Serious concerns have been raised about Voice of America’s editorial independence from the state as newly appointed Trump loyalist heads US Agency for Global Media and fires executives.

Earlier this month, Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker and ally of President Donald Trump, was appointed as the new Chief Executive of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a state-funded organisation that oversees international broadcasters including Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA).

Following the Senate vote, which confirmed Pack’s appointment, several executives of the international broadcasters that USAGM oversees, have been victims of a ‘purge’ as the new CEO set about plans to restructure the news media outlets last Wednesday. As a result, Pack has begun installing Trump loyalists into senior positions, including former advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, Emily Newman, who is the new chief of staff.

Legislation passed in 2016 to restructure the “crucial firewall” between the U.S. administration and the international broadcasters set a startling precedent that would allow the Senate to appoint future CEOs of the organisation overseeing its international media outlets, ultimately infringing on their independence from political influence.

The firing of staff was foreseen by Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who shared his fears about USAGM’s new leadership in a statement on Tuesday evening:

“My fear is that USAGM’s role as an unbiased news organization is in jeopardy under his leadership. USAGM’s mission is ‘to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy’—not to be a mouthpiece for the President in the run up to an election…Mr. Pack should immediately reverse course and allow the nonpartisan public servants who run USAGM to keep doing their jobs. And Mr. Pack needs to understand that USAGM is not the Ministry of Information.”

Last Monday, two VOA executives resigned. In their letter of resignation, outgoing Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara iterated concerns about the editorial independence of Voice of America:

“Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which is turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us.”

They went on to thank their staff: “We know that each one of you will offer him all of your skills, your professionalism, your dedication to mission, your journalistic integrity and your personal hard work to guarantee that promise is fulfilled.”

In recent months, President Trump’s hostility towards VOA has become more vocal, criticising the media outlet for sharing Chinese propaganda and for its coverage of the coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was instructed to blacklist VOA interview requests; VOA have since reported on this story.

For many living in authoritarian regimes around the world, VOA has often been considered a source of independent news and information. Yet, this latest act of appointing political figures into non-political positions is deeply troubling for media freedom and for a society that is purportedly meant to enjoy democratic values and freedoms bound by its constitution.

Header Image: KOSOVO September 09. 2018: The VOA microphone in woman’s hand, interview. Credit: Nada Bascarevic/iStock