Republican and Democratic lawmakers sharply criticized the head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media for his late-night action to repeal a rule meant to protect the Voice of America and other U.S.-funded news networks from editorial interference.
In a statement on the USAGM website and emailed to staff late Monday, CEO Michael Pack said he was using his powers as chief executive to roll back the regulation, known as the “firewall” rule, because it was harmful to the agency’s and national interests.
The regulation was adopted by previous USAGM leadership in June, days before Pack was confirmed by the Senate as CEO. The rule aimed to consolidate and clarify legal protections Congress had passed separately, including in the 1994 International Broadcasting Act. Pack’s decree does not impact the firewall statute in the 1994 Act.
That legislation and subsequent reforms were designed to shelter journalists from interference that could undermine their credibility while at the same time fostering their freedom to report on the United States and its politics and culture from the full range of perspectives.
But in a 33-page notice striking down the rule, Pack characterized it an unconstitutional and unworkable misinterpretation that would undermine U.S. government broadcasting and prevent him from being able to effectively manage and provide “editorial oversight” of the agency.
The justification contends that USAGM is different than other news organizations, with a special mission “to serve United States interests through Government sponsored news abroad.”
“Because of this special mission, USAGM and its Networks do not function as a traditional news or media agency and were never intended to do so,” the notice says.
“By design, their purpose and focus is foreign relations and the promotion of American objectives — not simply presenting news or engaging in journalistic expression.”
Reaction from Capitol Hill was swift.
Although leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees USAGM, said Pack’s action doesn’t affect underlying laws that are the foundation for the firewall – only Congress could change those – the unilateral repeal still risks damaging the networks’ credibility.
“Mr. Pack has shown again and again that he doesn’t feel constrained by laws,” committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement.
Engel said he would “encourage USAGM journalists to continue carrying out their important work and to ignore illegal interference from Mr. Pack and other administration officials. The law remains on your side.”
His Republican counterpart, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, told VOA: “It is unclear why CEO Pack is opposed to journalistic objectivity at USAGM and its networks. Without it, the mission and effectiveness of the agency is undermined.”
“Fortunately, the requirement that USAGM’s broadcasts be objective and conform with the highest professional standards in broadcast journalism is mandated in statute,” he added.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told VOA the agency’s firewall exists to prevent political interference.
"The firewall that was codified as part of the International Broadcasting Act is what distinguishes USAGM-funded networks from state-sponsored propaganda we see in places like Russia and China. We cannot allow the president’s political appointees to influence journalistic content and we must ensure the law remains on the side of the journalists,” he said.
Pack was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill the top USAGM job prior to the departure last year of John Lansing, an Obama appointee. The firewall rule was approved under acting CEO Grant Turner and with the support of the previous USAGM board that dissolved when Pack was confirmed in June.
After his arrival, Pack also sidelined Turner and other senior executives at the USAGM, five of whom, including Turner, filed a lawsuit against him and the agency for, among other things, “systematic dismantlement of the [agency’s] firewall.”
USAGM did not respond to VOA’s request for comment. Earlier this month, Pack said the lawsuit was "without merit" and that all of his and his team's decisions and actions are "correct and lawful."
The USAGM, with a budget of more than $800 million a year, incorporates five networks: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Their combined international audience reaches some 350 million a week on radio, TV and online.
On Tuesday, VOA’s acting director, Elez Biberaj, emailed a statement to staff saying repeal of the firewall rule serves only to return VOA to its status of protection prior to Pack’s arrival, which would not allow “government officials to tamper with or otherwise distort VOA content.”
He noted that journalistic independence remains under provisions of the 1994 Broadcasting Act and also the National Defense Authorization (budget) Act for fiscal year 2017.
New executive power
In his repeal notice, Pack argues that because the agency’s news networks are legally required to “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States,” the firewall rule created an untenable conflict.
Ultimately, the notice says, there are times when the president, or his appointees, may want to kill a story that, for example, would reveal classified information. “They should have the clear ability to do so and to ensure that the decision is carried out by the organization,” he wrote.
There have been times in the past when the White House pressured VOA over its news coverage, but Sanford Ungar, a former VOA director and now director of the Georgetown University free speech project, said giving the president the power to censor news would be a “catastrophe.”
“No president of the United States should be able to do that, not just the current one,” Ungar said.
Media experts and rights groups, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Committee to Protect Journalists, warned the repeal could hurt VOA’s credibility.
“The editorial firewall that protects these media outlets from political pressure is statutory, and the journalists working for these broadcasters are protected by the First Amendment,” said Gabe Rottman, director of the technology and press freedom at the reporters committee.
“Their success as credible sources of news for millions of people around the world depends upon their editorial independence from political interference, interference which remains illegal and unconstitutional.”
The RCFP offers legal resources, including to VOA journalists whose J-1 visas allowing them to work in the U.S. were not renewed under a policy shift instituted by Pack. The committee is one of 16 media groups that signed a letter supporting the lawsuit alleging firewall violations at the USAGM.
Nicholas Cull, professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said the firewall rule had simply been an attempt to “codify standard practice.”
Cull, the author of "The Cold War and the United States Information Agency,” said he was “shocked” by Pack’s action.
“A firewall is essential for international broadcasters to be credible in a world market,” Cull said.
“The BBC has a firewall, Deutsche Welle has a firewall. Radio Pyongyang does not have a firewall. Taking away this kind of firewall, in practice, or in regulation, is not a step toward the BBC. It is a step away from the BBC model. It's a step away from credibility. No international broadcaster should take a step away from credibility,” he said.