Dysfunctional USAGM Imposes Unacceptable Risks on Its Journalists

OPINION

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Unacceptable Risks

 

US Government International Broadcasting: World Press Freedom Day at USAGM

 
By The Federalist

On May 3, 2019 John Lansing, the CEO of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM or, U-SAG-M as we prefer to refer to this overbearing title for an underperforming agency), had his article posted in conjunction with World Press Freedom Day:

Fighting for Press Freedom, Today and Everyday

 

The contents of his article warrant some observations:

It is easy to speak to lofty sentiments and ideals from the surrealistic confines of the Cohen Building. The real world is another thing altogether. Be assured, Mr. Lansing hasn’t been shot at, thrown in prison or gone missing. Without prior government service, public diplomacy or intercultural communications experience, he’s out of touch with people in places of extreme danger. Also, whatever he has to say has little meaning because he has no power over situations abroad that pose a real danger to agency personnel. What he could do is to make the risk to USAGM journalists much smaller through better management of the agency, but that takes experience, willingness to seek advice, and ability to know what advice to take.

Lansing states,

“USAGM places a premium on journalist safety and security, and it remains my personal and professional mission to provide support and assistance to our journalists around the globe.”

If he really believes that, he should put on some body armor and a helmet and see what it’s really like in the field before committing agency employees and/or contractors to being in harm’s way while allowing five Voice of America Mandarin Service journalists to be suspended for protesting against internal censorship by Voice of America’s (VOA) senior management or ignoring initial advice from experts in the field he received a year ago that some of the Central Asian Services of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) were broadcasting autocratic propaganda. For a long time, he also ignored warnings that VOA and RFE/RL’s Radio Farda were repeating propaganda of the Iranian regime. When this was exposed, only partial changes were made to programming, and some of the old key editorial personnel remained in place. Should USAGM journalists elsewhere be asked to risk their lives while the organization supports authoritarian rulers in other areas? BBG – USAGM Watch has asked this question:

What Went Wrong with USAGM • VOA • RFE/RL?

 

Lansing also notes that over the years 18 agency employees/contractors have been killed, gone missing or imprisoned.

Not all of them have been on Lansing’s watch. However, if you are laying claim to placing “a premium on journalist safety and security” the agency isn’t doing a good job of it.

Lansing also takes note of a Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index which states that only 24 percent of the world’s countries and territories are classified as being in a “good situation” in terms of media freedom.

That means 75 percent of the rest of the globe is unsafe and journalists operating in those areas are playing against some very long odds.

If media freedom is deteriorating on this scale, why does Lansing and his bureaucrats continue to put agency personnel at risk in areas where the danger is growing without taking proper precautions? During the Cold War, RFE/RL and VOA generally did not send their journalists behind the Iron Curtain if there was a risk of them being killed. Communist dictators had to send their killers to Munich, West Germany, where RFE/RL had its headquarters. The precautions and security measures taken by experienced managers who knew what Communists were capable of doing to silence free press made it much more difficult for the Soviets and their allies to kill RFE/RL journalists. The old management knew how to protect them. It took a few decades to win the Cold War, but it was won smartly, and largely peacefully.

General George S Patton, Jr was one of the foremost American army commanders (US Second Corps in North Africa, US Third Army in Europe) in World War Two. He opined: You don’t win wars by dying for your country. You make the other guy die for his country.

It’s the same when it comes to agency’s today’s employees and contractors: you die, you lose and the bad guys win to fight and kill another day. It’s as simple as that. In today’s world for journalists, death is ignoble. It doesn’t change the equation on the battlefield or a political paradigm. The person is just dead, but if properly protected, the journalist could continue his or her work to win the war against dictators with words and truthful news even if it takes a long time. The conflict goes on until one side or the other loses the capacity or the will to continue to fight. Have you noticed nothing has changed in terms of the issues raised by Jamal Khashoggi since he was killed, even after a campaign by The Washington Post and others to raise him to the level of martyrdom? Khashoggi underestimated the will of others to permanently remove him from certain narratives.

People like Lansing don’t see things from the perspective of history or the perspective of the opponent or adversary: a terrorist, a hostile foreign government and the like. Journalists are high value soft targets. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have a taste for publicly (via the Internet) executing journalists. These videos have shock value. They are intended to demonstrate the brutality of their ideology and terrorize local and regional inhabitants and reach out to individuals outside the zones of conflict to commit terrorist acts. In ancient times the Romans acted similarly, lining roads with crucified insurgents and opponents to their rule. Times and technology may change but basic physical and psychological brutality remain. Putting journalists at risk of being assassinated by a car bomb is foolish and should be avoided.

In the case of U-SAG-M, its journalists are not viewed as journalists by hostile forces in that 75 percent of the world where journalists and press freedom are not welcome. They are often viewed as foreign agents or traitors depending on the specific locale. Asking them to work there openly or even in hiding without taking extreme precautions is irresponsible.

The question that runs through our thinking is: How many agency staffers have to go to their demise before people like John Lansing and Amanda Bennett (whose administration of the Voice of America is sometimes described as tyrannical–think of “VOA Mandarin Five” journalists) get the message?

Simply put, you don’t take unacceptable risks with other people’s lives.

Period.

What do these risks and deaths prove?

To the thinking of terrorists it creates the view that the agency is cavalier in exposing its employees. For the hostile regime, throwing US agency employees or contractors in prison for extended periods – as in the case of former RFE/RL employee Khadija Ismayilova who later condemned RFE/RL’s senior management, as well as VOA’s management as being soft on dictators and unable to communicate with their journalists – demonstrates the impotence of USAGM in taking care of people in its employ.

When the Russians threw former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) chairman Jeffrey Shell out of Russia, the agency should have gotten the message of the new dynamic. Instead of telling Jeff Shell not to go on such a trip to Russia, John Lansing went there with him. He could not even protect the man who selected him for the job of being in charge of VOA, RFE/RL, Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) journalists. On their joint mission to Moscow, John Lansing could not protect his own boss from brief detention by Putin’s men. How can he possibly know how to protect USAGM journalists? It takes a leader with the right kind of experience and good judgement to know where it is safe to go and where it is safe to ask agency journalists to go? By the way, why was Jeff Shell going to Russia and China on personal or corporate business while VOA, RFE/RL, and RFA he oversaw were producing programs to these countries?

The agency hasn’t gotten the message of the new post-Cold War dangerous new dynamic. Agency officials tirelessly pursue Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

Accompanying the USAGM press release is a link to an agency produced video. With a mournful soundtrack, it runs through the agency employees and contractors who have gone into harm’s way and wound up on the wrong side of chance and the long odds against their lives.

Separately, someone on Twitter thanked Lansing for his “leadership.”

With leadership like this you can see more names and faces being added to the list of agency employees and contractors in trouble around the world.

By the way, on YouTube at the time of our viewing, the video had only 65 views. When Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivered an excellent speech at the USAGM-sponsored World Press Freedom event in Washington, USAGM was able to get only five (5) people to watch it on Facebook LIVE. Most of the five were probably USAGM technicians or bureaucrats. Despite fascinating new details in Senator Ted Cruz’s speech on how the Cold War was won peacefully and without sacrificing lives unnecessarily, neither VOA nor RFE/RL reported on his remarks. Senator Cruz praised Ronald Reagan’s leadership, but his speech apparently did not impress VOA and RFE/RL editors. VOA would rather give a platform to American Communist Angela Davis. There’s a message in this as well: the agency isn’t on the global radar. It is off the radar almost completely. Just ground clutter in the international media environment.

Lansing comes across to some as little more than an offbeat caricature of the Grim Reaper: an often red-faced man with a plastic smile.

On the broader front of World Press Freedom Day there is something else to take note:

Leaders of non-democratic governments and movements are not stupid. They most certainly observe the character of what passes for “journalism” in the West today.

What they see is less objective journalism and more political advocacy, particularly in the United States, including anti-Trump and anti-Republican Party propaganda by some VOA reporters and editors who ignore the VOA Charter while Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett look the other way. They see US cable news networks fawning over politicians like Ilhan Omar who makes anti-Semitic remarks and others of similar ilk. They see VOA repeatedly playing on social media raw footage of demonstrators burning American and Israeli flags but no raw footage of the victims of terror.

They also have studied the tactics of the Russian government to spread disinformation, misinformation and propaganda.

They have seen clear evidence of anti-Trump bias on U-SAG-M website posts and posts by agency employees on Facebook. And be assured that agency websites and employee Facebook pages are being closely monitored by anti-US foreign propagandists. They have much to cheer about.

In a manner of speaking, these regimes are having their own observances of World Press Freedom Day:  by simply practicing in their own manner what they see being practiced elsewhere with an added ingredient of harassment and violence against unprotected journalists and others.

A Trap of Their Own Making

World Press Freedom Day provides a convenient avenue for other agency messaging: namely, its mantra about “supporting freedom and democracy.”

So exactly how is this message playing out around the world?

Apparently not very well.

Consider if you will this latest report from the Pew Research Center:

Many Across the Globe Are Dissatisfied With How Democracy Is Working

 

Not good news for U-SAG-M.

If the outcome isn’t achieved or shows signs of significant progress, reflected in impact and resonance of agency program content (5 LIVE Facebook views for Senator Cruz’s speech on USAGM Facebook page), then the agency is ineffective. And when one considers that the agency’s operations are global in nature (or are supposed to be), the failure is even that much more egregious.

Thus, the agency has set a trap for itself of its own making. The BBG has taken the agency off-message which is the VOA Charter. The VOA Charter spells out the agency’s mission in three specific ways, one of which is:

“1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.”

These same officials have made things worse, not better for the agency.

The agency is a bust. It lacks the necessary sophistication to interact with global audiences. And it continues to be a bust at about $800-MILLION dollars in taxpayer money.

It’s long past time to get rid of it, Lansing, Bennett and the BBG / USAGM.

The agency has nothing to say to global publics.

The Federalist

May 2019

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USAGM PRESS RELEASE

 

Statement from CEO John F. Lansing: Fighting for press freedom, today and everyday

 
 
May 3, 2019

Today we commemorate World Press Freedom Day, an opportunity to address press freedom challenges, shine a spotlight on journalist safety and honor our fallen journalists. As the head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), and as a journalist myself, I cannot underscore enough the necessity of raising these issues every day.

Earlier this week, we marked the one-year anniversary of the deaths of three Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists. They were senselessly killed on April 30, 2018 in Kabul, Afghanistan, in a bombing that targeted journalists. Through the years, 18 USAGM colleagues in total have paid the ultimate price in pursuit of the truth. I am reminded of this grave reality every day when I pass our Fallen Journalists Memorial at our headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, USAGM continues to witness firsthand how a free and independent media is deteriorating worldwide. We work in countries where government pressure has shuttered operations and where journalists and their families face intimidation, threats, expulsion, and imprisonment. According to the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, only 24 percent of the world’s countries and territories are classified as being in a “good situation” when it comes to media freedom. This is a dismal and unfortunate statistic, and if allowed to continue, stands as a threat to the critical work of a free press as it underpins democracy everywhere.

Despite the challenging state of journalism, USAGM reporters and stringers continue to take great risks to work in some of the most difficult environments in the world. At this very moment, some of our colleagues are in prison just for doing their job – reporting the news:

  • Nguyen Van, a videographer and contributor for Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) Vietnamese service, is serving a 7-year sentence and has suffered mistreatment while in jail;
  • Truong Duy Nhat, a contributor and blogger for RFA’s Vietnamese Service, went missing in Thailand after seeking political asylum. In March, RFA confirmed he is being held in a prison in Hanoi; and
  • Stanislav Aseyev, a contributor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian Service, was forcibly disappeared in June 2017 and is being held in deplorable conditions by Russia-backed separatists.

We are working with the appropriate authorities to bring our imprisoned journalists safely home to their families.

USAGM places a premium on journalist safety and security, and it remains my personal and professional mission to provide support and assistance to our journalists around the globe. With that priority in mind, I am pleased to announce the establishment of the USAGM Employee Association, a support network for fallen and injured journalists and their families, which officially launched in March 2019.

On this World Press Freedom Day, USAGM reaffirms its commitment to the fundamental principles of press freedom. Despite some very dark moments, we have not been silenced. We will continue to report the truth. We will continue to find new ways to get independent reporting and programming to global audiences who rely on it. And we will continue to carry through our mission to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

Today, and every day, I am proud to be part of this organization, and call these brave men and women colleagues, as we stand together for press freedom.

 
 
 

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