By Ted Lipien for Free Media Online
There is a long history of censorship at the Voice of America (VOA) in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Whenever censorship occurs at the Voice of America, it is usually inspired by repressive foreign regimes targeting VOA with their propaganda, influence operations, and intimidation measures. Congress needs to launch a bipartisan investigation of the recent censorship of the VOA Vietnamese Service news report and other similar incidents throughout the Voice of America in recent years.
A story about undiplomatic comments by Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh caught on a hot mic went viral — before the U.S.-funded news agency removed it following complaints from his embassy.
By Paul Farhi, Washington Post, November 15, 2022
Voice of America’s Vietnamese Service journalists deserve enormous praise for their courage and commitment to press freedom. Every day, they take risks for themselves and their families back in Vietnam when they expose the communist regime’s human rights abuses and corruption. But they are now also forced to take risks in exposing behind-the-scenes censorship of their programs by Voice of America managers — the same ones who publicly proclaim their total support for honest and uncensored journalism.
By Ted Lipien, Washington Examiner, December 07, 2022
Sometimes, foreign propagandists manage to cow U.S. government officials at various levels, who then put additional pressure on VOA journalists to censor their programs. At other times, VOA broadcasters and editors allow themselves to be influenced directly, either by foreign regimes or by the U.S. administration they strongly support for partisan reasons and are unwilling to set aside their bias. VOA and USAGM managers flaunt the so-called “firewall,” which forbids VOA journalists to engage with U.S. administration officials if they try to influence how VOA reports news, but the same rules do not seem to apply to VOA officials and broadcasters discussing demands for program changes from foreign embassies and foreign governments. They return calls to foreign diplomats and meet with them after being informed that a foreign government objects to a specific VOA news report or interview. Such calls and meetings have resulted in VOA interviews being shortened and news reports being removed.
Censorship and self-censorship happen at the Voice of America when some VOA managers and journalists want to stay on the good side of foreign governments: to be able to visit their home countries, to get journalist visas, to open and keep news bureaus in undemocratic countries, to keep themselves and their families back home safe from retaliation, to hold property abroad, to be invited to embassy receptions, or to have their programs rebroadcast on local networks so they can claim a large audience, even if it means more innocuous and much less effective programs.
Censorship and self-censorship destroy VOA’s credibility and effectiveness. Why is it that the Voice of America, which had extensive local radio and TV rebroadcasting facilities in Afghanistan for 20 years, did not expose the corruption and weakness of the U.S.-supported Afghan government and did not predict its quick collapse under pressure from the Taliban? And why did USAGM officials not evacuate hundreds of agency journalists and contractors and allowed them to be stranded under the Taliban’s rule? Why no journalist in the VOA Albanian Service dared to report that the Albanian ambassador to the United States tried to interfere in the Democratic Party primary elections in New York a few years ago, while some local media outlets in Albania did?
Censorship and biased reporting by the Voice of America Persian Service, whose management forcefully supported the Obama administration policy of detente toward the regime in Tehran against the opposition of many of the service’s journalists, were exposed and criticized in an internally-commissioned study and by many Iranian political refugees. Sometimes, conflicts of interest lead to censorship when agency officials or their family members have large business interests in countries like China or Russia, as some of the former presidentially-appointed members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) did. In 2018, the name of the agency changed from the Broadcasting Board of Governors to the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Often, some of these influences merge to create a leadership culture conducive to censorship and corruption. In 2018, more than a dozen VOA Hausa journalists were fired after they allegedly accepted bribes from a Nigerian politician. Bribery on such a scale was unheard of under VOA directors and managers in the more distant past. Members of Congress of both parties need to know about these threats to free press at the taxpayer-funded institution and stop them. Censorship at the Voice of America is more common and more dangerous than they may think.
The latest incident reported by the Washington Post resulted from pressure from the communist government of Vietnam. The censorship of the VOA Vietnamese Service news report once again exposed the bureaucratic timidity of VOA and agency officials. There may have been also conflicts of interest that ought to be investigated. A recent finding by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) that the Voice of America did not have “appropriate oversight of editorial controls, program reviews, and procedures to respond to violations of journalistic standards and principles” makes it more likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propagandists and secret services can exploit this vulnerability to stage a provocation against USAGM journalists and the U.S. government.
VOA Submits to Pressure From Communist Vietnam
In May 2022, Voice of America managers accepted without any challenge completely bogus claims first reported by YouTube and Facebook, presumably at the instigation of Vietnam’s government, that a VOA Vietnamese Service video report that embarrassed the country’s communist leader violated privacy rights and copyright law. They did not make even the weakest attempt to resist intimidation and immediately agreed to pull the news report from all online platforms when Vietnam’s Embassy in Washington contacted the VOA Director’s office.
While it took the VOA executives only a few hours to decide to censor, it took them seven months and a few more weeks after the Washington Post story appeared in print to reverse their banning of the VOA video. Still, I don’t want to leave the impression that all of Voice of America is like that. The U.S. government broadcaster has brave journalists, including those working in the Vietnamese Service, who deserve taxpayer and congressional support. They also deserve better leadership.
The latest incident occurred because the Voice of America and the U.S. Agency for Global Media, within which VOA operates, lack leaders who combine the understanding of the history of U.S. international broadcasting with the courage to stand up to foreign regimes who want to censor journalists. The management often retaliates against VOA’s refugee broadcasters who resist censorship and seek help from outside media and members of Congress. Past VOA directors threatened whistleblowers and tried to ruin their reputations. One VOA director claimed in the early 1950s that a former Office of War Information (OWI) journalist—Julius Epstein, a Jewish refugee from Nazism in Europe who exposed pro-Soviet propaganda and censorship in VOA broadcasts—was unworthy of being a naturalized U.S. citizen and should have been investigated. Several officials who were in charge of creating the first VOA broadcasts during World War II were deniers of Stalin’s genocides.
WWII, Cold War, and Post-Cold War Censorship
Censorship is not a new problem at the U.S. government-funded media outlet for overseas audiences. Created by the Roosevelt administration in 1942, the Voice of America used censorship during the first decade of its existence to protect Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and to present him as a supporter of democracy. VOA’s first chief news writer and editor, American novelist Howard Fast, was a Communist Party activist who, in 1953, received the Stalin International Peace Prize. For many years, VOA promoted the Kremlin’s propaganda lie about the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers in Soviet captivity. In an investigative report issued 70 years ago in December 1952, the bipartisan Madden Committee of the House of Representatives, named after its Chairman Ray Madden (D-IN), condemned VOA’s censorship of the Katyn story. Still, VOA management censored the story again in the 1970s, resulting in more congressional criticism. The VOA management also censored Soviet dissident writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. These scandals are well documented in the Congressional Record.
There is nothing new about VOA officials and managers submitting to foreign pressure or initiating censorship to please the White House and subsequently trying to blame VOA journalists when their actions are exposed. Previous incidents of censorship and repeating foreign propaganda, some going back 80 years, involved Soviet Russia, Poland, and Yugoslavia under communism, and more recently, Putin’s Russia, Iran, China, Cuba, North Korea, and Ethiopia, to name just a few. It’s a history VOA’s government officials don’t want Americans to know, but they keep repeating the same mistakes that help repressive regimes hide their crimes and corruption.
Management Denial of Submitting to Pressure From China
VOA’s and USAGM’s federal executives, of course, deny that they ever submit to pressure from foreign governments, but based on the historical record and more than three decades of work in many jobs in international broadcasting, I know that they do.
The current leaders in charge of VOA were promoted to their positions by their bosses in the U.S. Agency for Global Media, now headed by Amanda Bennett. She previously served as VOA Director (2016-2020) and described them once as her “fantastic leadership team.”
Congress could improve VOA if it conducted a bipartisan investigation of the censorship demanded by Vietnam and the earlier censorship incident involving the Chinese government in 2017. At that time, Bennett categorically denied that there was pressure from the Chinese government on VOA to cancel or shorten a whistleblower interview. “I want to point out that there was no Chinese government pressure, there was no U.S. government pressure. All the decisions made inside the Voices of America were made in the service of high journalistic integrity, ” Bennett said. Some VOA China Branch journalists who disagreed with her, known as the VOA Mandarin Five, were temporarily suspended, and some were later fired.
“A Free Press Matters”
Journalists in the Vietnamese Service told me the management misstated facts to the Washington Post reporter and want their side of the story presented to show their resistance to censorship. VOA Mandarin Service and Persian Service journalists, who claim that the VOA management forced them to resort to censorship in response to pressure or to promote the foreign policy goals of the U.S. President while downplaying criticism, also want a public hearing.
A VOA Vietnamese Service journalist told the Post that it’s ironic that the VOA leadership claims to support a free press. One journalist who reached out to me for help wrote, this is how the VOA management operates:
“give in to pressure, ignore, move on, try to clean up when found out, leave a big mess.”
For USAGM and VOA executives, a free press seems to mean that their decisions at a taxpayer-funded government media outlet should be free from scrutiny and their actions free from accountability. But a scandal-ridden, 100-percent tax-funded Voice of America, where senior managers censor legitimate news and force its journalists to seek help from the outside media, damages America’s image abroad and U.S. national security. The Voice of America slogan, “A Free Press Matters,” should read “A Free and Honest Press Matters.” Congress should remind the agency’s leaders of the existence of the VOA Charter, which mandates that Voice of America news must be accurate, balanced, and comprehensive.
Tadeusz “Ted” Lipien is former VOA Acting Associate Director (2005-2006), former VOA service chief, editor, and reporter during Poland’s struggle for democracy (the 1980s), and former President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).