BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch
VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch

Internal Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) emails posted online by Inner City Press reporter Matthew Russell Lee show that Voice of America (VOA) Executive Editor Steve Redisch, who tried to get a United Nations official to “review” the press accreditation of the United Nations-based independent reporter because of his dispute with a VOA correspondent, suggested that Congressional staffers inquiring about Lee’s First Amendment rights might have responded differently if Lee had been covering the U.S. Senate. Lee obtained copies of these emails under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press

“Makes me wonder how they’d feel about him [Matthew Russell Lee] if he covered the Senate!,” Redisch wrote to the BBG Director of Communications and External Affairs Lynne Weil who informed Redisch in an email that Congressional staffer Trey Hicks, who had previously worked for Senator Tom Coburn (R – OK) on BBG oversight matters, was making inquiries about Redisch’s request to the UN to have Lee’s press credentials “reviewed.”

BBG Watch believes it is highly inappropriate for an Executive Branch government official like Mr. Redisch to compare the U.S. Senate to the United Nations and to imply that Congressional staffers would be less willing to respect Mr. Lee’s First Amendment rights if he was covering their activities.

Hicks wrote to Weil that a Congressional “Committee has jurisdiction to study the relationship between the US and international organizations we are a member of — and the work of Matthew Lee has been essential in breaking a slew of scandals and mismanagement and other problems at the UN. We have used him for at least one of our hearings in the past re: the lack of internal controls at the UN. It would be a shame to lose this resource — which is why we must review the validity of Redisch’s claims.”

Redisch’s, Weil’s, and Hicks’ emails can be viewed HERE, as posted by Lee on Inner City Press website.

Redisch’s email to the United Nations official requesting that Lee’s press accreditation be “reviewed” can be viewed HERE, as posted by Lee.

BBG Watch reported earlier that Redisch did not respond to Lee’s emails to him asking for his help in resolving an essentially private dispute with a VOA correspondent. Lee told BBG Watch that he had informed Redisch in emails that the publicity over the attempt to reject him from the United Nations Correspondents Associations (UNCA), in which a VOA correspondent was involved, had generated threats against him from Sri Lankan extremists who have been unhappy with his reporting on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

The attempt by several of Lee’s colleagues at the UN to remove him from an elected UNCTA position is not in the same league as Redisch’s official request to the UN to revoke his press accreditation. UNCTA is a voluntary organization, whereas losing his press credentials would make it extremely difficult for Lee to continue his investigative coverage of the UN. Lee believes that his First Amendment right to petition the government without a fear of reprisals has been violated. Redisch is a U.S. government official and his request to the UN to review Lee’s press accreditation is unprecedented. None of the private news organizations has officially requested the UN to revoke Lee’s press privileges.

An email from the VOA correspondent describing the dispute can be viewed HERE, as posted by Lee.

Additional emails from BBG and VOA staffers can be viewed HERE, as posted by Lee.

According to Lynne Weil, the BBG Communications Director, “Mr. Redisch is an experienced professional journalist and executive, and VOA is very fortunate to have him as an Executive Editor.” BBG Watch was told by some VOA journalists that Redisch’s high temper and management style are partly responsible for dismal employee morale at the Voice of America, but Ms. Weil said that “Agency leaders believe Mr. Redisch has improved employee morale at VOA.”

In commenting on Redisch’s email to the UN regarding Matthew Russell Lee, another BBG spokesperson said that “Voice of America’s interest in this matter is to insure our correspondents can operate in a professional work environment.” BBG Watch has learned, however, that at least some members of the BBG’s bipartisan Board view the top management at the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America as being in a complete disarray.

Steve Redisch, whose immediate boss is VOA Director David Ensor, was put in charge of reforming VOA programs to Iran. BBG members were reportedly appalled to learn last week for the first time that the highly popular Voice of America (VOA) satirical television program “Parazit,” which was broadcast to Iran, has been off the air for the last nine months. According to sources, BBG members strongly objected to being kept in the dark about such a critical development and to BBG press releases in recent months which seemed to imply that “Parazit” was still being broadcast.

Despite Redisch’s attempts to introduce changes in the VOA Persian Service, Iranian Americans and members of Congress continue to complain and raise questions about the quality of VOA Iranian programs. An American columnist Felice Friedson wrote recently in The Jerusalem Post op-ed that Iranians in Iran are also deeply disappointed with VOA. She quoted four political dissidents living in Iran as saying that “VOA might as well be staffed by agents of the Iranian government.” They were commenting on the quality and effectiveness of VOA programs rather than asserting that Iranian government agents have in fact infiltrated the organization.

BBG’s top executive responsible for U.S. international broadcasting operations is IBB Director Richard Lobo, a presidential appointee. In 2011, Lobo appears to support Redisch and had approved large bonuses for him and other VOA and IBB managers. According to one source, Redisch received a $9,000 high performance bonus.

It is not clear whether Redisch had consulted Lobo and Ensor before sending his email to the UN, but there are indications that these two top officials may not have been fully briefed. BBG Watch was told that Mr. Redisch cleared his letter to the UN with the office of the Agency’s General Counsel. It is not known whether the Agency’s lawyers sought approval from Lobo for Redisch’s email. According to our sources who quote a BBG official, Redisch “acted in the best interests of the VOA Correspondent at the United Nations to try to provide a professional working environment.”

Matthew Russell Lee denies, however, that what he says were his attempts to defend his rights and protect himself from threats because of his journalistic work were any way unprofessional. He asks whether it is legitimate for a US government broadcaster like VOA “to meet secretly with UN officials conspiring to get a smaller, investigative web site thrown out of the UN?”

BBG Watch has learned that the seven remaining BBG members have not discussed the Redisch-UN issue at their last week’s meeting, which was conducted by phone. The terms of all the current BBG members have expired, but they continue to serve since the White House has not proposed that they be replaced. Republican BBG Governor Victor Ashe has been an outspoken public critic of mismanagement by the BBG/IBB executive staff, but sources close to other BBG members describe at least some of them as almost equally appalled by how poorly the organization is being managed. BBG Watch hopes that they will try to do something to change that.