USAGM Watch Commentary

Before key participants and witnesses at the Voice of America (VOA) and U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) leave federal service or claim memory losses, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in the U.S. State Department, which also oversees USAGM, should promptly carry out a thorough investigation of the VOA management’s decision last May to censor a VOA Vietnamese Service news video in response to bogus complaints from YouTube and Facebook and a complaint from communist Vietnam’s Embassy in Washington to the VOA Acting Director Yolanda Lopez.

A bipartisan congressional investigation of the May 2022 Voice of America censorship incident is also needed, but it may take longer to arrange and complete than an OIG investigation. 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” was released before the news of the VOA management’s censorship of the VOA Vietnamese Service video was reported.

The May 2022 incident reported by the Washington Post  in November 2022 resulted from pressure from the communist government of Vietnam and its apparent manipulation of YouTube and Facebook.

The OIG investigation should determine as promptly as possible whether the “firewall” between the Voice of America and a foreign government was breached and whether other violations of the VOA Charter and VOA editorial standards may have occurred.

When the senior Voice of America management got caught by the Washington Post in 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 told 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 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 reprisals by their federal agency commenting on the handling of the censorship by the senior VOA management of their video news report that embarrassed Vietnam’s Prime Minister.

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. The video was restored by a decision of the VOA senior management several months after it was removed. It happened several days after the Washington Post story about the censorship incident.

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. 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 Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi 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.

One frustrated employee described it as a betrayal of the organization’s values and mission. “It’s detrimental to our reputation as a news outlet,” said the staff member, who asked not to be named to avoid retribution. “Our slogan is ‘A free press matters.’ This is so ironic.”

Paul Farhi, “Voice of America removes story that embarrassed Vietnam’s prime minister:
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”, Washington Post, November 15, 2022.

READ ON USAGM Watch: OIG Should Promptly Investigate Voice of America Management’s Censorship of VOA Vietnamese News Video