BBG Watch Commentary
In posts on Twitter and in a telephone interview in which he answered questions from BBG Watch, Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui has accused U.S. government-run and taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) of implying in a headline on the VOA Mandarin Service news website that he was guilty of giving a false statement when in fact it was political consultant Roger Stone who had made false statements about Mr. Guo and apologized for it under a legal settlement reached with the Chinese billionaire businessman who now lives in the United States and is seeking political asylum. Mr. Guo said he believes the wording of VOA’s initial headline was done intentionally to defame him.
VOA Mandarin Service has subsequently changed the wording of its headline to reflect that Mr. Guo was not at fault, but the service did not admit that its earlier headline was incorrect and did not apologize for making any mistakes, a journalist who is a fluent Mandarin speaker told BBG Watch Tuesday evening.
“I demand that Voice of America apologize to me in public,” Guo Wengui tweeted before the VOA headline was changed. He also tweeted, “I retain my right to solve the issue via legal channels.”
Guo Wengui said later in a phone interview translated into English from Chinese that Mr. Stone and he went through the legal process and Mr. Stone would surely lose the case and would have to pay damages.
Guo Wengui: We signed a legal agreement. The world media reported it. He admitted that he lied 100%. The report of Voice of America blurred the truth. It was intentional. It tried to confuse the Chinese audiences and gave the impression that I was a liar. VOA is a state-owned media. Chinese people, including myself, believed that VOA would bring freedom to China. It is inconceivable for VOA to make such a mistake. It was done intentionally to defame me.
This is the second time the Voice of America has found itself in conflict with the Chinese whistleblower who has exposed in media interviews China’s influence buying in the United States and corruption within the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. On April 19, 2017, VOA’s senior management had ordered a live interview with Mr. Guo to be cut short and has punished a group of VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters for allegedly not following all the instructions from senior executives on how the live interview should be conducted and at what point it should be terminated.
Asked in a telephone interview about how he interprets the actions of VOA’s leadership, Mr. Guo said:
Guo Wengui: The way in which the Voice of America punishes its reporters indicated that VOA is infiltrated by silent forces from the Chinese espionage. This mirrors the same methods used by the Chinese espionage agency, such as those showing up in the incident when the top Chinese spies, including a minister-ranked party secretary and a few bureau chiefs, came to the United States and tried to get me to go back to China.
Guo Wengui also said that he suspects that some individuals at different levels of the U.S. federal agency’s management “received favors from the Chinese Communist Party.”
Guo Wengui: Or perhaps they have been threatened by the CCP. The decision to punish the reporters seems to be irrational and illegal. It also violated the mission of VOA, which is defending the West against influence and subversion from dictatorship. I believe the truth will triumph, as shown in the Roger Stone case. They will be condemned.
Some of the VOA Mandarin broadcasters involved in the 2017 Guo Wengui interview, including service chief Dr. Sasha Gong who had arranged the live interview and conducted it with another colleague until the order came to end it, were later suspended with pay and threatened with disciplinary actions by VOA’s senior management. Gong, who is challenging the decision to fire her, denies the management’s claims. She and others have said that they were only trying to resist pressure from the Chinese government after its representatives had warned VOA’s management multiple times not to broadcast the interview.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett, an Obama administration era holdover appointee whose husband reportedly holds significant business interests in China, has denied that pressure from the Chinese government or anything else not related to journalism had any impact on the VOA management’s decision to cut short the interview with Mr. Guo. She said that her only concern and only reason for wanting the live interview to be shortened was to uphold high journalistic standards.
Bennett is being backed by another holdover Obama administration appointee, U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO John F. Lansing who has been in charge of the agency since 2015. When the interview took place in 2017, the agency was called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Some of the former and at least one current Democratic member of the bipartisan BBG Board, which previously was in charge of the agency but now has an advisory role, have been reported to be managing significant corporate American business interests in countries such as China and Russia. Such business activities abroad are legal under U.S. law, but critics charge that they could represent a potential conflict of interest for senior USAGM executives who make decisions about U.S. government-funded media outreach to countries where authoritarian governments have significant control over business activities and profits of foreign companies.
In an email to staff on November 29, Bennett defended her handling of the Guo Wengui interview.
Amanda Bennett: Voice of America has today removed one Mandarin Service employee and given a period of suspension to another. Both actions relate to the April 19, 2017, Mandarin service interview with Guo Wengui—a Chinese business tycoon who later became a political activist—that was abruptly terminated.
The actions follow four independent investigations that all concluded the interview’s termination was a result of VOA leadership’s attempt to enforce previously agreed-upon journalistic standards. The investigations found no evidence to support allegations that pressure from the Chinese government, purportedly driven by “spies” within VOA, had caused the termination.
Rather, the investigations upheld the actions by VOA leadership, concluding that the unprofessional abrupt termination resulted from a series of apparent failures to follow explicit instructions from management and good journalistic practices.
The failure to comply with leadership’s instructions during the Guo interview “was a colossal and unprecedented violation of journalistic professionalism and broadcast industry standards,” concluded one outside report by Professor Mark Feldstein, Richard Eaton Chair of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a journalist with decades of experiences as an award-winning television investigative reporter.
In this era of so-called “fake news” and interference by authoritarian governments into the workings of the global free press, allegations of outside tampering with content are very serious and have the potential to undermine the credibility of VOA, whose charter requires that it “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”
Thus, VOA and USAGM management immediately launched independent investigations. In accordance with Federal laws and regulations, five members of the broadcast team were placed on leave with full pay and benefits while the matter was under investigation.
In an earlier statement, the suspended VOA Mandarin Service chief said that she will continue to defend herself and her colleagues.
Dr. Sasha Gong: Anyone who read the news would understand that the United States is now engaged in an information war with dictatorships around the world, especially with the powerful Chinese regime. Just listen to the speech of Vice President Pence in Hudson Institute last week.
Being stabbed in the back, I am a casualty in this war. I am honored to be one in serving my country.
Second, like any soldier in any brutal war, I am also fighting for my band of brothers. Those who stabbed me in the back also went after the best journalists in my team. Four of them were placed on administrative leave. Two were proposed to be fired. These great journalists did nothing but their jobs. They followed the original interview plan, which was the only plan they knew. If you find any fault, let it be mine, and mine alone.
These journalists devoted most of their professional lives to VOA. Since VOA is labeled by the Chinese government as an “enemy entity”, they will never be able to find another comparable job in today’s Chinese-language media where the Chinese government controls almost everything. They will have difficulties to pay their mortgages, child support, and children’s tuition. For what? I will mortgage my house and my 401K, and spend whatever savings I have, to defend these great men and their honor, their integrity, and their professionalism, in court, and in public eyes. You can take it to the bank.
To those VOA managers who first caved to the Chinese pressure, and then scapegoated the fine journalists to cover up their shameful act by claiming “insubordination”, I have a message. God may forgive you. I will not.
For years to come, I will put my energy and my intelligence to disclose the truth to the American public. I will write. I will publish articles and books. I will produce documentaries and movies. I will talk to everyone in Congress and anyone I can find in the administration. I will make exposing them my life mission regardless of the cost, because freedom and truth are priceless.
Since the April 2017 incident, VOA’s reporting on Guo Wengui has been limited and sporadic. He tweeted on December 18, 2018 that the latest VOA Mandarin Service report, which has been now corrected, presented him falsely as being guilty of making false statements.
12月18日：关于美国之音不恰当的报道的警告：👉👉👉On December 18, 2108, the Chinese website of Voice of America reported my settlement agreement with Roger Stone. The article titles “Trump’s former advisor admitted that he spread false statement by Guo Wengui on line”.
It implies that I was the one who gave false statement. In fact, Stone admitted that he made the false statement and publicly apologized to me. I demand that Voice of America apologize to me in public. I retain my right to solve the issue via legal channels.
12月18日：关于美国之音不恰当的报道的警告：👉👉👉On December 18, 2108, the Chinese website of Voice of America reported my settlement agreement with Roger Stone. The article titles “Trump’s former advisor admitted that he spread false statement by Guo Wengui on line”. pic.twitter.com/ag1S3KHGMR
— GUO.MEDIA(GUOWENGUI) (@GGuowengui) December 19, 2018
It implies that I was the one who gave false statement. In fact, Stone admitted that he made the false statement and publicly apologized to me. I demand that Voice of America apologize to me in public. I retain my right to solve the issue via legal channels. pic.twitter.com/ILZjzlFMCx
— GUO.MEDIA(GUOWENGUI) (@GGuowengui) December 19, 2018
Hoover Institution & Asia Society Working Group Report on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States
The senior management of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the Voice of America has received a major blow to its credibility in a report of the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States prepared by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Center on US-China Relations at Asia Society in New York. According to the report prepared by more than 30 top scholars specializing in China and international affairs, “starting in the first decade of the 2000s, the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, and the leadership of VOA’s Mandarin service began an annual meeting to allow embassy officials to voice their opinions about VOA’s content.”
The Hoover Institution and Asia Society report also says that “VOA personalities have hosted events at the embassy,” and one of VOA’s TV editors “even publicly pledged his allegiance to China at an embassy event.” The report cited “interview with VOA staff” as a source of this piece of information.
The VOA Mandarin Service reported in general on the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society study but in its initial report did not mention the study’s charges related to the Voice of America.
The Hoover Institution and Asia Society report continues “that some VOA staffers interviewed for this report believe that China’s outreach campaign has succeeded in pushing the VOA Mandarin service away from programs with direct relevance to China toward programming that seeks instead to highlight American everyday life or teach American-style English to Chinese listeners.” “It is not surprising,” the report notes.
The Hoover Institution and Asia Society report also makes a rather startling revelation about the U.S. federal government agency which runs the Voice of America. According to the report, among VOA journalists working there who “had been contacted by representatives from [China’s] state security who have impressed upon them the necessity to change how they have reported on China,” some VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters have not informed the office of security at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) [renamed recently to the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM)] about these approaches.
The report says that “In some cases, those affected have contacted the security department at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.”
But the Hoover Institution and Asia Society report adds that “In other cases, worried about potential Chinese retribution against family members still in China, they have not.”
The Hoover Institution and Asia Society report also mentions in an extensive footnote the senior management’s shortening of the VOA Mandarin Service’s live interview with Chinese businessman whistleblower Guo Wengui arranged in April 2017 by the service chief, Dr. Sasha Gong, who is now being threatened by senior management with firing.
Hoover Institution and Asia Society Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States: Gong’s time at the head of the service ended in 2017, after she and VOA management had a falling-out over an interview VOA was doing with Chinese billionaire dissident Guo Wengui. Gong had arranged the interview to air on VOA’s TV channel on April 19, 2017. VOA advertised the interview, which was going to be live, on its website beforehand. Prior to the interview, however, the Chinese government warned VOA’s correspondent in Beijing of serious repercussions should the interview air. Chinese embassy officials also contacted VOA in Washington threatening retribution. Despite concern from VOA’s management, Gong went ahead with the interview. While circumstances surrounding what happened next are murky, VOA’s management ended up pulling the plug on the interview in the middle of a live broadcast. Gong and several other employees were suspended and subsequently fired for insubordination. Gong is contesting her dismissal through the Broadcasting Board of Governors, while VOA management denies that it was responding to Chinese pressure to stop the interview or fire Gong.