U.S. put journalists at risk and its reputation on the line
Being invited to testify to Congress alongside Christiane Amanpour, a journalistic icon, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye, was definitely a career highlight. Sadly, the the hearing was prompted by the worst violence against journalists in a generation (most of it perpetrated by law enforcement) and apparent attempts to dismantle the US Agency for Global Media, whose outlets have spent decades building reputations for reliable, independent news in some of the most challenging environments in the world.
As I told the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki commission, the United States has a unique historical and legal commitment to protecting a free and independent press at home and abroad.
But the hundreds of attacks by law enforcement against journalists covering anti-police brutality protests, the politicized shakeup in the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and persistent denigration and verbal assaults on journalists by President Trump and other elected leaders have created perilous conditions for media at home with ramifications for journalists around the world. And as Christiane testified, the “fake news” rhetoric has had real life impact on journalists around the world, not least of all the rising numbers who are jailed on false news charges. (Watch the hearing here).
Also deeply concerning is the dismissal of senior staff and independent boards at the five media outlets under the USAGM and the Open Technology Fund by the newly-appointed CEO Michael Pack and his subsequent decision to freeze and review all visas for Voice of America journalists. As I testified and also wrote about recently for the Houston Chronicle, President Trump’s strong-arm appointment of this politically divisive figure and the actions taken during Pack’s first few weeks in the position raise concerns that he intends to change the fundamental direction of the news agencies to focus on promoting the political agenda of the current U.S. administration, in essence becoming propaganda organs similar to the state-run news agencies of China or Russia.
Outlets like RFA, RFE/RL and VOA enjoy high levels of trust in and aid local understanding according to surveys, while the anti-censorship technologies developed with OTF support have enabled those in restricted media environments to bypass internet censorship and surveillance and securely access up-to-date, accurate reports and content on the coronavirus pandemic and other topics deemed sensitive to censors.
The politicization of the agency and its outlets coupled with the threat that the visa review poses to journalists who could face retaliation if they were to return home undermine American credibility, the safety of journalists and the public’s right to information. As I describe in my oped for the Houston Chronicle, Trump administration puts the U.S., world’s journalism and reporters at risk, these media outlets provide vital information in countries with little or no independent media, including reporting on massive human rights abuses, on the coronavirus pandemic, and other sensitive topics.
As I told Congress, despite its less-than-stellar press freedom record at home, the world still looks to the U.S. for leadership. Given that the current administration has not been a forceful advocate for press freedom, the burden falls on Congress. That’s one reason I wanted to publish my piece in the Houston Chronicle — it is in Representative McCaul’s district, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congress should hold a hearing on the USAGM shakeup and the visa issue, and ensure the editorial firewall is robustly observed.