In a rebuke from Congress, U.S. Representatives Gregory Meeks of New York and Michael McCaul of Texas chastised the heads of USAGM and Voice of America on Tuesday for reassigning a VOA White House correspondent.
Patsy Widakuswara was told late Monday she is being reassigned, hours after the veteran reporter attempted to question Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following a speech he delivered at VOA headquarters.
“This is the United States of America – we do not punish our journalists for seeking answers to their questions. A free and fair press is at the core of our Constitution and our democracy,” Meeks, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and lead Republican McCaul said in a joint statement. The lawmakers called for VOA to explain its actions and to reinstate Widakuswara.
Widakuswara was informed at around 10:30 p.m. Monday that she was being moved to general reporting instead of the high-profile White House job. No reason was provided.
A VOA spokesperson replied to questions about Widakuswara’s reassignment and said the news organization does not comment on personnel matters. USAGM did not respond.
VOA directors have the authority to reassign staff as they see fit. But journalism groups and a whistleblower agency criticized the move as an attack on press freedom.
Although VOA is taxpayer funded, its journalists operate under a “firewall” framework designed to protect their independence from politics. That tradition has been challenged, however, by CEO Michael Pack, the Trump appointee who took over as chief of VOA’s parent agency, USAGM, in June.
The actions taken against Widakuswara are an “assault on the First Amendment,” Zeke Miller, president of the White House Correspondents Club, said in a statement.
“VOA’s reassignment of Patsy Widakuswara for doing her job, asking questions, is an affront to the very ideals Secretary of State Pompeo discussed in his speech,” Miller said.
He added that removing Widakuswara from her beat “harms the interests of all Americans who depend on the free press to learn about the actions of their government and gives comfort to efforts to restrict press freedom around the world.”
Widakuswara had been due to travel with President Donald Trump on Tuesday to cover his visit to Texas for VOA’s audience. The visit is Trump’s first public appearance since his supporters violently breached the U.S. Capitol last week, resulting in five deaths including that of a Capitol police officer.
Even before Pompeo spoke, the Government Accountability Project, which protects federal whistleblowers, had written to USAGM to warn that the arrangements for covering the address appeared to violate the VOA Charter – which enshrines the agency’s editorial independence – and journalism ethics.
"Patsy was doing her job. Her ‘reassignment’ is retaliatory political meddling. That's an illegal breach of the firewall,” David Seide, senior counsel for GAP, told VOA. The organization is representing over 20 current and former journalists who contacted it over various concerns in recent months.
In their joint statement, McCaul and Meeks said they were frustrated to learn that Widakuswara was reassigned after questioning Pompeo. “Absent a legitimate reason for this move, which has not been provided, we believe she should be reinstated,” they said. “This is the United States of America – we do not punish our journalists for seeking answers to their questions. A free and fair press is at the core of our Constitution and our democracy.”
On Monday, Pompeo spoke about “American exceptionalism” in a speech at VOA and what he viewed as the proper role of VOA in promoting American values around the globe. It was followed by a brief Q&A session with Reilly, who did not pose questions submitted by the agency’s main newsroom about last week’s assault on the Capitol or Pompeo’s move that morning to declare the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization.
As the secretary of state left the network’s headquarters, Widakuswara followed and tried to question Pompeo.
Video shows Widakuswara calling out questions to Pompeo as he left the VOA building, including whether he regretted saying that there would be a smooth transition to a “second Trump administration” despite Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
In footage, the journalist is heard pivoting to Reilly and asking why he didn’t ask questions that journalists want to know the answers to.
In response, the director is heard asking Widakuswara who she is. After she introduces herself, he tells the reporter, “You obviously don’t know how to behave” and adds that she is not authorized to ask questions.
Widakuswara responds by saying she is a journalist and that her job is to ask questions.
Until being reassigned, Widakuswara covered the White House for VOA’s website, TV and radio, and also hosted a podcast for the Indonesian language service, where she started as a reporter.
In his speech at VOA headquarters, Pompeo implored the network’s journalists to carry out VOA’s mission and uphold press freedom.
The outgoing secretary of state also criticized a group of the agency’s journalists after the GAP wrote on their behalf to Pack and Reilly citing concerns that airing a live broadcast of a government official risked violating VOA’s laws and rules.
The decision by VOA management to broadcast Pompeo’s speech live was criticized as potentially damaging to the network’s credibility.
Allowing a senior U.S. official’s speech to be broadcast live is an attempt to reduce VOA to state broadcaster, Nick Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told VOA.
“When a government official goes down to a state-subsidized broadcaster and insists that particular propaganda be broadcast, that is so self-defeating and undermines any claims that broadcaster might make to being objective,” Cull said. “It reduces Voice of America to the level of not just state-funded broadcaster, but a state broadcaster.”
Criticism over Widakuswara’s removal from the White House beat is the latest move by the agency to draw fire from lawmakers and whistleblower protection groups over Pack’s management of the agency and alleged attempts to interfere in VOA’s editorial independence.
A U.S. District Court in November barred Pack and his aides from directly interfering in VOA until a lawsuit alleging violations of the firewall is settled; the Office of the Inspector General sent letters to Pack reminding the chief executive of protections whistleblowers have from retaliation; and the Office of Special Counsel ordered the CEO to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by its own officials.