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Helle C. Dale, the Heritage Foundation’s senior fellow in public diplomacy, commented on the latest scandal at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) where a decision by Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett and other senior managers to shorten a live interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui seriously damaged VOA’s reputation in China. Instead of accepting responsibility, the senior management put five VOA Mandarin Service journalists on administrative leave with pay and launched an investigation. VOA director and other senior managers who made the decision to shorten the interview have not been put on leave. They report to BBG CEO John F. Lansing. Both Bennett and Lansing were appointed to their positions during the Obama administration.
Helle Dale noted BBG CEO John Lansing’s statement that Chinese pressure played no role in the VOA management’s decision to shorten the interview with Guo Wengui. The shortening of the live interview program initially scheduled to last three hours angered many Chinese viewers, resulted in thousands of critical social media comments and in protests by Chinese Americans in front of the VOA building in Washington, DC. Bennett said repeatedly that she was only trying to uphold high standards of journalism.
Prior to the airing of the shortened interview, Chinese officials had made vague threats regarding visas for VOA correspondents if VOA would proceed with the broadcast.
“Given that Voice of America’s reversal on the broadcast came directly after the official Chinese complaints, it is hard to believe the two were not connected,” Helle Dale wrote.
HELLE DALE: At the very least, two things seem clear:
1. Voice of America did not follow proper management procedures. Professional guidelines for an investigative news item as explosive as this interview ought to have been clear before the interview was approved. Failure to do so resulted in a compromising controversy, and much stress for the suspended personnel.
2. The vulnerability to pressure by foreign governments is a problem for all U.S. media operating in foreign countries, and Voice of America is no exception. How they react to that pressure is critically important to the preservation of their journalistic credibility.
Voice of America is even more exposed to the public because it is part of the U.S. federal government. (It must be stressed, however, that there has been no indication that interference by the U.S. government itself took place.)
The congressional foreign affairs committees have been alerted to the facts of the Guo case. As members of Congress themselves have repeatedly voted for reform of U.S. international broadcasting, it would be appropriate to hold hearings to examine what went so wrong here.
READ MORE: Did the Chinese Government Influence Voice of America?, Helle C. Dale, The Daily Signal, May 23, 2017.
VOA STATEMENT ON GUO WENGUI INTERVIEW
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Friday, May 5, 2017 11:42:47 AM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: VOA Statement on Guo Wengui Interview
As you may be aware, there has been a lot of attention to a recent interview conducted by VOA Mandarin. In response to media inquiries on the matter, the following statement was issued and also shared at a VOA Mandarin town hall earlier this week.
VOA Statement on Guo Wengui Interview
VOA Mandarin Service Chief Sasha Gong and four other Mandarin Service employees have been placed on administrative leave pending a full investigation. Scott Stearns, managing editor in the VOA Africa division, will be the acting Mandarin Service chief until further notice. The decisions regarding the interview with Guo Wengui were made by a group of senior VOA leaders led by director Amanda Bennett and included deputy director Sandy Sugawara, program director Kelu Chao, and East Asia division director Norm Goodman. At no time during the decision-making process was there any management consideration of not doing the interview, nor of cutting short an ongoing interview for any reason. The decisions were based on the journalistic principles of verification, balance and fairness that are standard industry practice and apply universally to all VOA services. There are no special exemptions for individual services to follow different practices. There was no input whatsoever from the U.S. government, nor would the firewall permit any such input. Pressure from the Chinese government played no role in any decision-making. VOA and the BBG have decades’-long histories of producing full fair and balanced journalism in the face of even the most extreme pressures.
Amanda Bennett, Director
330 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20237
END OF VOA STATEMENT
Statement of Sasha Gong, Dong Fang, Bao Shen, and Su Li
We, the four Voice of America journalists who have been placed on administrative leave pending a VOA internal investigation, believe that the incident regarding Guo Wengui’s interview has seriously undermined VOA’s integrity and credibility as a US media outlet, and damaged the US national interests.
We request the following:
An independent, fair, and comprehensive federal investigation on the incident of the interview with Guo, the Chinese businessman-turned whistleblower who intended to expose how Chinese state security agencies control huge sum of financial assets for ruling the country and injecting influence around the world.
We request the investigation by authorities independent from Voice of America to cover all parties involved in the incident, including the VOA top management.
The issues to be investigated should be:
Has the VOA top management caved in to the Chinese government’s threat and demand to cancel VOA’s original interview and broadcast plan. If so, how?
Is there a possibility of the Chinese government being able to exercise influence within VOA, especially the East Asia Division?
The Guo interview incident is only the latest example of a series of events and changes happened in the VOA Chinese Branch in recent years that have systematically undermined the effectiveness of VOA broadcasting to China and demoralized the staff in the Branch.
END OF STATEMENT
ALSO READ: WSJ Op-Ed: How China Managed to Muffle the Voice of America, BBG Watch, May 25, 2017.