USAGM WATCH COMMENTARY

USAGM Watch has learned that Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett informed VOA staff in two emails sent out Thursday (March 19) that a VOA employee in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) working at the VOA and USAGM Washington, DC headquarters has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The first email from VOA director about the coronavirus case, which we have seen, went out on Thursday at 11:15 AM, and the second email went out at 4:59 PM. We could not find this information on the VOA News homepage which at the time we checked on Thursday showed two major topics: Coronavirus and VOA Special Report “History of Mass Shooters.”

In a telephone call to the USAGM board meeting at the VOA headquarters in Washington last Thursday (March 12), which was moderated in person by USAGM chairman Ken Weinstein with some of the board members present in the room, Amanda Bennett described how VOA employees were working hard to bring coronavirus news to their audiences. She thanked VOA employees for their hard work under extremely difficult circumstances and for attracting large audiences for their coverage. At the same meeting of the U.S. Agency for Global Media oversight board on March 12, Amanda Bennett also touted the VOA “History of Mass Shooters” project.

However, on the same day (March 12) Bennett spoke to the USAGM Board by phone, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in a nationwide television address  harshly criticized the Voice of America for spreading false news about coronavirus deaths in Serbia which he said did not occur at that time. He said that this false news from VOA caused panic among family members of known patients and hampered officials and medical emergency services in doing their job because they had to respond to inquires from frantic citizens about their loved ones. The VOA Serbian Service posted an apology.

The VOA English newsroom also spread online an unconfirmed and false rumor that President Trump tried to buy out a German company which is working on producing a coronavirus vaccine. With this report, picked up by the Voice of America from Reuters news agency, VOA also contributed to disinformation, confusion and anti-Americanism being already fueled by propaganda from Russia and China.

“I pray that it never happens again that for two days we have to apologize to people that their loved ones did not suffer, because Voice of America reported and social media reported that some died.” “For God’s sake, please do not spread lies,” Vučić added.

SEE Voice of America Service Apologizes for False VOA Serbian Coronavirus Death News After Criticism by President Vučić, USAGM Watch Commentary, March 13, 2020.

Voice of America director Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara, appointed during the Obama administration in what is now the U.S. Agency for Global Media but what was previously called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, did not respond immediately to emails inquiring about VOA journalists who may have fallen ill and about President Vučić’s statement and his appeal to media not to spread lies. VOA foreign language service reporters and VOA Central English Newsroom reporters who have contacted USAGM Watch told us that most VOA reporters are dedicated, hard-working, accurate and objective. They said that they are appalled by violations of the VOA Charter by some VOA managers, editors and reporters under the current senior VOA management team.

In her second March 19 email to staff shown to us, Amanda Bennett wrote about the first confirmed case of COVID-19 illness among Voice of America staffers:

AMANDA BENNETT: I know this feels stressful, but I hope you are reassured because we took such decisive action even before the diagnosis was confirmed that there is no other action needed at this time.

Watch Amanda Bennett describing VOA coronavirus coverage in a telephone call to the USAGM Board last Thursday, March 12.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett on the phone March 12, 2020 with the Board of the U.S. Agency for Global Media meeting at the VOA headquarters in Washington, DC describing VOA efforts to cover the coronavirus pandemic and the VOA special project “History of Mass Shooters” in the United States.

Bennett’s two emails to staff sent out today (March 19), which were shared with us by VOA employees, did not provide more specific information about the VOA staffer who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. According to her email, “this person is at home recovering , and is feeling relatively well.”

Bennett also wrote that “This individual was last in the Cohen Building on March 11” and went home immediately after becoming sick.

Some VOA employees who have contacted USAGM Watch in the last few days expressed concerns that the senior management did not provide sufficient information to all staffers about any recent trips by VOA employees to conferences where other COVID-19 cases were confirmed. The VOA staffer who has been diagnosed with coronavirus is not believed to have traveled to any recent conferences, one VOA reporter told us on condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to give out such information and fears that being identified as talking to USAGM Watch could hamper their career.

Organizers of one recent outside conference for journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors, announced on their website that a second NICAR20 attendee has received a presumptively positive test result for the COVID-19 virus. The IRE announcement says that IRE learned about this today (March 16). “The attendee feels better and expects a full recovery,” IRE said. IRE did not say whether the patient or doctors informed them of this prognosis.

IRE also made this announcement that may put other attendees and their families and acquaintances at risk: “The attendee has asked to remain private. To protect those privacy rights, IRE will not release the person’s conference schedule or cross-check it against other attendee schedules. In addition, IRE doesn’t want to give anyone a false sense of security.”

At the very least, IRE should have informed other attendees who may have been in contact with the two patients and provided these specific attendees with more information. Being diagnosed with coronavirus does not seem to carry social stigma as some other illnesses do. Sharing information can help others stay safer

SEE: Second NICAR20 attendee tests presumptively positive for coronavirus, USAGM Watch Commentary, March 16, 2020.

According to Amanda Bennett’s email, all persons who came in contact with the VOA employee who has now been diagnosed with COVID-19 “were immediately sent home to self quarantine.” She also informed the staff in her email that “USAGM immediately arranged for GSA’s recommended industrial cleaning crew to clean and sanitize all areas where this individual works as well as offices the individual used.”

The USAGM CEO ordered all employees who can work remotely to telework. VOA employees who have talked to USAGM Watch in the last few days said that almost all of them now work from home, but a few essential employees go to the studios in the VOA building in Washington to put the broadcasts on the air.

USAGM Watch volunteers want to express our support for all VOA and USAGM employees and assure them that as much as we can we will continue to provide information that may be critical to protect their safety.

An email sent to senior VOA and USAGM management with an inquiry about any recent non-essential travel by VOA employees to outside conferences, including NICAR20, and how information about such travel may have been communicated to all VOA and USAGM staffers, has remained unanswered, but we will continue to make inquiries and post reports and commentaries on our site, as warranted.

Please contact us with any concerns or requests for information at contact@usagmwatch.com.

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