Trump appointee shakes up US broadcasting, raising fears

A July 2019 photo shows Voice of America's Amanda Bennett and her husband Don Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post.
A July 2019 photo shows Voice of America's Amanda Bennett and her husband Don Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The head of the US agency overseeing government-funded broadcasters including Voice of America and Radio Free Agency has begun a massive shakeup, raising fears of a politicisation of the news outlets.

The directors of the news outlets have either quit or have been fired by the new head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Michael Pack, according to lawmakers.

The moves have raised concerns that the appointee of President Donald Trump will seek to end the editorial independence of the outlets which include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti.

Voice of America director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara, both veteran journalists, announced their resignations on Monday (June 15) as Pack was preparing to assume his duties.

On Wednesday (June 17), Pack dismissed the heads of the other outlets and dissolved the oversight boards of the organisations.

The agency, which is government funded but structured to operate with editorial independence and serve countries lacking a free press, did not respond to an Agence France-Presse request for comment.

But lawmakers and others voiced alarm that the outlets could become tools of Trump, who has long denounced mainstream media outlets.

"Michael Pack has confirmed he is on a political mission to destroy the USAGM's independence and undermine its historic role," said Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.

"The wholesale firing of the agency's network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump's political allies is an egregious breach of this organisation's history and mission from which it may never recover."

Janet Steele, director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University, also expressed concern over the future of the news outlets.

"The sacking of the heads of those three news outlets confirms the worst fears of those of us who believed that the appointment of Michael Pack was part of an effort to turn USAGM into the international propaganda arm of the Trump administration," Steele said.

The White House in April accused VOA of spreading Chinese "propaganda" about the coronavirus pandemic, and instructed US health officials to refuse interviews to the news organisation, according to Bennett.

"This kind of blatant political interference has long been the norm in the developing countries with which I'm most familiar, but not in the US," Steele said.

"It is thus a very sad day for those of us who value the contribution of journalists at USAGM - many of whom themselves escaped authoritarian regimes - and credible, non-partisan reporting."