At a time when access to accurate information is more critical than ever, leadership at Voice of America (VOA), the government-funded international news broadcaster, is actively undermining America’s ability to reach those around the globe who need it most.
VOA produces journalism in 46 languages around the globe, providing news through an American lens about the critical issues of the day. VOA frequently hires international journalists because they not only have a mastery of critical languages but also are knowledgeable of the journalistic landscape and have sources in the countries VOA serves. Often, their reporting is among the only news that reaches beyond the iron curtain of propaganda in despotic strongholds such as Russia or Venezuela, providing impartial news about the world and their home countries that is untainted by local regimes.
But the new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack, who oversees VOA, has quietly refused to sign international journalists’ contract renewals, forcing the impacted journalists to leave the country within 30 days unless they have already found a new job that provides a visa.
Dozens of VOA employees now find themselves in limbo. Already, many have found their contracts have not been renewed, with no explanation given, often with only a few days’ notice that they will soon need to leave the country. Journalists from places such as Iran face severe persecution for their work for the American government; sending them back puts their lives at great risk because of their commitment to our values.
In a press release last month, CEO Pack has couched his non-decision in a broad accusation against VOA, citing “systemic, severe, and fundamental security failures” within the agency. But if this is the cause for Pack’s decision to allow the contracts to expire, he should say so; instead, not only the press and the American people but also his employees are met with silence. The lack of specificity and evidence to support his claims make the accusations seem illegitimate.
The organization has faced criticism, most recently over its reporting related to coronavirus that was perceived by many conservatives and the Trump administration as too soft on China for refusing to interrogate China’s falsified coronavirus death count. But this concern has also been applied, with no less egregious examples, to many news organizations at home and abroad. The answer shouldn’t be to strip bare the department in the dead of night.
The White House’s concerns about VOA — real as they are — are endemic to the current media environment, not a foreign influence threat metastasizing within the agency. The growth of and threat from foreign propaganda within American media is a topic that VOA covered in detail not even two months ago. What the concerns demand is reform — thoughtful leadership that can reinvigorate an organization that has been broadcasting an American viewpoint to those suffering under the yoke of repressive governments dating back to Nazi Germany.
In a moment where America is pulling back from its global leadership mantle, VOA serves as an indispensable communication outlet charged with “telling America’s story.” This is particularly true in places where hostile foreign governments actively spread disinformation about the United States. Reducing the international staff of VOA will undermine America’s ability to broadcast our values and promote freedom as autocratic and anti-democratic forces gather steam around the globe.
The urgency to act is critical. The loss felt by a gutting of our international journalistic capabilities will surely be felt in the years and decades to come — but the window to act to address it is quickly shrinking. With foreign journalists already in limbo, and with only a 30 days before deportations can begin, Congress must act immediately.
Leaders from Capitol Hill have come to the aid of the embattled agency in recent months. In defending the agency, they not only pointed out the bravery of journalists who face down dictators within their home countries but also called on the guiding principles set forth for VOA to “act as a bulwark against disinformation through credible journalism.”
Four Republicans signed on to this letter: Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Jerry Moran, and Susan Collins. They urged CEO Pack to not “invest in an enterprise that denigrates its own journalists and staff to the satisfaction of dictators and despots, nor can it be one that fails to live up to its promise of providing access to a free and independent press.”
Achieving these goals — to the frustration of dictators and America’s adversaries around the globe — requires the aid of VOA’s indispensable foreign journalists, a point the staff at VOA have made repeatedly. Particularly when those who want to create false, negative perceptions of America have spared no expense to co-opt, bribe, and otherwise entice journalists, now is no time for America to voluntarily surrender the moral high ground that our democratic press freedoms afford.
The most compelling advantages America has in the global war against disinformation and propaganda is the freedom of our voices and the righteousness of our cause. These exist in spite of the problems we have domestically and within our own journalistic ranks. What sets us apart is our capacity to improve, to better live up to our ideals. This differentiator is no less accurate in describing what currently ails VOA.
Senators Rubio, Graham, Moran, and Collins should take a stand for these ideals, and actively push back against Pack’s irresponsible approach. As members of the president’s party, they are the only ones in a position to apply the kind of pressure that could avoid hamstringing America’s international legacy and global reception. Never has it been more important to tell America’s story, and do it in a way that reflects the truth to a world desperately in need of it.