WASHINGTON – The appointment on Wednesday of a new director of Voice of America has raised new concerns about the direction of the government’s flagship international broadcaster as President Donald Trump’s term winds down.
The announcement that Trump’s handpicked head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media has replaced the VOA chief with Robert Reilly, a conservative critic of its programming, has caused alarm among staffers and in Congress.
Although USAGM chief Michael Pack had the right to replace VOA’S temporary leader with his own choice, agency personnel and congressional staffers said the timing, less than two months before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, was suspicious. They fear that Pack is trying to box Biden in by appointing loyalists he will have difficulty removing.
Biden and his team have pledged a full review of Pack’s actions and could replace him shortly after inauguration. Democrats and some Republicans have accused Pack of trying to turn VOA and its sister networks into pro-Trump propaganda outlets and he is under a court order not to terminate employees that he has suspended since taking over the operation in June.
Pack announced Wednesday he had chosen Reilly, a former U.S. diplomat, to replace Elez Biberaj, a 40-year veteran of the service who had been serving as its acting director since the previous leadership resigned in protest when Pack took office. Biberaj has not been fired and will return to his previous role as VOA's director for Eurasia.
Reilly “has dedicated his career to – and, indeed, succeeded in – promoting the national interest and advancing U.S. foreign policy," Pack said in a statement. "His respect for and profound knowledge of the legacy and traditions of VOA combined with a clear understanding of the network’s charter will ensure that America’s exceptional experience is shared effectively with the world.”
However, Reilly's views on the nature of U.S. government-funded international broadcasting, as well as previous comments about the gay and lesbian community, have drawn criticism from public diplomacy experts. In his writings, Reilly has suggested that VOA focus more on promoting U.S. policies and less on providing independent news to global audiences as required by the agency's charter.
“Michael Pack should be packing up his office, not packing the leadership of U.S. broadcasting entities with right-wing ideologues and bigots,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The idea that he’s been given the reins of an institution with the history and legacy of VOA is a disgrace and an embarrassment,” said Engel, who lost his bid for reelection and will be leaving Congress in January. “VOA journalists shouldn’t have to endure the reputational harm of having to work for someone with views so backward and out of step with American values.”
Pack, a conservative filmmaker, Trump ally and onetime associate of former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon, has made no secret of his intent to shake up the agency since he became CEO of USAGM after a long confirmation battle in the Senate that finally ended after Trump and his allies launched a series of attacks on VOA and demanded new leadership.
Pack has removed numerous senior officials from their posts, including a handful of senior executives, but was barred last month by a federal judge from firing them. Last week, congressional aides expressed concerns that Pack was trying to terminate those officials in violation of the court order, although no action appears to have been taken.
USAGM declined to comment on those possible moves, which, according to staffers and congressional aides, have been discussed internally before new regulations limiting Pack's powers as chief executive officer take effect with the expected passage of a defense spending bill that includes provisions related to VOA and its affiliates.
The court order stems from a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in October by five USAGM executives who had been fired or suspended. They accused Pack and his senior advisers of violating the “statutory firewall” intended to protect the news organizations from political interference.
After the suit was filed, Pack announced that he had rescinded the “firewall rule” issued by USAGM's predecessor, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
VOA was founded during World War II and its congressional charter requires it to present independent news and information to international audiences.