Fear of the Chinese Government and Caving in to Its Pressure Continue Among Some at VOA
By Voice of America China Branch Reporters Who Want to Remain Anonymous Fearing Management Retaliation
In mid-August 2018, VOA China Branch made a public announcement via social media and website. It read: “Because of technical reasons, the Eye on America TV show at 6-7 am Beijing time will not be broadcast at its regular time. Later we will put the whole show on our website, YouTube, and other channels. Thank you for your attention.”
Eye on America is a pre-recorded show. Minor mistakes can be easily fixed. What was the mistake which forced the VOA China Branch leadership to take such an extreme step to cancel the whole regular show?
The answer was shockingly simple – when putting in Chyron descriptions someone accidentally typed the name “Sun Wenguang” wrong. It became “Sun Wengui”, missed by one Chinese character.
Such misspelling is not an uncommon mistake. It never before caused much concern, let along canceling the whole TV show. This time, however, the typo “Wengui” – not at all a rare name among the Chinese – might have reminded the audience of Guo Wengui, the Chinese whistleblower whose interview was abruptly interrupted by the VOA senior management under extreme pressure from the Chinese government. After the notorious interruption, VOA management placed five frontline Mandarin journalists on forced administrative leave, and later proposed to fire three of them.
The Guo interview debacle induced further censorship on Guo at VOA. Perhaps buying into the Chinese government’s claim that Guo was not credible, VOA has barely touched any news related to him, although the Guo exposé was one of the biggest political news about China in 2017. Thus the hyper sensitive action when the name “Wengui” accidentally showed up on the TV screen is seen as the continuation of caving under pressure.
Since the Guo interview, fear has permeated the VOA China Branch in the newly-renamed United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) — what was the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) headed since 2015 by CEO and Director John F. Lansing. The Chinese government smashed anyone who dared to mention Guo’s exposé. Meanwhile, the state propaganda machine mobilized fully to discredit Guo. At the same time, the VOA management clearly favored the Chinese rhetoric over Guo’s allegation of high-ranking corruption of government officials and wide-spread espionage by the Chinese authorities.
The Chinese government also extended its power over VOA. A VOA Mandarin Service journalist in the Guo interview show was denied visa to visit his family recently. A few others were visited by the secret police when they went to China. On one occasion, two plain clothes policemen were waiting outside when the Mandarin staffer arrived at her parents’ apartment. Dozens of friends and fans of Sasha Gong, the VOA Mandarin Service chief who was placed on administrative leave since May 1, 2017, were interrogated, detained, and arrested by the Chinese authorities. One of the allegations against pro-democracy Chinese was publicizing VOA’s interview with Guo and following Sasha Gong on social media. One person, arrested in September 2017, remains in jail. News from China indicated that the prisoner was mistreated.
No wonder some VOA Mandarin staffers are afraid. Who has the courage to face the fury from the powerful communist government whose functionaries can threaten their families and friends at any time, and from the VOA management in Washington whose senior officials control their paycheck?
Some other recent events also show that the fear continues. Earlier this month, when the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen passed by Los Angeles in her way to Central Latin-America, VOA did not use the title “Taiwanese president”. Instead, VOA adopted the official title used by the Chinese propaganda – “the Taiwanese leader”. Tsai was democratically elected by the Taiwanese people. The Taiwanese people therefore consider the Chinese term an insult to them and to their democracy. One explanation given was that some VOA reporters are afraid that their families in China will be persecuted by the Chinese government.
A few VOA Mandarin staffers who came more recently from mainland China begin to refuse assignments on human rights and other sensitive political topics. One newly-hired reporter talked of not knowing much about human rights and would rather focus on financial news, as if there were a shortage of such news in China.
END OF GUEST COMMENTARY
ALSO SEE: Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett Denies There Was Chinese Pressure on Guo Wengui VOA Interview