BBG Watch Commentary

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the world’s largest organization of journalists, has asked for an explanation for the proposed firing of three Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin Service journalists following the Guo Wengui live stream interview in April, 2017.

The IFJ statement issued on November 12, 2017, refers to “the termination of the employment of three staff members,” which is being proposed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency in charge of VOA but has not yet been finalized. The affected journalists, who have been placed since May 2017 by the senior management on administrative leave with pay, can challenge the management’s decision to have them fired from their U.S. government jobs. They have not yet lost their jobs but they are are being threatened by the BBG/VOA senior management with firing. If the executives in charge of BBG and VOA are not stopped and their proposed decision reversed, these VOA Mandarin Service journalists will lose their jobs. It would be an unprecedented mass firing of VOA broadcasters over a programming dispute with the senior management involving charges of censorship and poor treatment of foreign-born journalists. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, including the Voice of America, already have under the current leadership the lowest employee morale among agencies of the federal government.

The IFJ has asked for an explanation and has called on “the US Government to investigate this case, particularly why the interview abruptly stopped.”

VOA Mandarin Service Chief Dr. Sasha Gong (L) and VOA Director Amanda Bennett (R)

The VOA Mandarin Service journalists were involved with planning and recording an extensive interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui when the senior management of the Voice of America led by VOA director Amanda Bennett ordered them to shorten the live interview shortly before its scheduled start. The order from the upper management came shortly after the Chinese government demanded the cancellation of the interview and threatened to restrict journalistic visa for VOA reporters traveling to China. Before that the Chinese government’s warning, the well-advanced planning for the interview within the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors management proceeded without any problems. The orders from the senior management were, however, confusing, BBG Watch was told by multiple sources. VOA Mandarin Service journalists were demanding that the order to shorten the interview be issued in writing, which managers seemed reluctant to do, according to various sources inside the VOA building.

After the live interview was shortened on the orders of the senior management, VOA Mandarin Service journalists told VOA director Amanda Bennett in a meeting that the decision to limit the interview has seriously damaged VOA’s credibility in China.

Chinese social media users posted thousands of sarcastic comments criticizing the VOA management, including Bennett. Groups of Chinese Americans staged a mock funeral at the Voice of America headquarters building in Washington, DC in protest against what they and many democracy supporters in China see as censorship and caving in to pressure from the Chinese communist government by the senior management of the U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet run by the Broadcasting Board of Governors federal agency.

Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, a U.S.-based international human rights group that opposes forced abortion and sexual slavery in China, has issued an open letter on the expected investigation by the U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) of “management decisions” at the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors which led to the shortening of the live interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui. The open letter comments on allegations of reprisals against VOA Mandarin Service journalists who opposed the management’s decisions to shorten the live interview. Human rights activists urge the OIG to investigate any potential personal conflicts of interests of VOA and BBG officials who may have significant business interests in China. “Do members of VOA Management and the BBG, or their family members, maintain financial ties to China?, Women’s Rights Without Frontiers asked, and “what are these business relationships?” In addition to Women’s Rights Without Frontiers President Reggie Littlejohn, the open letter was signed by Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng who now lives in exile in the United States, and several other Chinese rights defenders and scholars. VOA director Amanda Bennett’s husband is reported to be in charge of significant business operations in China, as is former BBG Board chairman and current member Jeff Shell.

Chinese Americans stage a protest in May 2017 against censorship at the Voice of America by placing two large funeral wreaths and carrying a mock coffin in front of the VOA building in Washington, DC.
A Chinese protester at a mock funeral on May 8, 2017 at the Voice of America (VOA) headquarters building in Washington, DC.
Chinese Americans and other supporters of media freedom protest against censorship in front of the Voice of America building in Washington, D.C. in May 2017.

The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong English-language newspaper, also reported, citing the IFJ statement, that the Voice of America management has fired three VOA Mandarin Service journalists, but at this moment the firing is not yet final and can be appealed. BBG Watch has learned that the journalists whom the senior Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America management wants to fire plan to launch a vigorous challenge and defense.



SEE: Voice of America fires three staff over explosive Guo Wengui interview: Washington-based journalists Sasha Gong Xiaoxia and Dong Fang interviewed the fugitive Chinese tycoon at an undisclosed location on April 19, PUBLISHED: Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 4:11am; UPDATED: Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 7:13am; South China Morning Post.



VOA staff employment terminated; months after live streamed interview

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) calls on Voice of America (VOA) to provide an explanation for the termination of the employment of three staff members, following the Guo Wengui live stream interview in April, 2017.
On April 19, VOA livestreamed an interview with Chinese fugitive billionaire, Guo Wengui. The interview was originally scheduled to run for three hours, but the livestream was abruptly cut short, citing issues of ‘miscommunication’ for the disconnection. VOA strongly refused claims of self-censorship, however several media reports said that senior officials of the Foreign Ministry Affairs in China met with the Beijing Bureau Chief of VOA, and reportedly told VOA that the interview ‘interfered with China’s internal affairs’ and ‘interfered with the 19th National People’s Congress’. Following the interview, five VOA staff, Yang Chen, Bao Shen, Sasha Gong Xiaoxia, Dong Fang and Bao Shen were ordered to take administrative leave with pay until further notice.
Last month, Yang Chen was the first staff members to be informed that his employment had been reinstated and he could resume duties. Earlier this month, senior editor, Bao Shen was allowed to resume his duties. However Sasha, Gong and Bao were advised that their employment would be terminated as they violated certain regulations including disobeying management orders and not following journalistic practices. Sasha and Dong were the interviewers and Bao was the technician during the interview.
Sasha told the IFJ that she will fight the termination and she disagreed with the allegations. She said: “They could not tell me which order I had disobeyed. I don’t understand how I had not followed the journalistic practice.”
Gong told the IFJ that: “The senior demanded me not to ask any corruption questions related to Guo and the Chinese leaderships, when they tried to stop the interview. I did not produce all of my materials of Guo Wengiu that he gave to me for the interview, even though management demanded them when I was suspended. I refused to give them, as I have a duty to protect all my materials. This is the basic principles of press freedom.”
Gong went on to say: “I can tell you that the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC tried to suppress us at least twice. I have the evidence to prove it. They called my office directly on the day before the interview. I believe they did the same thing to the management.” However she claimed that she did not know whether there was any press from the US Government. Gong said that she asked VOA for help after she received a threatening letter three months ago, but VOA refused. The letter, which was written in Chinese said: “Let bullet passed”.
According to several overseas media reports, Chinese officials ordered VOA to stop the interview, otherwise their working visas might have ‘problems’. Several US representatives have demanded an investigation into the case.
The IFJ Asia Pacific office said: “VOA must provide clarification regarding the termination of Sasha, Dong and Bao. No journalist or media outlet should succumb to the pressure of external actors, particularly governments. Organisations, such as VOA, have an important role to play in supporting press freedom in China. As a watchdog, the media needs to stand firm to guarantee press freedom, serving the public not any authorities.”
The Chinese Government took a number of steps to stop the interview from taking place. On April 19, Interpol issued a warrant for Wengui’s arrest. On April 20, the Communist Party issued several reports smearing Guo’s integrity. Several of Guo’s online and social media accounts have been suspended and closed down.
We call on the US Government to investigate this case, particularly why the interview abruptly stopped.
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0946
The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries
Find the IFJ on Twitter: @ifjasiapacific
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