BBG Watch Commentary
Three Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin Service journalists are still on forced paid leave imposed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and VOA senior management after the Guo Wengui live whistleblower interview which was shortened on the orders of senior VOA executives on April 19, 2017. The forced administrative leave started on May 1, 2017. It has lasted against three VOA Mandarin Service journalists for more than a year. Last November, BBG/VOA management reportedly proposed to fire three of them. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel reportedly temporarily stopped the management’s proposed termination from going forward.
According to various sources, the forcefully suspended VOA Mandarin Service journalists intend to launch a class action lawsuit against BBG/VOA management for discrimination based on national origins. According to these sources, they have filed complaints via the EEO office. The U.S. government investigation of the shortening of the Guo Wengui interview, requested by members of Congress, is ongoing.
Of the original VOA Mandarin Five, one journalist was allowed to go back to work after four months, according to sources. Another VOA Mandarin Service journalist was allowed to go back with reportedly a two-week suspension.
Sources in the VOA Mandarin Service say that these journalists did nothing wrong except trying to persuade VOA’s senior management not to shorten the live interview with Guo Wengui, specific plans for which had been approved earlier by the management and were changed by senior managers only after the Chinese government protested to VOA in response to the VOA interview promo announcements. The Chinese government pressure on the VOA management included calling-in the VOA correspondent in Beijing for a talk at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, threatening the visas of VOA reporters in China, repeated phone calls from the Chinese Embassy in Washington to VOA, one of which is believed to had been returned by a senior VOA executive, and issuing an international warrant for Guo Wengui’s arrest.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett made a recent public statement in Washington saying “there was no Chinese government pressure.”
VOA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT: “I want to point out that there was no Chinese government pressure, there was no US government pressure. All the decisions made inside the Voices of America were made in the service of high journalistic integrity. And unfortunately I am sorry we can’t tell you anything because of privacy and labor issues, and we cannot tell you the reasons why things are happening, but I’d like to assure you that….first of all, talking about censorship, you just mentioned something that’s very important–an hour and 18 minutes. The Guo Wengui interview appeared on Voice of America for an hour and 18 minutes. Every decision that was made regarding that –every management decision that was made regarding that interview was made in the service of journalistic integrity.”
Some VOA China Branch journalists said privately they were astounded and dismayed by this statement. They wrote a news report about Director Bennett’s statement to be used by outside media, claiming there is no longer press freedom at the Voice of America that would allow them to do such reporting directly for VOA.
Some VOA journalists were also dismayed by how Greta Van Susteren who hosts TV shows for the Voice of America on a pro bono basis repeatedly tried to cut short the questions of Mr. Qiao Mu, a dissident Chinese academic, previously a professor at the Beijing University and a former contract employee at VOA Mandarin Service from November 2017 to January 2018, who challenged Director Bennett during the Q & A session on whether there is press freedom at VOA. He only got a two word “there is” response from Ms. Bennett because Ms. Van Susteren and some others insisted there was no time left. BBG CEO John Lansing and his deputy Jeff Trimble did not intervene to allow for a full answer to the press freedom question from a dissident Chinese journalist at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the George Washington University and the Committee to Protect Journalists event designed to mark the 2018 Press Freedom Day.
Commenting on the 2018 Press Freedom Day panel at the George Washington University at which a Chinese dissident could not get his questions answered supposedly because of lack of time, even though the program continued with presentations by BBG executives, John Lansing said in a press release the “protecting journalists and the work they do is to protect us all.”
BBG CEO JOHN LANSING: “Just last week we met with experts from The George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs and the Committee to Protect Journalists to discuss journalist safety and the challenges and trends in international media freedom, as well as to highlight areas where media are under attack. The continued decline of press freedom worldwide, as measured by Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, affects us all. A world in which information is controlled foments dissent, marginalization and conflict. Protecting journalists and the work they do is to protect us all.”
We have to wonder whether Mr. Qiao Mu felt protected by the way he was treated by VOA and BBG executives and a VOA TV host. Some VOA China Branch journalists again expressed their dismay.
They were also upset by VOA Director Bennett’s earlier comment made directly to them, justifying the selection of a non-Chinese journalist who speaks neither Mandarin or Cantonese and has had no experience in China coverage to be the new China Branch Chief. They were offended by Ms. Bennett’s comment that the person selected for the position was a leader and that VOA Chinese speakers can help him in understanding the languages of China. They saw the comment as implying that she does not believe any native Chinese speakers in the VOA China Branch who may have applied for the position have sufficient leadership skills.
VOA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT: “You know, you know what. We, the skill set that we need here right now is excellent journalism, experience, ah, collaborativeness, and fearlessness. And I think, you know, you can see that Ernie has got all of those things. And, you guys are going to, you guys are going to be able to help him make up that. You know, if you’re weighing something, you know, we’ve got a lot of candidates that came in who are super fluent in Mandarin, you know. But that was it. What good is that gonna do? You guys all speak Mandarin, you know, and Cantonese, you know. Why would I hire someone to do what all of you guys are able to do? What we need is a leader. Right? And Ernie is a leader. Ernie has proved over and over again that he’s a leader. And so when you’re weighing things — you know, language fluency, leadership — and, you know, you get someone with big language fluency but no leadership. You know, he’s a mover. Really strong leadership. We can figure out, and you guys already proved you can figure out, how you make up for that. So, that’s my answer.”
VOA Director Bennett continues to claim that all management decisions with regard to the shortening and conducting VOA Guo Wengui were made to uphold VOA’s journalistic standards. The shortening of the interview caused a major scandal, resulted in thousands of angry social media comments from the Chinese and seriously damaged VOA’s credibility with its Chinese audience. Some of the past and current BBG Board members are in charge of corporations and companies doing significant business in China, as does reportedly the spouse of the VOA director. He has no role at the BBG, but those BBG Board members who have done private business in China or in Russia were making decisions about U.S. international media outreach to these countries.
For a different perspective, we repost a copy of an email sent on May 7 to Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal employees by BBG CEO John F. Lansing.
The 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) season is upon us.
Tomorrow, May 8, the FEVS will be available for a six-week period. The survey is a tool for Federal employees to share perceptions in many critical areas of their work experiences. This is an important opportunity to help set the direction of the agency, so I encourage every Federal employee to complete this year’s survey.Participation is confidential. Results will be evaluated closely by me and my senior management team, and will inform action plans and solutions going forward. You can learn more about the FEVS here.
As always, each year is an opportunity for us to build upon our success. I would like to highlight a handful of the past year’s accomplishments and ways in which agency leadership continues to engage across the BBG team to address challenges and take our agency to the next level.
We have seen impressive results in our efforts to expand global freedom of information and expression, and to counter disinformation, violent extremism, and censorship. In 2017, U.S. international media saw 400 million social media video views in Russia, reached 23 percent of Iranian adults weekly, and helped 70 percent of its Iraqi audience form opinions.
The agency’s 2018 action plan continues this work with a focus on strategy, content, and modernization. We are going to continue growing our global audience, replicating the successful Current Time model with a 24/7 cross-platform Farsi-language network, and growing our English language and editorial efforts. And we are implementing a multi-pronged reform agenda aimed at transforming the BBG into a more efficient and effective global media organization.
To boost internal communications, BBG recently launched Workplace by Facebook. Workplace is an interactive, internal online platform to share events and initiatives with your agency colleagues. I encourage you all to use this tool to stay connected with the BBG community.
The BBG continues to provide learning opportunities for employees and managers and, in fact, there are more learning opportunities available now than ever. The “Balanced and Bias-Free Reporting” workshop and the mandatory harassment prevention training have seen excellent participation and feedback. And earlier this year, we launched Leadership 2020, a comprehensive development initiative for all BBG managers and supervisors.
Additionally, in the coming days I will announce our 2018 Nathanson Public Diplomacy Scholarship candidates who will attend the Aspen Institute Socrates Program this July in Aspen, Colorado. The program provides a forum for emerging leaders from various professions to explore contemporary issues through expert-moderated dialogue, and it is a great opportunity that I fully support.
Once again, I encourage you to participate in the FEVS, take advantage of learning opportunities, and stay connected through Workplace. You can always reach me at [Talk to John email address].
Thank you for all that you do in support of U.S. international media.
John F. Lansing
Chief Executive Officer and Director
U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors