Dozens of contract employees and foreign journalists at the taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) are losing their jobs and being forced out of the United States after President Trump-appointed Michael Pack, the new CEO of VOA parent agency United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), asserts control over management and editorial decisions. The result over the past few weeks has been terminations, refusal of J-1 visa renewals, and a spending freeze.
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At the heart of this ongoing battle for management and editorial control are Pack’s allegations of systemic security failures and biased news coverage by previous VOA leadership. Since taking over as CEO, Pack’s office has stopped issuing or renewing J-1 visas for foreign journalists on the grounds of conducting a case-by-case review.
The Real News has learned that at least 15 journalists with VOA’s Latin America division have contracts and J-1 visas already expired or expiring next week without any official word on their status. These include six journalists on J-1 visas who have received termination letters (the rest are full-time or part-time employees). One of the affected journalists—who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation—told The Real News that they have received backdated termination letters without even the mandatory two weeks notice under their contract: “They told me my phone will be blocked on the last day of my contract and [they] have already suspended my email,” they said.
Bricio Segovia, the White House correspondent for VOA’s Spanish language service, became the latest victim of apparent retaliation after he asked senior WH official Mauricio Claver-Carone about the plight of journalists on J-1 visas. After the interview went live on VOA’s Spanish language website, Bricio’s official email and credentials were suspended.
A senior VOA manager—who is a federal employee—sent out an agency-wide email asking all language services not to publish any part of the interview and immediately report if they have already done so. Segovia, the White House correspondent for the Latin America division, later tweeted that VOA took down his interview and republished it after taking out the questions he asked Claver-Carone about Pack’s policies.
This is the translation of the interview segment that @VOANews does not want you to see. The interview was originally in Spanish for the Spanish Service of VOA, @VOANoticias. pic.twitter.com/07Idi9g9SJ
— Bricio Segovia (@briciosegovia) August 29, 2020
With at least 15 journalists out of commission because of expired contracts, VOA’s Latin America division is facing a staff shortage. The digital director of the division recently told staff at a meeting that losing contractors amounts to a “40% loss of web traffic and 50% less social media engagement as the division will not be able to manage its digital operations because of the staff cuts.” According to sources in the Latin America division, the senior manager also stated these changes will have an impact on ongoing projects related to freedom of the press in Venezuela.
The situation is especially dire for foreign journalists, who fear retaliation because of their association with VOA if they go back to their home countries. This is true for journalists recruited from Russia, China, Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, to name a few, where VOA is commonly seen as a propaganda arm for the CIA. VOA journalists in these countries have frequently been targeted by security agencies as well as violent actors because of their affiliation with American government agencies.
Last week, two journalists with VOA’s Indonesia service departed the U.S. after they were refused J-1 visa renewal and are said to be in quarantine after landing in their home country. Another journalist, a European national, will lose her visa within the next few days, and is being put on a flight once her visa expires, leaving her no time to weigh her options. VOA sources confirmed at least 15 journalists will need visa renewal in coming weeks and will likely have to leave the United States.
In at least two cases, contract employees were told at least two months in advance that their contracts will not be renewed because Pack’s office has implemented a budget freeze until Dec 31. One affected staffer told TRNN he has decided to leave the United States because he cannot afford living here now. “I wish VOA all the best but I have my doubts about its future because of the new direction it is taking,” an affected employee said. He worked with VOA for over 10 years before being let go.
The Real News has interviewed at least seven VOA journalists facing contract termination or being forced to leave the country because of visa expiration. These include four VOA Urdu language service contractors, who were initially suspended for their alleged role in a Pro-Biden video the service published on its digital platforms in July, which attracted the ire of USAGM’s CEO who called it an attempt to influence American elections. TRNN has published a detailed report on this controversy and the resulting ongoing investigation.
On Aug. 26, all four of those contractors received termination letters signed by VOA human resources officer J. R. Hill: “On Aug. 11, 2020 I sent you a show cause notice which advised you of my proposed termination of your contract,” the letter reads. It concludes the contractors failed to demonstrate “the publishing of the story was not due to your fault” and as a result their contracts are terminated with immediate effect.
These terminated employees spoke to TRNN and asked not to be named because they are appealing the decision. Among them is another J-1 staffer who handled digital publishing for VOA’s Urdu language service. Following her termination, she has to leave the United States within a month. The other staffer who was let go said he has already received death threats on social media after the news of his termination got out. He’s unsure if he has to apply for asylum to be able to stay on. One of the four terminated Urdu service contractors is contacting members of Congress to draw attention to their summary dismissal.
Meanwhile, the top managers of the Urdu language service received far lesser penalties than the four contract employees terminated for publishing the pro-Biden video. The chief of Urdu service Kokab Farshori returned after a weeklong suspension. VOA insiders claim the higher ups of VOA South and Central Asia division are trying to save the service chief and his deputy who gave the go-ahead for the controversial Biden video that led to the termination of contractors. According to these sources, USAGM is leading a separate investigation into the mismanagement at Urdu language service, including “biased coverage of recent Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C.”
A spokesperson for USAGM sent the following statement to TRNN: “CEO Pack, who is firmly committed to carrying out long-needed reform at the agency, will continue to ensure that violations of the agency’s professional journalistic principles are dealt with swiftly and fairly in order to safeguard USAGM’s reputation and the integrity of its news and information programming, which reach a weekly global audience of over 350 million people.”
This situation brings into sharp relief the problems contract employees face: “We do most of the work in VOA and this is how we are treated. We have no rights or recourse available against this injustice,” one affected staffer told TRNN.
“Coming to the U.S. was my dream,” another staffer said. “And now it’s shattered for no fault of mine.”
Separately, a journalist of Pakistani origin has been in Washington, D.C., for three months now, awaiting a contract after VOA processed her J-1 visa and got her flight to the United States. Unable to start working, she is weighing her legal options. She told TRNN it is no longer possible for her to live out of her own pocket, and VOA management has not advised her of what to expect.
In a statement, Representative Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said: “It’s clear that the agency is just trying to run out the clock until these journalists are forced to leave. Mr. Pack still has time to act to resolve this situation, but make no mistake, he is accountable for what comes next.”
Pack is set to testify before the Committee on Foreign Affairs on Sept. 24.