By Jessica Jerreat
Twenty-six journalists have demanded that Voice of America’s director resign after a series of alleged retaliatory measures and firewall violations culminated in the reassignment of one of VOA’s most high-profile reporters.
A statement shared publicly Thursday accuses director Robert Reilly and his deputy director, Elizabeth Robbins, of violating VOA’s journalistic code by giving a senior government official “a free platform to speak live on our channels” by arranging a live broadcast of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then removing VOA’s White House correspondent after she tried to question the outgoing secretary.
The Government Accountability Project (GAP), a nonprofit that protects whistleblowers, informed USAGM and VOA leadership, along with the Office of Special Counsel, the Office of the Inspector General, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and other lawmakers, that those signing the petition are deemed protected whistleblowers.
Patsy Widakuswara, who joined VOA in 2003, was told late Monday she was being reassigned, hours after the veteran reporter attempted to question Pompeo and then Reilly as the secretary left VOA’s headquarters.
In his speech, the outgoing secretary of state praised Michael Pack, USAGM’s chief executive, for changes implemented at USAGM under his leadership. He also commended a group of VOA journalists for their bravery in covering Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
Widakuswara was among the team honored with the Burke Award for that coverage.
Following his speech, which also addressed “American exceptionalism” and what he views as VOA’s role, Pompeo had a brief question-and-answer session with Reilly, who did not pose questions submitted by the agency’s main newsroom about recent news events.
As the secretary of state left the network’s headquarters, Widakuswara tried unsuccessfully to question Pompeo and then Reilly, who admonished Widakuswara, saying she was not authorized to ask questions.
The statement signed by the more than two dozen VOA journalists calls for Reilly’s and Robbins’ immediate resignations.
“As journalists, our job is to pursue the truth — to ask questions even when it is uncomfortable or difficult. While Mr. Reilly abdicated this duty, one VOA journalist — Senior White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara — tried to uphold it by questioning Secretary Pompeo after the event,” the statement says.
The statement also criticizes the “sudden and unexplained” reassignment of VOA Central News Director Yolanda Lopez, who was moved into a new role Wednesday evening. She was replaced by Luis Ramirez, an editor in the news division who has worked as a correspondent and editor in overseas and domestic bureaus during a 21-year career with the agency.
VOA directors have the authority to reassign staff as they see fit. A spokesperson said Wednesday that it does not comment on personnel matters.
Representatives Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, and Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, condemned the decision to remove Widakuswara in a joint statement from the Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a separate statement shared with VOA, Meeks, the new committee chairman, said, “It is ironic that Secretary Pompeo would praise VOA for fighting foreign propaganda while using it to spread his own. Pompeo improperly held VOA reporters as a captive audience for a speech where the only questions allowed were from the administration’s own appointees.”
‘Ammunition’ for authoritarians
Noting that Pack is already under scrutiny by the committee for “efforts to dismantle editorial independence at VOA,” Meeks added that the decision to remove a senior reporter “only gives ammunition to those same authoritarian leaders and undermines our ability to promote free speech around the world.”
Pack has previously denied allegations that he is interfering with editorial independence, saying he is trying to address long-standing issues, including alleged security lapses within the agency.
USAGM referred comments to VOA’s public relations.
In a December 6 interview with The Epoch Times‘ “American Thought Leaders” podcast, Pack said his vision was to address areas where the networks are failing to fulfil their mission adequately, including reporting objectively, explaining American values and presenting the U.S. administration’s viewpoint.
Media rights lawyer Theodore Boutrous accused Pack, Reilly and Pompeo of “making the First Amendment and the American tradition of freedom of the press a laughingstock around the world.”
Boutrous, whose firm, Gibson Dunn, represents Widakuswara as well as senior USAGM officials and a VOA journalist in a separate lawsuit, warned in a letter Wednesday that the reassignment was “unlawful and unconstitutional” and called on Reilly to immediately reinstate her.
Widakuswara is the second White House correspondent to face apparent retaliation since Pack’s tenure began. A separate lawsuit from Gibson Dunn alleged that Pack’s aides created a dossier on Steve Herman in an effort to have him reassigned. In that case, a federal district court banned Pack from directly interfering in VOA’s editorial decisions, including investigating staff.
The GAP also wrote to Pack, Reilly and Robbins on Wednesday, informing them that the decision to remove Widakuswara was gross mismanagement.
The letter noted that Widakuswara has since been assigned to the Indonesian service. Neither the reporter nor her union representative was informed of the move, and Widakuswara only learned of it after being copied on an internal email, David Seide, senior counsel at GAP, said in the letter.
Indonesian news outlets including The Jakarta Post have reported on the bipartisan condemnation of VOA over its decision to reassign Widakuswara. The White House correspondent started her career as an international journalist in VOA’s Indonesian service, working on a J-1 visa.
Journalists at VOA’s sister network RFE/RL have also raised concerns over Pack’s decisions. A December 30 letter from the RFE/RL editorial board and language service directors protested attempts by Pack to change their grantee contracts.
The amendments, signed Monday by Ted Lipien, the newly appointed president of RFE/RL, say members, officers and directors appointed by the CEO cannot be removed for two years after their appointment, unless convicted of a criminal charge, and after that period they can be removed only for cause. The revised contract also states that as a condition of receiving grant funds, RFE/RL agrees to amend its articles of incorporation, bylaws and other documents as necessary.
“[This] is precisely the kind of political power maneuver that RFE/RL regularly witnesses in places like Russia, Hungary, Belarus and Tajikistan. We never thought we’d see it from our own oversight agency,” the letter read.
USAGM has also sought to debar the Open Technology Fund from federal funding, citing conflicts of interest and alleged irregularities at the independent nonprofit.
Pack first notified the OTF of plans to block it from funding on December 15, but he rescinded the notice and reissued it without explanation at the end of the month.
The new notice means that a 90-day extension for OTF to contest the bill, included in a spending bill signed by Congress in late December, no longer applies.