When the senior Voice of America management got caught by the Washington Post on their censoring of the VOA Vietnamese Service news report, they issued a response riddled with “falsehoods” and threw VOA refugee broadcasters from Vietnam “under the bus,” VOA Vietnamese Service federal workers tell USAGM Watch. We feel that they treat us as if we are second-rate journalists; they view us differently from how they view U.S.-born reporters in VOA’s central English-language services, these VOA foreign-language service employees in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) also want others to know.

“There’s nothing about their [VOA senior management’s] actions that shows sincere reflection. Clearly, they wanted this whole thing to go away as soon as possible.”

Voice of America (VOA) Vietnamese Service journalists who want to remain anonymous to avoid repraisals by their federal agency commenting on the handling of the censorship by the senior VOA management of their video news report that embarrased Vietnam’s Prime Minister.

USAGM Watch Commentary

Refugee broadcasters from communist-ruled Vietnam have reached out to former Voice of America reporters working as volunteer citizen journalists for the USAGM Watch government watchdog website, asking us to share their side of the story on the censorship by VOA’s senior management of the Vietnamese Service news video report that embarrassed Vietnam’s Prime Minister.

Trust and credibility are of utmost importance in our business, Voice of America Vietnamese Service journalists told USAGM Watch.

The original decision by the senior management of the Voice of America to pull the service’s video news report last month in response to demands by Vietnam’s Embassy in Washington and, even earlier, in response to bogus copyright and privacy claims reported to YouTube and Facebook from Vietnam, has tarnished VOA’s reputation as an independent news outlet that is supposed to be beyond the reach of an authoritarian government, VOA Vietnamese Service journalists said.

They point out that even though the video has now been restored, it was more than six months later and under the scrutiny of another news outlet, the Washington Post newspaper.

There’s little redeeming value in the action of restoring the video more than six months later, and the VOA senior leadership has shown itself to be completely untrustworthy, one of the VOA reporters observed.

Journalists in the Voice of America Vietnamese Service familiar with the incident say that VOA’s senior executives presented “falsehoods” in their response to the Washington Post and continued to misstate key facts in a subsequent staff meeting to distance themselves from their own mishandling of the matter.

It’s almost unbelievable that all this happened at a news agency that prides itself on editorial integrity, yet it did, a VOA journalist told USAGM Watch.

One Voice of America broadcaster compared the agency’s defense of its central English programs reporter, Steve Herman, regarding the suspension of his Twitter account with the way the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), in which VOA operates, treated the VOA Vietnamese Service refugee journalists.

Steve Herman is VOA’s Chief National Correspondent and one of our prominent journalists, so it’s no surprise that VOA rushed to defend him, a VOA Vietnamese Service staffer observed. “I have a lot of respect for Steve and his work and wish him the best,” the VOA Vietnamese Service reporter said, “but I can’t help but feel bitter about the treatment that we language service reporters are subject to, even though our work is equally, if not more, important, considering the fact that many of us work so hard to get information through the digital firewall.”

The journalist in the VOA Vietnamese Service wanted to share this comparison:

In Steve Herman’s case:

• His Twitter account has been restored. The ban lasted for about two days.

• He could have still gotten his information out via other platforms.

• Elon Musk’s jet was not really the most important news story anybody needed to know.

• The agency stood by him and defended him vigorously.

USAGM Watch DISCLOSURE: In 2017, Steve Herman blocked our volunteer journalists, including a few of his former colleagues at VOA, from following his VOA work-related Twitter account after they criticized some of his reporting for not meeting all of the VOA Charter requirements. The VOA Public Relations Office responded to BBG – USAGM Watch complaint in an email on December 27, 2017: “VOA was not aware that anyone had been blocked from any personal social media accounts. After you brought the issue to VOA management’s attention, it was discussed with the reporter who has since lifted the blocks from his account.” The then-VOA Director Amanda Bennett called Steve Herman in October 2020 “a true professional. One of the best.” The December 16, 2022 VOA statement regarding the suspension of VOA Chief National Correspondent’s Twitter account said that “Mr. Herman is a seasoned reporter who upholds the highest journalistic standards.”

In the VOA Vietnamese Service case:

• The video was restored more than six months later, with the perceived offensive words bleeped, only because the Washington Post wrote about its removal.

• We could NOT get our video published anywhere else. Remember our website is completely blocked in Vietnam; social media is the only avenue. But the agency did nothing when we were hit with bogus privacy complaints and copyright claims from YouTube and Facebook. Instead, they ordered the video taken down even before these platforms took action.

• The video was big news because, besides the crude language, it shows what the Vietnamese government officials really thought about the war in Ukraine in private, while they were ambiguous in their public statements. And they were very proud of themselves for resisting the U.S. effort to get them to take a tougher stance against Russia.

• The agency took down the video within hours after the Embassy’s official request. Our efforts to get them to explain their decision came to nothing. When they got caught by the Post, they issued a response riddled with falsehoods and threw us under the bus. When the Post published the story, they tried to clean up the mess by holding a staff meeting and later restoring the video. There’s nothing about their actions that shows sincere reflection. Clearly, they wanted this whole thing to go away as soon as possible.

Sometimes we feel like we’re second-rate journalists, second-guessed by the senior leadership even on purely linguistic matters on which they have almost no expertise. How can they make a sound editorial judgment if they don’t understand the nuances of the language and the cultural context in which it is used? We do. But it’s them that are supposed to make the best decision. As it turns out, it’s not.

A journalist in the VOA Vietnamese Service, December 2022.

During a recent staff meeting in the VOA Vietnamese Service following the publication of the Washington Post story, many journalists expressed concern over the perceived influence of the Vietnamese government over VOA’s editorial process. One journalist conceded that the censorship incident was a clear win for the Vietnamese government. Another raised the possibility of self-censorship if they encountered a similar situation in the future, just to avoid the big mess that the service is now in.

VOA Vietnamese Service journalists also say they feel even more discouraged after the recent meeting with the senior leadership. They see the attitude of senior agency executives as dismissive and wanting the controversy to go away without taking action to resolve the underlying problems.

VOA Vietnamese Service journalists want their side of the story to be known.

“No, it was not ‘roughly a week later’ that the senior Voice of America management was informed last May about the complaints coming from the Vietnamese government; it was TWO days after the video was published,” a Vietnamese Service journalist told USAGM Watch.

“And no, we did not notify the senior management of the Vietnamese Embassy’s demand that our video report be removed; we informed them of the YouTube notification. The Embassy’s demand came directly to the email address of VOA Acting Director Yolanda Lopez,” the journalist said, and pointed out that within hours of the Embassy’s email being sent to the VOA Director’s office, the Voice of America management ordered the service to remove the video report from “all” its online platforms.

Voice of America Vietnamese Service broadcasters stress the point that VOA’s senior management moved to suppress the video even BEFORE the Vietnamese Embassy made its official written request to the VOA Acting Director.

VOA Vietnamese Service journalists said that the initial management order to remove the video from YouTube came in a May 16 email, the same day the management was informed by the service about the bogus privacy complaint against the news report on YouTube. Vietnam’s Embassy’s press and cultural attaché Khanh Nguyen wrote an email complaining to Acting VOA Director Yolanda Lopez on May 20. 

They pointed out that the VOA management’s response to censor was even more prompt and more aggressive than what YouTube would have expected, which would have been to review the video after a 48-hour window to determine if the privacy issue was legitimate. As it turned out, it wasn’t, VOA Vietnamese Service broadcasters said.

Also, contrary to the management’s claim, VOA Vietnamese Service journalists say that senior American managers were not told by Vietnamese speakers in their service that the language Vietnam’s Prime Minister used was “truly offensive” but only that it was crude. When informed again that the privacy and language complaints were bogus, the VOA management confirmed its decision to keep the video off the VOA YouTube channel even before the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington sent its demands, Vietnamese Service journalists told USAGM Watch. They also stress that after the Embassy email, the VOA management promptly ordered a complete ban on the video report on all VOA social media pages and websites.

VOA Vietnamese Service journalists said that they knew if they continued to resist the management’s final decision to remove the video, “it wouldn’t go too well for us, considering the way that this organization has been operating for years.” They may have been referring to the “VOA Mandarin Five” incident in 2017 when Amanda Bennett, the current USAGM CEO, was VOA Director. Several VOA China Branch journalists who questioned her decision to cut short a live interview with an anti-communist whistleblower, Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, and did not immediately implement her orders later faced disciplinary punishment, and some were fired after the senior management accused them of violating journalistic standards and insubordination.

In that incident, the Chinese government and its Embassy in Washington demanded the cancellation of the pre-announced interview with the whistleblower who promised to expose China’s influence-buying operations in the United States. The management decided to substantially shorten the live interview after the Chinese government intervened. Bennett claimed it was done purely for journalistic reasons rather than in response to pressure from China. Many Chinese followers of VOA programs did not see it that way. VOA Mandarin Service journalists reported at the time that VOA’s credibility in China plummeted due to the perceived censorship.

The VOA management may have thought that following the “VOA Mandarin Five” incident, foreign language service broadcasters would keep quiet when told to remove a news report, but after getting no response to their request for a meeting, they apparently contacted the Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi. He was informed by a VOA spokesperson that the VOA management “recommended” the VOA Vietnamese Service story be removed after “it had run its course.” The Post‘s reporter, according to sources, countered that VOA does not remove other videos because they are a week old. He also asked why the VOA management did not explain its decision. The official agency’s response to the reporter appeared to blame the Vietnamese Service for allegedly not informing the management promptly about the suspected offensive language used in the video by the Vietnamese government officials. VOA Vietnamese Service journalists deny that the language was vulgar and insist that they provided the management with all the relevant information as soon as it was available or was requested.

This is how the Voice of America senior management in the U.S. Agency for Global Media operates: give in to pressure, ignore, move on, try to clean up when found out, leave a big mess.

A Voice of America journalist in the VOA Vietnamese Service on the censorship of the service’s news video report, December 2022.

READ on USAGM Watch: ‘Censorship and Falsehoods’ – Voice of America Vietnamese Journalists Blame VOA’s Senior Management | EXCLUSIVE