USAGM Watch Commentary

U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) Chief Executive Officer Michael Pack issued a press release today naming managers who will serve in an interim capacity as the heads of the agency’s two federal organizations and its three public service grantee broadcasting networks. Most of them are former journalists and professional managers have worked at various USAGM entities for some time.

The USAGM press release provided the following information about the interim selectees:

  • Elez Biberaj, who has led Voice of America (VOA)’s Eurasia Division since 2006, will serve as VOA’s Acting Director.
  • Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, previously Senior Advisor at Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), will serve as OCB’s Acting Director and Principal Deputy Director.
  • Parameswaran Ponnudurai, who has been Vice President of Programming at Radio Free Asia (RFA) since 2014, will serve as RFA’s Acting President.
  • Kelley Sullivan, who has been a Vice President at Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) since 2006, will serve as MBN’s Acting President.
  • Daisy Sindelar, who has been with RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty (RFE/RL) for nearly two decades, will serve as RFE/RL’s Acting President.

Pack sent, in part, the following message to staff:

“The experience of these talented men and women, their knowledge of the networks, and their commitment to the standards of journalism will allow us to launch into the next exciting chapter of our agency. Dr. Biberaj, Mr. Shapiro, Mr. Ponnudurai, Ms. Sullivan, and Ms. Sindelar will serve critical roles in allowing our networks to become higher performing and to more effectively serve our audiences. For their willingness to step up and help lead this effort, I am deeply appreciative. I am excited to serve alongside them as well as with all of you.”

The Voice of America reported that in an email to staff Tuesday, “Biberaj recounted how his personal history as a refugee, American immigrant, and nearly 40-year career as a journalist with VOA have shaped his perspective.”

US Global Media Agency Names Longtime VOA Journalist as Acting Director, VOA News, June 30, 2020

In his email, forwarded to us by Voice of America journalists, Biberaj who had worked closely with the two former VOA directors, David Ensor and Amanda Bennett, has promised to uphold the VOA Charter.

Michael Pack had said previously that he plans “to restore” the VOA Charter, reflecting criticism by some inside and outside of the Trump Administration that the Charter was not fully observed under the management appointed by the Obama Administration and that some VOA content was biased against conservative Americans and included propaganda from China and Iran.

Viewed by some Eurasia Division journalists as a tough manager, Biberaj may try to prevent programming scandals which have plagued VOA under Amanda Bennett.

According to a 2013 Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, VOA senior staff considers Dr. Biberaj “one of the most effective division directors.”

OIG REPORT (2013): To the division director’s credit, he understands the strategic and political importance of the VOA Russian Service, so it makes sense that he would devote the majority of his time to overseeing the service’s activities and keeping VOA upper management apprised. However, he supervises talented and experienced professionals who should be trusted and empowered to do their jobs. Good management principles dictate that leaders should provide guidance to their subordinates and allow them to do their jobs. 

ELEZ BIBERAJ (June 30, 2020): I am deeply appreciative of the unique opportunity that USAGM CEO Michael Pack has given me to lead us through this transition as Acting Director of Voice of America, the institution I passionately love and have served for nearly forty years, throughout almost my entire career. I grew up listening to VOA, and like many of those to whom we broadcast around the world, I began my journey as a refugee. In 1968, my family, having fled communist oppression in Albania, immigrated to the United States, the land of liberty and opportunity where I was fortunate to earn a PhD in political science at Columbia University. My appreciation for having achieved and lived the American dream knows no bounds, and I am so honored to serve VOA’s mission amongst professionals I highly respect. Throughout my long career at VOA and travels around the world, I have seen the great impact that we have by producing journalism of exceptional value in support of freedom and democracy; serving as a beacon of hope; helping people under dictatorial and authoritarian regimes preserve their independent spirit and achieve their democratic aspirations; and serving as a shining light and standard bearer of truth and core American values. As I step in to temporarily lead our exceptionally talented journalists, technicians and administrative staff, I will do my best to honor VOA’s Charter and mission and adhere to the highest journalistic standards and ethics. Anybody who has worked with me knows that I am fully dedicated to VOA’s mission – to serve as a trusted source of reliable news and information, present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions, and present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively. Our mission is more important today than ever, and VOA is uniquely positioned to tell America’s compelling story, provide U.S. perspectives, and serve as a model of free press. The VOA Charter provides for independent news coverage. I will make every effort to ensure our Charter stands, free of political interference or intervention, as our audiences have come to expect. To all my colleagues, at home and abroad, who work so diligently to uphold and advance VOA’s remarkable mission, I thank you for the honor of working with you to continue VOA’s tradition, since 1942, of journalism that faithfully serves the American ideals of freedom and democracy. While transitions always bring some level of anxiety and nervousness, please be assured that I will do my best to ensure that VOA will continue to perform its important work as we have for many years. I will do so with the utmost confidence that VOA and its skilled, hard-working staff are up to the task in every way, now and going forward. 

Dr. Biberaj has traveled frequently abroad in his position as Eurasia Division director and took former VOA directors on trips to the Balkans where they met with local political leaders, some of whom viewed as controversial.

In recent years, a few VOA Eurasia Division managers and journalists were posting on Facebook their photographs with U.S. politicians and expressing support for them in violation of VOA social media rules. At least two Eurasia Division services produced and posted on social media U.S. presidential election campaign videos which violated the VOA Charter and were subsequently removed. One video included insults and condoned physical violence against Donald Trump. Critics blamed the then VOA Director Amanda Bennett for not providing sufficient example, leadership and oversight to avoid such missteps among VOA English and foreign language services.

Although his appointment is interim, Dr. Elez Biberaj faces a tough challenge of preventing further such violations of the VOA Charter while the search for a permanent Voice of America director will continue.

Dr. Biberaj has been an energetic manager and has frequently invited members of Congress for interviews, panel discussions and other events at the Voice of America. One of the most frequent guests has been Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Engel joked in 2013 that “he had been interviewed by VOA so many times that when he visited Albania or Kosovo he was widely recognized.”

Engel, however, is at risk of losing his congressional seat. Although the official results of the recent Democratic Party primary in New York have not been yet announced, he was trailing far behind his progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman, a former Bronx middle school principal.

Regardless of the primary election outcome in New York, Engel will remain House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman until the next Congress is sworn in.

Rep. Engel has been a strong critic of Michael Pack. He called on him to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 8, saying that “Mr. Pack’s day-one purge of senior officials and appointment of right-wing ideologues and Trump loyalists sends an alarming message.” Engel was referring to Pack’s firing of the heads of the USAGM non-federal entities, which the bipartisan legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Obama allowed Pack to do. Dr. Biberaj is in a different category. He is a career U.S. federal government employee and Rep. Engel will know that Biberaj certainly is not a right-wing ideologue or a Trump loyalist.

Rep. Engel also knows that Biberaj has an exceptional experience as a refugee from communism and a record of success as immigrant in the United States. He also has extensive experience as a mid-level manager and a broad knowledge of his broadcast region.

We wish Dr. Biberaj success in his new position and urge him to set a good example in improving employee morale and promoting outstanding journalism in accordance with the VOA Charter.

VOA Phto: (L to R)- VOA Albanian Service Chief Arben Xhixho, VOA Eurasia Division Director Elez Biberaj, VOA Director Amanda Bennett, Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, in Pristina, September 29, 2017.
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