countries that would treat them as traitors for working for a U.S.-sponsored news outlet. They are afraid for their personal safety, and sometimes for that of their families, if forced to leave the U.S. “This is the time to keep your head down,” as one employee said on condition that this person’s name not be used.
“VOA is often one of the few critical and independent voices available in countries without a free press, such as Russia and China,” noted Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, in June. “Restrictions on VOA at home will be noted by illiberal leaders abroad, who may follow the example of the United States and crack down on VOA or other independent outlets in their countries … The administration must respect and commit to maintaining the firewall that prohibits political interference in VOA’s independent reporting.”
Kate Wright, senior lecturer in media and communications at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, lead-authored a paper in May examining the role of state-funded news outlets in various countries, including the U.S. Wright says the Trump administration is at risk of becoming a “hybrid regime,” which combines democratic elements with authoritarian elements, such as state efforts to repress criticism and limit the access of the opposition to the political process. “Hybrid regimes tend to be extremely dangerous for journalists,” she says. “At VOA, we have seen an extreme and obvious example of this strategy at work, with journalists’ interview requests being blacklisted by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and Pack systematically purging top executives, refusing foreign journalists U.S. visas, and discrediting others by alleging that they have questionable motives or political alliances. The network is very vulnerable now.”
USAGM’s General Counsel David Kligerman is one of the six whistleblowers who came forward against Pack’s changes. He fears the impact of political interference on coverage if the administration gets its way: “Perhaps we will just tell good news about America. Perhaps it will only be good news about whatever party currently controls the executive branch and less flattering stories about the other party. Ultimately, if that were to transpire, it is hard to see how the result of this would not be a loss of VOA’s credibility and ultimately its effectiveness.”
In response to these developments, Senator Chris Murphy (CT-D) proposed new legislation to prevent political pressure on journalists at Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded networks. Nieman Reports asked to speak with officials in VOA and USAGM. VOA forwarded the request to USAGM, which did not respond.
So far VOA’s coverage hasn’t changed. VOA’s “2020 USA Votes” page, for example, reported on the “uncivil debate” between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden, provided its readers with an account on The New York Times investigative piece on the president’s tax returns, and uploaded a dozen short video clips explaining how U.S. elections work.
It might be too early to see dramatic changes in coverage, Folkenflik notes, adding that some election-related content has actually been removed from VOA’s site per the new regulations and internal investigations. And Wright points out that the Editorials section, specifically reflecting the U.S. administration’s views, has been given much more prominence on VOA’s site since Pack took over.
“Journalistic self-censorship can become normalized very quickly, and it can be very hard to repair the damage — even when the ruling party changes,” Wright says, referring to a possible Biden victory in the presidential election.
“Many observers are profoundly worried about a chilling effect on the newsroom,” says Kligerman, noting reports of a collective — if unspoken — fear that certain stories may bring blowback from political appointees at USAGM.
Note: In a previous version of this article, Kate Wright offered a harsher assessment of the Trump administration’s authoritarian tendencies. Wright revised her assessment to more accurately reflect the conclusions of reports on which she based her comments.