Censorship by the Voice of America management of the VOA Vietnamese Service video, which has now been restored due to outside pressure after a seven-month absence, raises profound questions and requires an apology.

USAGM Watch Commentary by Ted Lipien

Censorship by the Voice of America management of a VOA Vietnamese news report and video at the request of the Washington Embassy of Vietnam’s communist government is profoundly disturbing. As documented in a Washington Post story (Nov. 15, 2022), it raises grave concerns about the leadership of the federally-funded U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).

As one of the VOA Vietnamese journalists pointed out to the Post, censorship by the Agency at the behest of a communist government stands in contradiction to the “A Free Press Matters” slogan publicly promoted by VOA and USAGM leaders. It is a gross violation of the VOA Charter.

Any open-minded reader of the Post article could see a federal Agency in crisis in the casual manner with which VOA executives speedily agreed to delete the story and in the VOA employees’ fear of their management that forced them to seek help from outside media. A key VOA manager refused to meet with VOA Vietnamese Service journalists who were protesting against the removal of the video.

I want to thank those who joined me in calling for the immediate restoration of the censored Voice of America news report and demanding an apology from the Agency management to the VOA Vietnamese Service journalists, among them refugees from Communism, and an apology to their audience. Due to outside pressure, the USAGM-VOA management allowed the video back online with some bleeped-out words but without explanation or apology.

There is an urgent need for a bipartisan congressional investigation of this and many other reported incidents of foreign interference in VOA programs in recent years. The U.S. Senate should quickly confirm the new members of the USAGM Advisory Board to allow them to exercise their oversight responsibilities as soon as possible.

The U.S. Congress and the Biden Administration should agree on structural and personnel reforms at USAGM. They are needed to prevent future incidents of China, Iran, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Ethiopia, and other countries successfully manipulating VOA decision-makers and other agency officials. Such foreign influence is highly likely if any USAGM officials, managers, journalists, contractors, or their close family members, have business interests in countries without democracy or other significant ties to the state authorities that could undermine their independence. Local rebroadcasting of agency programs or maintaining news bureaus in countries ruled by repressive regimes can also lead to foreign blackmail, kowtowing, and security risks. Some USAGM officials showed they could not manage such security challenges and had their investigative authority suspended by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Excessive partisanship and support for the policy agenda of the Executive Branch can also hamper their effectiveness and objectivity.

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.

I want others to join me in recognizing the courage of the Voice of America Vietnamese Service journalists in resisting censorship by the VOA management. They deserve support for defending press freedom and trying to restore honesty to journalism at the Voice of America. Please write letters and e-mails to the White House and members of Congress with requests for reforming the U.S. Agency for Global Media and join me in nominating the VOA Vietnamese Service for free press awards from media freedom NGOs.

U.S. national security requires effective international media outreach against propaganda and disinformation from nations ruled by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.

Tadeusz “Ted” Lipien – former VOA Acting Associate Director (2005-2006), former VOA service chief, editor, and reporter during Poland’s struggle for democracy (1980s), former President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Dec. 2020-Jan.2021)