A general view of the Voice of America (VOA) sign on its headquarters in Washington, D.C., on July 31, 2020 amid the Coronavirus pandemic. This week the United States surpassed 150,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, although the actual count is thought to be significantly higher, as negotiations within the Republican Party and Senate sputtered ahead of crucial deadlines for unemployment insurance, eviction and the greater stimulus package. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)No Use UK. No Use Germany.

The United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) management, which oversees five federally-funded broadcast networks, has suspended four journalists on contract with possible termination. The four journalists are charged with influencing the US elections and violating federal laws by favoring Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden in a video published by the Urdu language service of the Voice Of America (VOA). 

The supervisory staff of the language service responsible for the day-to-day editorial decisions and management meanwhile, has received no disciplinary action. Contracted employees feel they are being scapegoated to save the jobs  of their supervisors, VOA sources told The Real News requesting not to be named because of the possible backlash. 

The controversy ensued after Michael Pack – the new CEO of USAGM and a Trump appointee – recently came out with a string of accusations against VOA including publishing Pro-Biden content and violating VOA’s charter and federal laws that govern political activities of government employees. The Biden campaign has since also jumped into the shouting match, with the former vice president’s spokesperson Andrew Bates announcing he would  fire Pack within days of a Biden presidency.

At the heart of the ongoing investigation is a video clip published by VOA Urdu service, which caters to Urdu-speaking audiences in the South Asia region and is one of the largest of the 46 language services. Published on VOA Urdu website and social media platforms on July 22, the 2-minute video showcases Biden’s recent online event urging Muslim-Americans to vote for him. The video was later taken down after top VOA managers found it violated the network’s editorial policies and best practices

Captioned with Urdu subtitles, the video features Joe Biden promising Muslim Americans that if elected he would overturn the Muslim ban Trump placed on seven Muslim majority coutries. The VOA management later found the video favored the Democractic presidential hopeful by providing him a platform to reach potential voters through its coverage and violated editorial guidelines as well as the federal law that requires government employees not to engage in political activities.  

Following the investigation into the incident, four Urdu Service contractors were held responsible and were asked to appear before the counsel general to record their statements, two people familiar with the incident told The Real News. On July 30, three of the four contractors appeared for the interview and reportedly asserted that the video in question was okayed for publishing by their full time supervisor – a senior manager at the VOA Urdu. 

After the meeting, all four contractors received a 14-day suspension notice from the VOA human resources while the Agency investigated the matter. This has stirred considerable anxiety among the VOA contracted employees, especially those on J-1 visa because they will be required to leave the US within a month in case of termination. Two of the contractors involved in the incident hold J-1 visas. 

And this suits Pack – the new USAGM CEO – who, in line with the White House anti-immigrant agenda, is continuing with the freeze on issuing or renewing J-1 visas. VOA hires foreign journalists on J-1 to augment its language services, a decades-long practice, because of the nonviability of foreign language expertise in the US. Upon hiring, the J-1 grantees are allowed to bring their spouses to the US, and the Trump administration has lately moved aggressively to block all potential migration channels.

Reportedly, more than 70 VOA employees on J-1 are up for visa renewal. As of the filing of this report, there is no official word from the USAGM or VOA management on whether their visas will be renewed or not. Association with US-government agencies such as VOA often turns its journalists into potential targets back home where hostile governments view them as loyal to the US interests and where conspiracy theories about VOA as a cover for CIA are widespread. Foreign journalists on J-1 often come from Iran, Russia, Venezuela, China and other countries where VOA operations are not seen as favorable. 

In response to TRNN inquiry, a spokesperson at the VOA referenced a news release issued last month in which Pack alleges that other federal agencies” has conducted assessments that “reveal systemic, severe, and fundamental security failures, many of which have persisted for years.” It is not clearly stated whether visa renewals are being withheld because of the “security failures” the statement alleges. As standard practice, all VOA hires go through months-long background security checks before coming onboard. 

The Real News has spoken to VOA employees who mentioned they know several colleagues whose J-1 visas are expiring as early as late August. “We do most of the work in VOA and this is how we are treated,” lamented one foreign journalist awaiting J-1 renewal. Requesting not to be named for the fear of reprisal, the journalist compared working at VOA to modern-day slavery. 

“We have no rights or recourse available against this injustice,” they said. “We came here legally and have worked to earn our right to stay. But our managers are not saying a word about visa renewal which is a very painful experience.”

And punishing contractors for editorial negligence of supervisory staff, who enjoy government job protections, has added to these grievances. With no recourse available or voice in the management decisions, the incident has led to a widespread fear among the contracted employees prompting the VOA acting director Elez Biberaj to send out Agency-wide memo emphasizing the severity of the incident. 

This incident has not only tarnished the work of VOA’s Urdu Service, but it has cast a shadow on the credibility of hundreds of dedicated journalists working around the clock to fulfill VOA’s mission,” the memo reads. 

It goes on to say that “in light of this unfortunate incident, we are taking immediate measures to strengthen our editorial oversight procedures and quality controls throughout the organization.” 

A person briefed TRNN on the ongoing investigation explained what they believe is the reason for Pack to go after the contractors and spare the VOA federal employees . 

“Pack probably does not want to turn VOA bureaucracy against him in case his tenure is cut short after November,” they said.“So, he’s chosen a soft target to make his point. Suspending or terminating contractors is a win-win, no questions asked and you don’t antagonize the bureaucrats.It keeps his boss [Trump] happy and lets him score a few low-hanging fruits.”  

 Running on taxpayer dollars, VOA is no stranger to controversies on account of  management inadequacies and editorial blunders and has consistently ranked as one of the lowest amongst US federal agencies in terms of job satisfaction and employee morale. It stood at 23 of 25 agencies assessed in the 2019 federal government employees annual survey. According to a 2019 statement from the American Federation of Government Employees, , the union which represents most of the USAGM Federal employees, the workforce is demoralized and fearful.   

Editor’s Note: The author is a former VOA international broadcast journalist and covered politics and international affairs. 

Aman Azhar

Climate Change Reporter
Aman is an experienced broadcast journalist with multimedia skills and has more than a decade of international reporting experience. He has previously worked with globally recognized news media brands, including BBC World Service and VOA. Aman brings with him several years of reporting experience covering political, and diplomatic affairs.