Voice of America, the global news outlet funded by the United States government, is suffering through yet more turmoil in the final weeks of the Trump administration.
This week, for the second time in less than six months, there is a leadership change underway. And the outgoing acting director, Elez Biberaj, is not going out quietly.
Biberaj warned in an internal memo Tuesday night that “attempts to trample VOA’s journalistic independence threatened to undermine our hard-won credibility at a time of global democratic backsliding and increased international threats to America’s values and moral leadership.”
The comments were directed at VOA’s parent organization, the US Agency for Global Media, which controls the pursestrings for VOA and other US-sponsored media operations around the world.
Trump’s appointee to run the agency, Michael Pack, took charge as CEO in June, made sweeping charges of bias, and conducted what some staffers called a pro-Trump “purge.”
Pack’s actions drew scrutiny from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and legal actions from affected individuals.
In one notable First Amendment case last month, a federal judge ruled that Pack and his team are forbidden from interfering in the newsroom.
And just last week, the federal watchdog Office of Special Counsel found what it dubbed “a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” at the agency, and directed Pack to order an investigation. This finding from OSC’s Retaliation & Disclosure Unit came in response to a complaint from six senior officials at the agency alleging that Pack had engaged in abuse of authority and gross mismanagement.
USAGM oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. The agency’s stated mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
There have been a multitude of changes throughout the organization in recent months, and the disruptions at VOA have generated a lot of attention.
The well-regarded VOA director Amanda Bennett resigned in advance of Pack’s overhaul. Pack appointed Biberaj to be acting director.
Biberaj publicly defended VOA’s independence, and in Tuesday night’s memo he alluded to behind the scenes tensions with Pack’s team.
“The last six months have perhaps been the most challenging period in VOA’s recent history,” he wrote. “Regrettably, this period was characterized by an adversarial relationship between VOA and USAGM. Some agency officials failed to respect rules, protocols and processes that I considered inviolable, and displayed an indifference to the disruptive impact their actions and decisions had on VOA’s operations and mission.”
Biberaj said he will be returning to his previous position, director of VOA’s Eurasia division.
Pack announced a new director, Robert R. Reilly, on Wednesday morning. Reilly briefly held the job in late 2001 and 2002 and has a decade of experience at the agency.
NPR, which broke the news of the leadership change, said it was “part of a broad effort to install Trump supporters before the Biden administration comes to power.”
“I have always been a firm adherent of VOA’s mission of telling America’s story to the world,” Reilly said in a statement. “I’m delighted to have the opportunity to serve VOA again.”
Reilly has a decades-long resume and conservative credentials, including service in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. The change in leadership, coming in the final weeks of Trump’s time in office, has revived concerns within the organization.
A Voice of America journalist who is in touch with colleagues throughout the outfit said that “many at VOA are horrified Reilly is returning.”
The veteran VOA journalist also pointed to some of Reilly’s controversial writings. Reilly is the author of numerous books, including “Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything” and “The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.”
Pack and Reilly did not respond to requests for interviews on Wednesday.
Last summer a Joe Biden campaign aide called Pack “decidedly unqualified” and said a Biden administration would boot Pack from USAGM.
The procedures for replacing Pack are complicated, however, and it will take time to repair what many VOA staffers perceive as the damage sustained by the institution.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed reporting.