BBG Watch Commentary
When U.S Government officials try to ban journalists, deprive them of work or defame them, they should expect a certain amount of pushback. Journalists are fighting back and they know how. Matthew Russell Lee of independent Inner City Press is one of many journalists who found himself an object of attacks from a most unusual source within the U.S. Government, an agency set up by Congress to champion freedom of the press. NYCLU, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), even some of those supervising the agency that launched an attack on Mr. Lee, threatening his rights, came to his defense.
It’s not that current Board members in charge of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — the agency in question — condone such attacks on journalists. On the contrary, they have been are trying to reform corporate culture, protect journalists and rectify mistakes. But they themselves have also become victims of similar attacks. As unbelievable as it may sound, the bureaucracy in charge of U.S. international broadcasting is waging a war against journalists who criticize it, and even against members of its own oversight Board.
Officials of the BBG’s own administrative arm — the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) — are believed to be behind a smear campaign directed against Board members they dislike, particularly former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe who came to Mr. Lee’s defense and demanded answers from IBB. Lacking proper legal powers and currently without a quorum, the BBG Board is powerless to take on its own bureaucrats, although it did manage to rescue Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) where a management crisis almost destroyed it. This intervention also happened thanks to Victor Ashe and two other sitting BBG Governors, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan. It is somewhat easier for BBG members to fix problems at the so-called grantee broadcasters like RFE/RL than at VOA, which falls more under IBB’s management structure than the grantees, where IBB can only apply indirect pressure but which it would also like to control.
The Matthew Russell Lee case is just one of many examples of what is wrong with the management of the agency, but especially what’s wrong with top IBB and VOA executives who have just received new powers to become purveyors of news in the United States.
Mr. Lee is not the first person to observe that current IBB managers who can as of July 2 legally distribute news and other programs directly to Americans (READ: BBG Press Release – “BBG International Broadcasts Now Available Within The United States” and BBG Watch – “U.S. officials accused of practicing censorship are now in charge of distributing news to Americans“) cannot be trusted with such new powers based on their past performance and numerous misdeeds.
In June 2012, a top level manager at the Voice of America (VOA) wrote an email to a UN official requesting that Lee’s UN press accreditation be revoked. The word used was “reviewed.” He accused Lee of unprofessional behavior in a dispute with a VOA reporter and of writing a number of emails to him, which the official found annoying. Lee was asking him for help in resolving his dispute with a VOA colleague relating to the business of a correspondents’ association at the UN. His emails went without an answer from the government official.
Lee denies that he did anything wrong. He did not. He denies that his behavior was inappropriate. He certainly did nothing to justify a U.S. government official asking the UN that he should be thrown out and probably find himself without any work. Even assuming that the VOA manager was trying to help or protect one of his employees, as a government official in a federal agency that champions free press he had no business asking that an independent American journalist be denied his UN press accreditation over what was essentially a private dispute between reporters.
As far as we know, Voice of America Director David Ensor did not apologize to Mr. Lee for the action of one of his top deputies. He kept the official who wrote the request to the UN as his right hand man at VOA, assigning him to some of the most responsible functions in charge of programs and personnel.[aside]
As we were preparing this article for posting, Voice of America launched yet another ad hominem attack on a journalist, this time in the form of a response from Kyle King, Director, VOA Public Relations to an analytical piece published by a former VOA senior correspondent Gary Thomas in Columbia Journalism Review. VOA again accuses Thomas of inaccuracies and of malice in his article for which they were given a chance to answer questions but declined, dismissing these questions with their earlier accusations of again “inaccuracies” and of “bias.” Leadership of an American taxpayer-funded organization that practices such Soviet-style tactics against American journalists should be replaced.
In his own way, Director Ensor affirmed the corporate culture set by the top officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which not only encourages but mandates hostility toward any critics, whether they be their superiors, i.e. BBG members, agency employees, contractors, former employees or outside journalists. Assailing professional reputation of journalists who criticize IBB and VOA executives seems to be a favorite tactic within this group.
The problem with this approach is that it is extremely harmful to the agency, Voice of America, and the rest of U.S. international broadcasting. VOA journalists who do outstanding work are tarnished by association because actions of their top executives are so outrageous that sometimes they invite reaction and criticism that may go beyond what is appropriate. In any case, they generate bad press. They also put IBB and VOA leaders at the bottom of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys that measure employee morale and and quality of management.
Millions of taxpayers’ dollars are being spent by the agency defending lawsuits that are bound to fail, drafting nasty attacks on legitimate critics, attacking their professional reputation, discussing ways of avoiding telling the truth, responding to needless FOIA requests, and paying out court-ordered settlements to wronged employees — all because top executives at IBB and VOA behave the way they do and have gotten away with it
We are aware of at least two recent instances in which VOA spokespersons, almost certainly acting with top level approval, attacked the reputation of two former VOA journalists with impeccable career records and decades of experience. They accused one of their former senior foreign correspondents and national security analysts of “bias” and inaccuracies” in his questions for a Columbia Journalism Review article — questions which they refused to answer. They accused another former VOA manager of “misstating facts” and “practicing journalism that does a disservice to his former colleagues” in an op-ed he wrote about serious problems at VOA for The Washington Times.
Western journalists got these kinds of dismissive and hostile responses all the time from Soviet officials during the Cold War. Just as top Soviet officials mislead their own people and even most Communist Party rank and file functionaries, VOA and IBB executives hide the truth from BBG members and from American public. It’s done on a much smaller scale, of course, but keep in mind that they now have greater powers to influence public opinion in the United States. Their behavior cannot be excused. Voice of America is not only an American institution funded in full by American taxpayers, it is also expected to act as a bastion of freedom of the press. Their past actions do not bode well for the project of providing news to Americans. Mr. Lee can attest to that.
But the treatment fired Radio Liberty journalists in Russia received last year from their American management which kept in close touch with IBB officials was ten thousand times worse. IBB officials did not fire them, but they stood idle as a great injustice and a major public diplomacy crisis were unfolding. They definitely had a hand in the illegal RIF of Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) employees. Despite great human suffering from the humiliation and financial burdens these employees continue to endure — IBB officials still refuse to reinstate them, even though IBB has lost legal appeal after appeal.
Matthew Russell Lee is another journalist, an outside victim of IBB’s culture of contempt for critics and indifference to public opinion. While we do not agree with everything Mr. Lee has written, what was done to him is inexcusable and his reactions are hardly surprising. His latest report is a good example of how much harm VOA and IBB executives have already caused and how much U.S. taxpayers’ money is being wasted on defending agency officials who make terrible decisions — decisions and actions which the IBB corporate culture not only condones but encourages.
We do not believe that VOA intentionally tried to censor Mr. Lee, but if the attempt to throw him out of the UN was successful, he would certainly be unable to report on corruption within the UN and on other sensitive stories. The attempt to remove his accreditation appeared to have been driven by a private dispute in which a VOA official had no business of asking for banning him from the UN.
We also do not agree that VOA journalists do not function as independent journalists. They do. On this point, the VOA Public Affairs Office is right. But there is more to it than meets the eye. VOA journalists work under extremely difficult conditions, under exceptionally bad top management, and are subject to marketing pressures, programming and personnel decisions and cuts mandated by IBB executives that affect and diminish their news reporting every day. Their independence is undermined by their own top management in terms of what resources they have and what stories they cover and how much time they devote to hard news, not by the White House or the State Department, which by law cannot interfere with VOA news reporting.
Mr. Lee is right when he says that some of his professional colleagues at the UN may not like his tactics and his reporting. He managed to break several important corruption stories with his unconventional approach that his colleagues have missed. Inner City Press continues to break and pursue stories, for example earlier this year Mr. Lee’s report on the auctioning off of an internship in the UN for over $20,000 was credited by among others Talk Radio News Service (Spox: “UN Internships Are Not For Sale”) and on Al Jazeera.com (Meritocracy for sale). VOA should support such journalists, not try to get them de-accredited.
What Mr. Lee’s latest report illustrates is how much harm VOA officials have done and how their actions are damaging the reputation and the work of outstanding VOA journalists who themselves are victims of bad management. It also shows that with so many top officials involved in drafting responses, it is a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money that could have been avoided if VOA respected Mr. Lee’s rights and IBB resolved the issue right away. They couldn’t because they themselves are guilty of creating a culture which produced it. It is these top officials, both VOA’s and IBB’s, whose accreditation from American taxpayers to be in charge of U.S. international broadcasting should be revoked, not Mr. Lee’s press accreditation at the UN where he uncovers corruption other journalists can’t or don’t want to. These executives have no idea that freedom of the press also means that other other journalists, even those who criticize, are entitled to be treated with respect and have their questions answered rather than to be subject to vicious attacks on their rights and their reputation.
With VOA Propaganda Free in US, BBG Tries to Cover Up Censorship Bid at UN under FOIA
By Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press
UNITED NATIONS, July 2 — With coverage of international affairs increasingly in the hands of interested governments who view news production as a tool of foreign policy and internal propaganda, now the US is shifting more in that direction.
The US’ Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose four listed members include US Secretary of State John Kerry just as it included his predecessor Hillary Clinton, announced today that the productions of Voice of America and its other Cold War era state media properties can now be shown inside the US.