Trump appointee rescinds rule shielding gov't news outlets from federal tampering

Pranshu Verma, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 28 2020 06:32 AM

WASHINGTON — The chief of the U.S. Agency for Global Media on Monday rescinded a rule that protects news outlets funded by the government, including Voice of America, from federal tampering.

The official, Michael Pack, defended the move as a way to improve management, but critics have expressed concerns that he is turning news outlets under his purview into a pro-Donald Trump public relations arm.

Pack said the provision, called a firewall, made his agency “difficult to manage.” He added that the news outlets he oversees — which include Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting — “are not commercial news companies.” He said the firewall rule, which prevented him from providing editorial oversight for those outlets, “threatened constitutional values.”

Pack’s action, announced Monday night, prompted concern from some lawmakers and former Voice of America officials, who warned that the move could undermine the integrity and authority of U.S.-funded news outlets. The outlets Pack oversees provide news to over 350 million people across the globe every week, many in censored societies that have no other access to unbiased information.

David B. Ensor, director of Voice of America from 2011 to 2015, said: “It’s terrible news. The firewall is something that distinguishes Voice of America from authoritarian radio and broadcasting organizations.”

One lawmaker said the law behind the firewall regulation still remains.

“Although Mr. Pack can huff and puff,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “he can’t blow that wall down.”

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Voice of America’s acting director, Elez Biberaj, said Pack’s decision would “not allow government officials to tamper with or otherwise distort VOA content,” adding that he is “fully committed to protecting VOA’s journalistic integrity.”

The concept of a firewall to protect the editorial independence of U.S.-funded news outlets found its origin in the Voice of America charter signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. In 1994, legislators strengthened the editorial independence of these news outlets after passing the International Broadcasting Act.

In June, days before Pack took over the U.S. Agency for Global Media, its bipartisan board of directors codified editorial protections in federal regulation, which state that a firewall separating the political and editorial sides of the agency is “essential to ensuring the continued credibility and therefore effectiveness of the journalism” of these outlets.

“The firewall articulates clearly that the decisions about who writes what are left to the journalists and not the politicians,” said David Kligerman, who wrote the June regulation and was later suspended from his role as general counsel at the agency by Pack. “When you look at the state-sponsored broadcasting of nondemocratic regimes such as Russia or China, they lack such protections.”

Pack’s attempts to control the editorial operations of the news outlets he oversees have prompted a rare bipartisan rebuke of his management.

In one of Pack’s first moves after taking charge, he fired the heads of the four news outlets and an internet technology nonprofit under his oversight. He also replaced the bipartisan board that supervises the organizations with allies of the Trump administration.

Earlier this month, five employees whom Pack had suspended sued him and his top aides, claiming they broke the law by repeatedly violating the firewall rule. The lawsuit detailed incidents in which Pack or his aides tried to exert control on journalists critical of his tenure. One example was an attempt by an aide to investigate Voice of America’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, after he signed a letter in August saying Pack risked “crippling the news outlet.”

“Michael Pack is turning VOA into a propaganda machine,” said Bricio Segovia, a former White House correspondent for the outlet’s Spanish language television service, “and he’s not even trying to hide it anymore.”

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