BBG Watch Commentary
On the day Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing spoke in Washington in connection with the World Press Freedom Day about the importance of defending persecuted BBG journalists who expose government corruption abroad, the management of U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) which reports to him suspended indefinitely with pay five VOA Mandarin Service reporters and digital media experts. Some of the suspended journalists resisted top VOA leadership’s ultimately successful attempt to cut short a live VOA interview with Guo Wengui, a Chinese businessman turned whistleblower on Chinese government corruption, while others were only involved in producing the interrupted program. The term used by VOA to describe these suspensions is “Administrative Leave while the Agency conducts an investigation.” They “will continue to receive full salary and benefits and will remain on Administrative Leave until further notice,” a letter sent by the VOA management to the employees said.
SEE: Voice of America director cut short Guo Wengui live interview, BBG Watch, May 1, 2017.
The interruption of the interview has been widely criticized in China as censorship and caving in by VOA to pressure from the Chinese government. The suspension of Voice of America journalists has already been reported in China on the Internet and is further damaging VOA’s shattered credibility and reputation as a result of the earlier VOA management’s action to limit the live conversation with Mr. Guo.
Many comments on Chinese social media say that VOA is dead or has become the “Voice of Silence.”
VOA director Amanda Bennett and VOA deputy director Sandy Sugawara deny being pressured by the Chinese government and insist that their decision to shorten the interview with Guo Wengui was only driven by their desire of maintaining high journalistic standards.
John Lansing also denied that VOA management shortened the live interview in response to pressure from the Chinese government, but many in China are convinced Chinese government’s threats played a major role in VOA management’s decision and have lost faith in VOA.
The letter sent by the VOA management to the five VOA China Branch journalists says that they are being placed on Administrative Leave with full pay and benefits while “the Agency conducts an investigation involving them.” They were told not to enter any Voice of America facility. One VOA journalist was reportedly escorted Monday by BBG security personnel out of the VOA building.
Some of the suspended employees are the most experienced and highly respected journalists in the VOA Mandarin Service. They include VOA Mandarin Service chief Sasha Gong and veteran journalist Fred Wang who conducted the live interview with Mr. Guo which was cut short on orders of the VOA management after one hour and 17 minutes. They also include Bao Shen in charge of the daily one-hour live TV show to China and digital media experts.
VOA Mandarin Service journalists told BBG Watch that they see the suspensions of their colleagues as the latest attempt by VOA management to hold journalists responsible for top management’s “disastrously wrong decision to first cancel, and then to cut short our interview with Mr. Guo on April 19.” “They are retaliating against us for resisting their wrong decisions,” one of the most experienced VOA China Branch journalists told BBG Watch.
VOA journalists told BBG Watch that VOA director Amanda Bennett is planning to hold a general meeting with the Mandarin Service at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. Since the suspended journalists are forbidden from entering the VOA building, they presumably will not be able to attend the meeting with Amanda Bennett and will not be able to defend themselves in her presence and the presence of their colleagues who seem equally stunned and horrified by the suspensions. They are planning actions to appeal to members of Congress, U.S. media, and media freedom organizations in defense of their colleagues. The independent and nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) has already condemned the suspensions of VOA Mandarin Service journalists and is asking Congress to launch an investigation.
Last week, a group of Chinese Americans protested against censorship in front of the Voice of America building in Washington, DC.