USAGM Watch Commentary

Sources at the Voice of America (VOA), who want to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals, say that within hours after the Vietnamese Embassy’s Press and Cultural Attaché Khanh Nguyen wrote an email to Acting VOA Director Yolanda Lopez on May 20, in which she complained about the VOA Vietnamese Service news video report and demanded its removal, a senior VOA manager instructed the service to remove the story from all platforms. Sources said that the upper management seriously undermined VOA journalism with their decision to pull the video in response to pressure from the Vietnamese government. They appear completely disillusioned and don’t want to continue discussions with the current leadership team of executives, describing them as pointless.

Kelu Chao receiving a USAGM Distinguished Honor Award from CEO Amanda Bennett.

Some of the executives involved in the VOA Vietnamese video report censorship were selected and promoted by former VOA Director Amanda Bennett, who is now CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Her key aide, Kelu Chao, recently received a top agency work performance award from Bennett and previously held senior management positions at VOA. Chao selected Lopez to be Acting VOA Director. Lopez has been highly praised by Bennett, who once described her top aides as her “excellent leadership team.” Bennett was no longer with VOA or the agency when the Vietnamese video was censored last May. Lopez was at that time and still is Acting VOA Director. Chao was Acting USAGM CEO at the time of the incident. Bennett returned to the agency a few weeks ago as USAGM CEO.

The VOA senior management team blamed a similar incident in the VOA Mandarin Service in 2017 on the service’s journalists, some of whom were later fired. The VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters claimed that they had resisted pressure from the Chinese government and its Embassy in Washington and from the VOA upper management but were eventually ordered by the VOA senior management to cut short a live interview with a Chinese whistleblower. They denied any wrongdoing.


May 13 ·      Voice of America (VOA) Vietnamese Service covers a meeting between Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The meeting was shown live on the Department of State’s YouTube channel. The State Department’s camera recorded the Vietnamese delegation’s private chat before Blinken arrived. During the chat, Vietnamese officials appear to ridicule U.S. officials’ requests for support for Ukraine under invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. ·      Using the State Department video, VOA Vietnamese Service produced its own video report on the pre-Blinken meeting informal conversation between the Vietnamese government officials. The report and the video were approved by the VOA Vietnamese Service management and later posted on the VOA Vietnamese online platforms.

May 14 ·      VOA Vietnamese Service posted the video report on its website, YouTube channel, and Facebook page early in the morning. The video went viral. ·      Several hours later, the Department of State set to private the live-streamed version of the meeting, presumably at the request of the Vietnamese government. ·      VOA Vietnamese Service reported getting multiple calls from the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington but did not return these calls.

May 15 ·      Many more Vietnamese-language media outlets picked up the story. The Prime Minister’s words were widely quoted by Vietnam’s Facebook users. ·      The Vietnamese Embassy continued to call the VOA Vietnamese Service.

May 16 ·      YouTube notified the VOA Vietnamese Service that a “privacy complaint” was filed in connection with the VOA video. After internal discussions, VOA Vietnamese Service contacted by email VOA News Standards & Best Practices Editor Steve Springer, informing him of the YouTube notification and seeking guidance. Sources described the “privacy complaint” as bogus.

May 20 ·      Facebook notified VOA Vietnamese Service that the video had been made unavailable by a “copyright owner,” which Facebook said was a Vietnam-based media entity. VOA Vietnamese Service staffers noted that Facebook did not offer the option to dispute the copyright claim, as Facebook normally does, and accepted the Vietnamese entity’s claim. Sources described the copyright claim as also bogus. ·      The Vietnamese Embassy’s Press and Cultural Attaché Khanh Nguyen wrote an email to Acting VOA Director Yolanda Lopez complaining about the video. We strongly request the mentioned video clip be removed from VOA’s website, social media accounts, and other broadcast platforms, Khanh Nguyen is reported to have informed Yolanda Lopez. ·      Within hours, a VOA manager instructed the VOA Vietnamese Service to remove their story from all platforms. ·      The Vietnamese Service sent an email seeking clarification from the VOA management and the official reason for pulling the video.

May 21 A Vietnamese media outlet sent another request to block the video.

May 22 A senior VOA manager responded to the VOA Vietnamese Service, telling them to pull the video permanently and advising that the service can say that following a review of the content, the video is no longer available. May 23 In response to the VOA management’s order, the Vietnamese Service removed the video from all platforms. The VOA Vietnamese Service staffers were informed that the Vietnamese Embassy’s request was discussed at VOA’s highest levels over the weekend, including the Acting Director, General Counsel, PR, Digital, Best Practices, East Asian and Pacific Division, and representatives from VOA Vietnamese Service, and the decision was to remove it from all platforms.

May 24 Several VOA Vietnamese Service journalists raised concerns over the decision and viewed it as a dangerous precedent. June 7 VOA sources said that VOA’s Press Freedom Editor was informed of the censorship incident but did not report on it.

Nov 15 ·      The Washington Post published a story on the video’s removal by the VOA management. ·      The Vietnamese Service had a staff meeting to discuss the story. It was announced at the meeting that VOA News Standards & Best Practices Editor Steve Springer was asked via email to come to one of the service’s staff meetings at the date and time of his choosing to address the staff’s concerns.

Nov 22 ·      The VOA senior leadership held a discussion with the Vietnamese Service six months after the censorship of the video report. ·      VOA sources familiar with the matter said that a senior VOA manager misstated several key facts.

Nov 23 Acting VOA Director Yolanda Lopez sent a memo to the Vietnamese Service, reportedly stating that she believes that there are lessons to be learned from the situation and that there should have been a wider discussion early on about the linguistic nuances of the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s comments.

Nov 29 VOA Vietnamese Service was informed that the upper management had decided to repost the video. The perceived offensive words would be bleeped out.

Dec 10 The video was re-posted on the VOA Vietnamese Service website, Facebook page, and YouTube channel with some words bleeped out.

A clip from the Radio Free Asia (RFA) video report

Native Vietnamese speakers say that the Prime Minister’s words may have been crude, but they were not offensive. They point out that the VOA management’s decision to bleep them out would have led people to believe the Prime Minister said the most offensive or vulgar words in Vietnamese, which he did not.

Restored VOA Vietnamese video report from last May with bleeped-out words

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The English F-word was used to translate some of the Prime Minister’s crude words in Vietnamese for lack of an exact equivalent in English. However, a native Vietnamese speaker would say that the swear words used by the Prime Minister fall somewhere between “damn/freaking” and “F-word”, probably closer to the latter, but NOT as vulgar as in its English equivalent.

Vietnamese Prime Minister’s Captured on Camera

((TEXT)) Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh was heard exchanging comments with other Vietnamese officials as he recounted his meeting at the White House.

The video is from a live stream by the U.S. Department of State featuring Chinh’s meeting with Secretary Antony Blinken, broadcast on YouTube on May 13th.

The State Department’s camera appears to have inadvertently captured the private moments in which top Vietnamese officials can be seen chatting with each other while waiting for Secretary Blinken to arrive.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and the others didn’t seem to notice the camera was rolling.

((SOUNDBITE Pham Minh Chinh)) Vietnamese official: “Our views were very clear.” Chinh: “Clear and blunt, fuck it, what’s to be afraid of?” Vietnamese official: “The way we spoke, we made them back off.” [inaudible] he said, ‘but I can’t trust Russia!’”


Chinh: “[inaudible] We said a little more, “Even with us and you guys, it took a long time before we could find common ground. But whatever [laughs]”

[Minister of Public Security To Lam enters the room]

Chinh to Lam: “There was only this young guy talking to those old guys [ASEAN leaders], at the White House.”

((TEXT)) Chinh and Lam appear to be talking about Jake Sullivan, White House National Security Advisor, who was among the guests participating in the White House dinner with ASEAN leaders.

((SOUNDBITE Pham Minh Chinh, To Lam)) Chinh: “He was always next to [Biden]… young, an intelligence officer, a diplomat. Lam: “Born 1976. Really impressive.”

[Lam and other officials in conversation] ((TEXT)) The officials now appear to be talking about former Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, who served under the Trump administration. His wife is of Vietnamese descent.

((SOUNDBITE Pham Minh Chinh)) Chinh: “This guy had to come to remind the president, he was talking too much and fu**ing ignoring other ASEAN guests. He had to come out and wrote something down.”

((TEXT)) An official from the Vietnamese delegation came over and told the camera operator to stop filming

((SOUNDBITE aide)) ((CAPTION)) Official: “No filming right now, please.”

((TEXT)) The camera kept rolling even though being blocked by the official until Secretary of State Blinken arrived.

((SOUNDBITE Pham Minh Chinh)) Chinh: (English) “Thank you, nice to meet you!” Blinken: So good to see you!