BBG Watch Commentary
A few days ago, a young Chinese American girl wrote a check made out to VOA5 Justice. It was the first check from her first ever checking account. As she gave it to one of the five Voice of America (VOA) Chinese American journalists placed on administrative leave with pay and being investigated on orders of powerful VOA Director Amanda Bennett, the young girl said: “For justice!” One of the donations for the VOA Mandarin Five came with a message from an anonymous donor: “for the humble to fight the arrogant.”
Amanda Bennett insists that the VOA Mandarin Five, as they became known, are not being treated unfairly for allegedly resisting her orders to shorten a live interview with a whistleblower, Chinese billionaire businessman Guo Wengui. The bulk of VOA’s audience in China seems to disagree with the VOA director on this issue. Thousands of social media comments criticized her statement regarding the handling of the interview. Chinese Americans who are opposed to the communist government in Beijing have staged protests in front of the VOA building in Washington. VOA Mandarin Service journalists say that much of their reputation in China has been ruined in the wake of the shortened interview. In three weeks, the amount of money contributed largely by Chinese Americans to the VOA5 Justice legal defense fund for the VOA Mandarin Five has grown to over $20,000. Most of the money came from small donations of $10, $20, and $50.
“Facing the high-priced BBG/VOA lawyers, outside ‘crisis management’ experts, and professional investigators, with unlimited resources, we had no choice but to pay for a lawyer,” one of the suspended journalists, VOA Mandarin Service chief Dr. Sasha Gong, wrote in a recent article.
Even though they still collect their salaries while on administrative leave, Dr. Gong said that their livelihood is threatened and some have developed serious health problems. Being unable to work is depressing and humiliating for these proud Chinese American immigrant journalists. Their legal fees now amount to over $60,000.
As recounted by Dr. Gong, “many people in the Chinese community saw the arrogance of the VOA bureaucrats.” “From the very beginning, the VOA top management tried to crush us,” she added. “They expected us to beg for mercy, to weep, to apologize, and to surrender for simply doing our jobs,” Dr. Gong said.
DR. SASHA GONG: “Immigrants from China like us have experienced a great deal in our lives. We survived dictatorship, political persecution, and government violence. We appreciate liberty, and understand that we must keep fighting for it. If we don’t fight, the erosion of freedom will happen in the hands of the powerful. So, to many Chinese-Americans, our fight is their fight. We have their support.”
As recounted by Dr. Gong, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America management has launched three separate investigations against the VOA Mandarin Five. “We have been subjected to intense interrogations. Our good names are slandered in national and international media,” by the senior management, Dr. Gong said. She added: “Our personal information is spread around. Our health is damaged. … We are fighting against a powerful bureaucracy.”
Shortly after the interview was abruptly cut, the VOA director was told by journalists working in the Mandarin Service, that VOA suffered an “unbelievable” public relations damage in China.
VOA MANDARIN SERVICE JOURNALIST TO VOA DIRECTOR AMANDA BENNETT: “For the past two weeks, we were flooded with angry posts from our audience, asking VOA to provide an explanation. …I really think we owe our audience an explanation. I understand that the PR Office had a statement, but a lot of people considered that as insufficient. I think we owe our audience an apology or an explanation. But at this point, I think, it’s already too late. Still, something is better than nothing because I see the damage to our reputation. It’s unbelievable. I’ve been working here for 20 years and I have never seen such a PR crisis. Really. I have never seen anything like this. The anger and the frustration of our audience.”
According to a statement issued in May, decisions which led to making the interview with Guo Wengui shorter than what the audience expected were made by “senior VOA leaders led by me.”
AMANDA BENNETT: “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, language program director Kelu Chao, and East Asia division director Norm Goodman. At no time during this 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.”
Amanda Bennett also gave her side of the story to CNBC reporter Evelyn Cheng who wrote in an online article that “a dispute over why Voice of America abruptly shut down an interview with a vocal critic of Beijing is raising questions about whether Chinese leadership influenced the U.S. broadcaster.”
In a letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal Bennett accused Dr. Gong of not agreeing with “universally accepted journalistic principles.” In another letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal, former VOA director Robert R. Reilly defended Dr. Gong and her VOA Mandarin Service colleagues who are now under an investigation ordered by the VOA director.
Former VOA journalists don’t recall any previous instance of five federal government employees, all of them broadcasters, being simultaneously placed on administrative leave, with or without pay, by any former VOA director over a programming dispute or any other issue.
Amanda Bennett is receiving strong support from her immediate boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing, a well-informed inside source told BBG Watch. Neither of them has had any prior experience in managing government employees or in public diplomacy on behalf of the United States. Both were appointed to their positions during the Obama administration with the approval of the bipartisan BBG Board.
Critics worry that for many years the BBG Board has had chairmen and members who in their private capacity have been doing corporate business in countries like Russia and China, including a multimillion dollar deal with a Chinese company negotiated earlier this year for a private sector U.S. corporation. There is no indication, however, that any BBG member had input into Amanda Bennett’s handling of the Guo Wengui VOA interview.
One well-informed inside source said that the BBG Board had nothing to do with this incident and neither did the Trump White House nor the State Department. It appears to have been solely Amanda Bennett’s decision. Whether what are believed to be her family’s investments in China had any impact on her decisions cannot be determined. She has insisted that her only concern was to uphold high journalistic principles as they apply to all Voice of America programs. A well-informed source told us that it is hard to believe that anyone in VOA leadership, especially Kelu Chao, would actually cave in to Chinese pressure, but the same source confirmed that the crisis over the Guo Wengui interview has been a true nightmare for VOA’s reputation in China.
In an interview with a friendly reporter from the Washington Post, in which no questions seemed to have been asked about the Guo Wengui interview incident or any other management problem, Bennett reiterated her commitment to accurate, balanced and comprehensive journalism at the Voice of America.
“My concern coming here, since I came from a 35-plus-year background in media and had no interest in doing anything different, was to check historically how is the firewall respected,” Bennett said, referring to the divide between administration objectives and journalistic decisions. “I talked to every director I could get access to … and they all said the same thing: It was taken very seriously.”
The one-sided nature of the Washington Post article was viewed by some critics as similar to friendly state media reporting on government operations in some of the countries to which BBG directs its programs because they lack free media. A broadcaster who is still employed by Voice of America and seems concerned about low employee morale and charges of biased VOA coverage of U.S. politics posted a public comment: “I wish the [Washington Post] reporter had also talked to some VOA staff.” Bennett has professional and personal links with the Washington Post.
Sasha Gong is up against a Washington establishment figure who remains powerful even though she is not connected with the Trump administration. Supported by BBG CEO John Lansing, Amanda Bennett does not seem to be backing down despite the continuing controversy. This crisis may last a long time with the primary victims being frontline VOA Mandarin Service journalists prevented from doing their jobs and the Voice of America’s reputation in China. It is a very depressing situation for anybody concerned with supporting freedom and democracy abroad with uncensored news and opinions. Even Dr. Gong admits that her fight may be long and difficult.
DR. SASHA GONG: “We are fighting for justice and truth. I guess this might be just another lost cause … [but] as Clarence Darrow [a famous U.S. lawyer, leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union,] said once, lost causes were the only ones worth fighting for.
We are fighting this cause. Personally, I am fighting for my dead friend [Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist and Liu Xiaobo who recently died while being imprisoned in China]. And I am fighting for my young friends.”
In her article, Dr. Gong included information how supporters of the VOA Mandarin Five can contribute to their legal defense fund.
PayPal (credit card/debit card/bank transfer)：http://bit.ly/2tTQ8dW
Check payable to：
P.O. BOX 231841
Centreville, VA 20120