Congress urged to review editorial firewall protections for US-funded media networks

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A government report recommends that Congress pass legislation to better define editorial firewalls at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the VOA.

The Government Accountability Office, which audits U.S. government agencies for Congress, released a 60-page report on Wednesday examining the impact of legislation passed in recent years on USAGM’s organizational structure and editorial independence.

The report examines the tumultuous tenure of former USAGM CEO Michael Pack, who became the agency’s CEO with expanded powers to oversee several taxpayer-funded news networks, including Voice of America,

Shortly after being confirmed by the Senate, Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker, drew criticism from U.S. lawmakers and others by sacking most network heads and replacing members of former bipartisan boards. .

Pack’s actions later resulted in legal action; whistleblower complaints alleging serious mismanagement and retaliation; a subpoena from Congress; and court orders prohibiting him from interfering with the operations of the networks and beneficiary organizations he oversaw, including VOA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcast Networks, the Broadcasting Bureau of Cuba and the Open Technology Fund.

FILE – Confirmation hearing for USAGM CEO candidate Michael Pack, September 19, 2019.

David Seide, senior counsel for the Government Accountability Project, who represented several agency whistleblowers, said the report did a “commendable job” in examining allegations of misconduct against Pack and his team.

“The agency’s independence and the existence of the firewall are essential to the mission of VOA, other networks and the USAGM. And the GAO recognized that more work could be done in the space and should be done, ”Seide said.

Seide said the report referred to three independent investigators hired by the USAGM to examine the allegations made against the Pack team between June 2020 and January 2021.

“Basically, this report suggests that CEO Pack had gone out of its way in various ways on various topics. And so, this report lists those cases and provides a good basis for strengthening agency independence,” Seide told VOA. .

GAO makes two recommendations to Congress. The first focuses on changes to the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1994 on hiring and firing members of the board of directors of concessionaires, and the second recommends legislation to more clearly define what fire covers and does not cover.

When asked to comment, USAGM referred VOA to a response from USAGM included in the report. In the letter dated Oct. 5, USAGM Interim CEO Kelu Chao said she agreed with the recommendations and “recognizes the importance of sound grant management.”

The firewall was at the heart of a November 2020 lawsuit in which a Federal District Court ruled that VOA journalists have First Amendment rights. The ruling imposed a preliminary injunction to prevent further attempts to repeal or breach the firewall.

After Pack’s resignation, the law firm representing members of USAGM, including Chao, then director of the VOA program, in a case against the Pack team, agreed to withdraw the case on condition that the ministry of Justice does not file a request for annulment of the decision.

Chao was appointed interim CEO of USAGM in January.

The deal is important because it means network reporters could cite the ruling in future lawsuits over alleged firewall violations, said Lee Crain, of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who acted as counsel. of the plaintiffs in the case.

Crain welcomed the report’s recommendations, saying: “It’s really exciting to think that they are going to try to build what was in the previous regulation into legislation.

“Our position in the case was that there was sufficient language in the statute and in the legislative history of the president [Barack] Obama and various congressional committees that the firewall has been incorporated into law. But that said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with clarifying and making things more specific, ”Crain told VOA.

The GAO focuses on the powers of the CEO on the advice of the beneficiaries. These powers were extended when Congress changed the agency’s governing structure in 2018.

Supporters of the change hoped the CEO would be able to better manage and coordinate the agency’s networks, which in 2020 had a budget of around $ 810 million.

But the GAO said Pack had appointed himself chairman of all boards and appointed new members. The report quotes agency officials as saying the move “increased uncertainty and lowered morale among network staff.”

The challenges reflect a long-standing tension over what the role of VOA should be.

By repealing the firewall, Pack had argued that the agency’s rules prevented it from fulfilling its executive responsibilities to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives. But critics have argued that making sweeping changes to the firewall and bipartisan boards undermines the networks’ credibility with foreign audiences.

Crain said the disagreement underscored the need to clarify the CEO’s powers and responsibilities.

“Looking at what was going on at the time, I think it was very scary for a lot of people, the idea that Mr. Pack would have the power to put whoever he wants on that advice in perpetuity, and sort of to bury its current policies forward, when that was not what the administration wanted. It was not what a lot of bipartisan members of Congress wanted with these organizations. So I think it is makes perfect sense to impose some sort of structural reform. “

Failures

The report cites some shortcomings, including USAGM’s failure to address a gap in grant tracking and compliance with federal grant regulations. But the report notes that “corrective action” is being taken, including a plan to hire someone to oversee the improvements.

He also cited a whistleblower complaint alleging misconduct by the director of the Persian division of VOA, who was accused of fraud, waste and abuse. The manager was put on administrative leave while the Pack team took steps to fire her.

The official was reinstated and the dismissal request was quashed when Chao was appointed interim CEO.

FILE - Ranking committee representative Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, September 16, 2020.

FILE – Ranking committee representative Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, September 16, 2020.

Republican U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, however, wrote to USAGM on Wednesday, requesting information on the decision to reinstate the senior official.

McCaul said the USAGM’s labor and employment relations office found a reason for the termination, including “tampering … with credentials and abuse of public funds.”

He also questioned Chao’s relationship with the official and requested that the acting CEO detail his role in the rehiring process and provide other information and documents, by November 17.

USAGM told VOA it is not commenting on communication, or possible communication, between the agency and members of Congress.

Investigators for the GAO report interviewed managers and journalists working for USAGM networks. Pack and his senior advisers all declined to be interviewed, according to the report.

The report highlighted other steps the USAGM took to reverse some of Pack’s policies, including the non-renewal of J-1 work visas for the agency’s foreign journalists, which the report said resulted in “a significant loss of personnel with specialized skills and knowledge”.

Authorization to renew visas has been given to VOA’s acting director, and the network has since approved 23 visas and is in the process of rehiring at least 15 journalists who were fired after their visas under Pack expired.

Seven foreign journalists whose contracts were terminated under Pack filed a complaint for abusive termination and damages. Three of them had to leave the United States

VOA’s Jessica Jerreat and Barry Newhouse contributed to this report.


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