Lansing and Bennett must let Robert Li and other VOA Mandarin journalists return to work

OPINION
BBG Watch Guest Commentary

History’s Mysteries: Those Who Listen in the Dark (解密时刻:偷听“敌台” 美国之音 英文字幕版) 32,323 views as of April 19, 2018

魏京生:“那个时候开始,悄悄地在家里头,收音机打开慢慢找找找,找着了。”Starting at that time, at home in secret, I would turn on the radio and slowly turn the dial, slowly, slowly, — found it!

美国之音中文网视频

History’s Mysteries: Those Who Listen in the Dark (解密时刻:偷听“敌台” 美国之音 英文版)

History’s Mysteries: Those Who Listen in the Dark

魏京生:“那个时候开始,悄悄地在家里头,收音机打开慢慢找找找,找着了。”Starting at that time, at home in secret, I would turn on the radio and slowly turn the dial, slowly, slowly, — found it!”

If Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing and Voice of America (VOA) Director Amanda Bennett have any shame left and don’t want to be labeled as utter hypocrites, they must immediately return to work VOA Mandarin journalist Robert Li (photo above and on the left), who produced the video documentary, ”History’s Mysteries: Those Who Listen in the Dark (解密时刻:偷听“敌台” 美国之音 英文字幕版)“ (Same video from YouTube and VOA site above; 32,323 YouTube views for this video as of April 19, 2018 — over 10 million YouTube views for videos posted on the VOA Chinese “History’s Mysteries” channel — over 30 million total online views). The Chinese government feared and disliked this program. The VOA management terminated the history series in 2016 for still unclear reasons despite their enormous popularity.

If they claim to be supporters of media freedom, Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett must likewise immediately return to work and their former positions two other VOA China Branch Mandarin Service journalists: Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong and veteran journalist Fred Wang. They also represent what to me are the best among many VOA reporters I had the privilege to work with during my previous employment with the organization. I am enormously proud of this work, especially after the last remnants of management-imposed censorship to protect the Soviet Union were lifted by the Reagan administration in 1981. My VOA broadcasting mission ended when democracy was established in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire collapsed some ten years later. The freedom mission of these three outstanding Chinese journalists and their colleagues continues to this day.

A group of prominent China scholars in the U.S. is defending Robert Li, Sasha Gong and Fred Wang. They describe them as some of the most respected Chinese-speaking media professionals in the world. The journalists are still on forced administrative leave with pay and are threatened with being fired for what I see was daring to question senior VOA managers over their politically lethal decision to shorten a live interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui which was conducted in New York on April 19 of last year.

The one year anniversary of the abruptly cut Guo Wengui interview is today. Shortly after the interview was cut, the BBG-VOA management put five VOA Mandarin journalists (VOA Mandarin Five) on forced leave for allegedly not immediately complying with what was described as the senior managers’ last-minute, poorly-formulated and confusing orders to shorten the interview.

Any good journalist would question such orders, especially after knowing that the Chinese government and the Chinese Embassy in Washington had made not so vague threats against VOA if the interview would go forward and after one of the top senior VOA executives reportedly had an unprecedented telephone conversation about this issue with the Chinese Embassy. The management’s decision immediately cost VOA its credibility in China, among Chinese Americans and other Chinese living in diaspora. Social media users have noted significant corporate and family business interests in China among some of the key BBG and VOA officials.

Many months have passed as these Chinese American journalists are being deprived of the work they are deeply committed to and treat as their life’s mission. They were humiliated in front of their colleagues, families and friends in the most callous manner without doing anything that I could see as being wrong. What I saw was their valiant attempt to save the Voice of America from being tarnished with suspicions of censorship. When the VOA executives learned of the Chinese government’s protests, it was a fatal mistake of senior VOA managers not to allow the interview to proceed as planned and announced to the audience.

At this critical point, I would like to propose that if these brave VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters are not back at work before April 25, 2018, journalists and all other supporters of freedom should try to attend a 2018 World Press Freedom Day event at the George Washington University on that day to demand from Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett, who are scheduled to be there, to stop what looks to me as the management’s retaliation again the journalists for daring to disagree with senior executives, and for being right. The VOA Chinese broadcasters were trying to prevent a disaster which happened exactly as they had warned it would.

There is nothing more hypocritical than for senior executives of a publicly-funded, U.S. government agency charged with supporting media freedom abroad to appear denying professional freedom to their own journalists. Furthermore, Li, Gong, and Wang are not the only ones suffering from apparent retaliation, mismanagement, chaos, poor governance, inexperience, bias, partisanship, conflicts of interest and senior level incompetence at the BBG, VOA and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

BBG audiences living under oppressive regimes can see the hypocrisy and empty boasts better than most Americans, or just as easily as VOA Chinese and other BBG journalists can see them.

Fearful of management retaliation, women employees at BBG, VOA and RFE/RL are afraid to complain. Their male colleagues as well.

But in a recent show of both desperation and courage, an extraordinary large number of award-winning women journalists has left Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in protest against the management’s authoritarian practices. They also made their protests publicly known on Facebook and other social media pages.

At the same time, prominent Iranian American leaders and scholars have warned that under the current leadership, both VOA Persian Service and RFE/RL’s Radio Farda to Iran help the Iranian regime stay in power. This happens, they say, because of misguided programming policies which treat regime leaders, spokesmen and controlled media nearly the same way as the opposition. RFE/RL does the same thing, both in programs to Iran and to Russia.

Former participants in the prestigious Vaclav Havel Fellowship described RFE/RL’s senior management as similar to an authoritarian regime in a country in deep crisis. That’s how bad things have gotten under the watch of Mr. Lansing, Ms. Bennett and RFE/RL President Thomas Kent.

If Robert Li and his VOA Mandarin Service colleagues are not back at work by April 25, I hope that Mr. Lansing and Mr. Bennett will get an earful from journalists, media freedom advocates, Chinese Americans and Iranian Americans at the World Press Freedom Day with BBG, GWU & CPJ.

I hope that at that event, and hopefully even earlier after reading this, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) will come to the defense of the VOA Mandarin broadcasters and RFE/RL women journalists who have resigned in protest or have been pushed out. They include award-winning investigative reporter and former political prisoner Khadija Ismailova whom the CPJ had defended in the past.

Judging from her public statements, Ms. Ismailova may never want to work for RFE/RL again after resigning on her own in protest against mistreatment of other journalists, but I know that the VOA Chinese broadcasters want to continue their work for media freedom in China. This work means everything to them. It would be a major failure if the Committee to Protect Journalists refuses to defend them against the powerful Washington government bureaucracy and its appalling behavior.

I hope that well-known and respected former television reporter Frank Sesno, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University, will speak up in defense of Robert Lee, Sasha Gong, and Fred Wang.

I especially hope that Greta Van Susteren, a contributor to Voice of America, former news host at CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, will also defend these Chinese American journalists because of her professionalism, respect among her colleagues in the media, and her pro-bono status at VOA.

I have frequently asked myself where is the outrage among BBG and VOA federal employees over the management’s treatment of the VOA Mandarin Five and many other similar incidents. The outrage manifests itself in anonymously conducted, government-wide Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) which give BBG executives the worst ratings among federal agencies and rank the BBG at the bottom for employee morale and engagement. But regular VOA government employees can’t risk losing their jobs by speaking up publicly against powerful establishment figures in charge of their government agency. Their jobs and promotions are controlled by these executives. Ms. Van Susteren can do this for VOA employees by confronting John Lansing and Amanda Bennett over this issue. I hope she will.

I had spent over 30 years with the Voice of America, the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the BBG, defending freedom in communist-ruled Poland and in other countries. I have seen some examples of poor management, some censorship, mild partisanship and bureaucratic arrogance, but what I have observed in the last two years is well beyond the worst that I have ever experienced in my entire journalistic and managerial career. It is absolutely appalling and unprecedented.

In all of this, good BBG journalists are in an extremely difficult position to be able to defend themselves and to demand changes and reforms from the entrenched and politically well-connected executives and bureaucrats. These good and loyal civil servants who believe in the VOA Charter need our help.

On the first anniversary of the censored VOA interview with Guo Wengui, the least any outside journalist can do in the spirit of solidarity is to demand from Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett to let Robert Li and other VOA Mandarin Service reporters return to their work which audiences without free media rely on and need.

Today’s web users are savvy and in many cases have other media choices, not all of them credible and friendly toward the United States and democracy. They need to be assured that VOA and RFE/RL remain on the side of freedom. If they think that high-ranking U.S. government officials retaliate against American and foreign-born journalists working for VOA and RFE/RL, they may conclude that the entire message is full of hypocrisy. This is extremely dangerous for the United States at the time of intensified propaganda and disinformation from the enemies of freedom.

Anyone who watches Robert Li’s documentary and his VOA colleagues who appear in it or who helped to produce it — some of whom, like Dr. Gong, had been political prisoners in China — they can see that what these proud Chinese Americans have been through at the hands of the BBG/VOA management is simply inexcusable and should not be tolerated even for one more day.

Anyone can see that VOA Chinese broadcasters have millions of views for their videos, while those who prevent them from working can’t get a dozen likes for their posts if they even have social media accounts or know how to use them. The Voice of America needs these journalists. China also needs them. They are the only ones who can help VOA regain the trust of the audience and help restore the Voice of America to its former status as the defender of freedom.

Unfortunately, I can’t be in DC on April 25 to attend the 2018 World Press Freedom Day event at GWU and to show my solidarity with Sasha Gong, Robert Li, Fred Wang and their VOA China colleagues, but I hope many of you will. They need your support.

Ted Lipien
Former VOA Polish Service Chief, Regional BBG Eurasia Director, VOA Eurasia Division Director
Former VOA Acting Associate Director
Free Media Online Founder
CUSIB Co-Director
BBG Watch Co-Founder

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According to materials provided by his colleagues, Robert Li, whom the current VOA management put on forced leave and threatened with firing, has received multiple agency awards for his work.

VOA Superior Accomplishment Awards:
• 2014, for outstanding contributions to TV program History’s Mysteries
• 2012, for outstanding contributions to TV program History’s Mysteries
• 2011, for continuously demonstrated skills to serve both as an excellent journalist and an outstanding editor
• 2010, for outstanding contributions to VOA Mandarin’s current affairs coverage
• 2007, for outstanding radio and television reporting and contributions to the Communist Party in China series
• 2003, for outstanding contributions to Chinese Branch as Program Coordinator in improving quality control and implementing guidelines for broadcasting operations and programs

VOA Excellence in Programming:
• 2006, U.S.S. Missouri: A Story of Yesterday and Today, a feature report
• 2004, Special Report: Fight Against Sex Slave Trade, a news/news-related report

VOA EAP Division Commendations:
• 1998, Freedom Is Not Free, a feature report
• 1996, From the Mayflower to the Golden Venture, a feature report

Robert Li has a Master’s Degree from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies Guangzhou, China. He has worked at VOA since 1992 as Team Leader for Digital Operations, Senior Editor, Executive Producer of “Straight Talk” TV program, Team Leader for Social Media, Team Leader and Executive Producer of “History’s Mysteries” series, Program Coordinator, Writer and TV Host. He had previously worked for the International Department of China Central Television.

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Join the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), The George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs and the Committee to Protect Journalists for a conversation on challenges and new trends in international media freedom, access to information, and journalist safety.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs

City View Room, 7th Floor

1957 E Street, NW

Washington, DC 20052

11:45 AM – 12:30 PM – Registration and networking lunch
12:30 PM – 2:30 PM – Program

Speakers include:

John Lansing
Chief Executive Officer, Broadcasting Board of Governors

Frank Sesno
Director, The School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University

Greta Van Susteren
Contributor, Voice of America, former News Host, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC

Patrick Butler
Vice President, Programs, International Center for Journalists

Michael De Dora
Washington Advocacy Manager, Committee to Protect Journalists

Amanda Bennett
Director, Voice of America

Alberto M. Fernandez
President, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc.

Libby Liu
President, Radio Free Asia

Haroon Ullah
Chief Strategy Officer, Broadcasting Board of Governors

Joan Mower
Head of Development and Training, Broadcasting Board of Governors

This #BBGWPFD event is free, but space is limited and registration is required. We hope you can join the conversation.

For questions or further information, contact the BBG’s Office of Public Affairs at
202-203-4400, publicaffairs@bbg.gov.

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