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Acting VOA Director Pledges To Protect Newsroom Despite Inquiry Into Reporter

The Voice of America building in Washington, D.C.
The Voice of America building in Washington, D.C.

The acting director of the Voice of America said Monday night that he would reject any outside or political pressure on his newsroom's coverage following news reports that two pro-Trump political appointees at the VOA's parent agency had investigated the news service's White House bureau chief and accused him of anti-Trump bias.

The investigation of veteran journalist Steven Herman by senior officials at the U.S. Agency for Global Media appears to violate statutory protections for VOA's newsroom from political interference, a so-called legal "firewall." The investigation was first reported by NPR.

Reactions to the report came in a rush on Monday.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, renewed his call for the resignation of USAGM CEO Michael Pack. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that he was huddling with staff to determine a response.

The Government Accountability Project, a public interest group, filed a whistleblower complaint with the inspector general of the U.S. State Department on behalf of the VOA reporter. The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "deeply concerned." The Asian American Journalists Association called the investigation "alarming," and cited NPR's reporting as revealing "the latest in a slew of insidious actions undermining VOA's editorial independence."

The Voice of America's top official responded late Monday night.

"VOA's independence, integrity, and credibility of our reporting are of paramount importance," acting VOA Director Elez Biberaj said in a statement sent to NPR. "Anything that threatens that — whether a lack of objectivity or a violation of the firewall that is part of the law protecting VOA from political interference — is in violation of our values. VOA considers any violation of the firewall or attack on its journalistic independence completely unacceptable."

Biberaj, a veteran of VOA's Albanian service and previously Eurasia division director, was named by Pack to be acting director shortly after Pack, a Trump appointee, took over in June.

"Mr. Pack is now sending his right-wing political appointees after a respected and experienced journalist who recently authored stories providing unbiased reporting on President Trump's handling of the coronavirus," Engel wrote on Monday.

Engel also pointed to a new policy on conflicts of interest announced by Pack Sunday afternoon, less than an hour after NPR inquired about the investigation of Herman. It addresses journalists' use of social media, which was a focus of the investigation into Herman.

"Mr. Pack's attempt to tell the broadcast services more broadly how to deal with perceived conflicts of interest likewise breaches the independence of those services and their journalists," Engel wrote. "VOA's acting director should ignore any attempt by USAGM management to improperly interfere in the service's work."

Engel had previously led a bipartisan hearing into allegations of wrongdoing at the agency under Pack. Pack ignored a subpoena compelling his appearance.

Internal investigation alleges anti-Trump bias

The Voice of America sits at the core of the USAGM. Along with its sister broadcasters, including Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, it is intended to serve as a source of trusted news in regions of the world that do not have a free press, and as a symbol of American values of political freedom.

As NPR reported Sunday evening, Pack assigned two senior aides, Frank Wuco and Samuel Dewey, to investigate Herman, the veteran White House reporter. They claimed they had found a "conflict of interest" because of information and other people's opinions that are unflattering to President Trump included in Herman's articles and tweets.

On Sunday, the Government Accountability Project filed a whistleblower complaint against Pack over the new "conflict of interest" policy. On Monday, it supplemented that complaint with an additional formal letter of protest focused on the investigation of Herman.

"If correct, this represents another egregious violation by you, Messrs. Dewey and Wuco, and perhaps others, of the statutory Firewall in place which protects VOA journalists and editors from outside interference and influence," the organization's David Seide wrote to Pack.

Wuco is a Navy veteran and former conservative talk show host who trafficked in false and racist conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama's country of birth, former Attorney General Eric Holder's student activism and former acting CIA Director John Brennan's religious faith. He was previously a Trump political appointee in the Department of Homeland Security. At USAGM, Wuco is a senior adviser to Pack and vice president of strategy, research and operations.

Dewey is a former investigative lawyer who worked for Republicans on Congressional oversight committees and whose Twitter feed heavily features pro-Trump memes and themes. He is a senior adviser and attorney at USAGM.

The duo shared their 30-page report on Herman with VOA's Biberaj in late September, urging that Herman be recused from covering presidential politics.

To date, Biberaj has not taken any action, nor has he rejected USAGM's investigation of VOA. As NPR has previously reported, USAGM had earlier launched investigations of other news reports concerning Trump, Biden and the former vice president's wife, Jill Biden. Those stories appeared on VOA's French to Africa service, Spanish service and Urdu service aimed at Pakistan.

On Monday, VOA staffers told NPR that people were increasingly agitated by Biberaj's inaction, believing it gave USAGM license to continue intervening in the broadcaster's coverage. They spoke on condition of anonymity as Pack has suspended and fired a slew of executives and senior officials, forced out foreign staffers by refusing to extend their specialized work visas and launched investigations of journalists.

VOA is not immune to charges of unfairness and often commissions reviews to evaluate such claims. Typically such matters are reviewed by its own senior journalists or by outside journalists or subject experts retained for the purpose.

As USAGM states on its website: "An essential guarantee of the journalistic credibility of U.S. global media content is the firewall enshrined in USAGM's enabling legislation, the U.S. International Broadcasting Act. The firewall prohibits interference by U.S. government officials, including the USAGM's Chief Executive Officer, in the objective, independent reporting of news by USAGM networks."

In his statement, VOA's Biberaj said VOA took concerns of fairness seriously but pointed to an earlier policy issued in June on appropriate ways for its journalists to maintain impartiality on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. He asserted that any violation of VOA's firewall would be rejected.

While Biberaj did not explicitly say whether the USAGM investigation of Herman violated those legal protections, Biberaj continued: "The firewall is understood to be violated when any person attempts to direct, pressure, coerce, threaten, interfere with, or otherwise impermissibly influence VOA leadership, officers, employees, or staff in the performance of their journalistic and broadcasting duties and activities."

Disclosure: This story was written and reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR's Mark Katkov. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.