US President Donald Trump appoints a controversial loyalist to head Congress-funded Voice of America. Image: AFP/Getty

Two senior executives at the US Congress-funded Voice of America resigned this week after a controversial ally of US President Donald Trump was confirmed as the new chief executive of the agency that oversees the media outlet, as well as Radio Free Asia and Voice of Europe.

In another instance of Trump appointing a political loyalist for a nonpolitical job, the conservative activist and filmmaker Michael Pack was confirmed last week as the new head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), an agency independent of the US government responsible for taxpayer-funded news outlets.

This came after a partisan-split vote in the US Senate, almost three years after his name was first put forward by Trump.

Pack is reportedly also a close ally of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign strategist and White House adviser, with whom he has made two documentaries. He was also the previous head of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank with close connections to the Trump movement.

Pack’s confirmation has prompted concerns that he could try to change the editorial policy of media outlets like Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), the latter of which Trump has spent months criticizing for allegedly repeating Chinese propaganda.

On Wednesday, Pack fired the leaders of other agency organizations, including the heads of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Free Liberty, without explanation.

Concerns have also been raised that in trying to turn Voice of America into the “Voice of Trump”, the perceived right-wing takeover will jeopardize trust among the news outlet’s readers and listeners in autocratic parts of Asia, where it garners some of its largest listening audiences.

Michael Pack previously made documentary films with Trump campaign manager and advisor Steve Bannon. Photo: Facebook

“I fear that Pack’s arrival will bring a blunt instrument to the problems at USAGM,” Brett Bruen, director of global engagement during the Barack Obama presidency and who worked with the agency to introduce reforms under the previous administration, told Asia Times. 

“From what I hear, they will be looking at massive layoffs, budget cuts, and reshaping its mission. Trump wants a ministry of information that will spew out the party line. All of this is happening while Russia, China and other adversaries aggressively expand their information operations,” Bruen added. “It’s a dangerous moment for democracy.”

In April, Trump even threatened to force Congress into a recess so that he could ram through various appointees, including Pack, after he claimed the American legislature was purposely delaying his nominated appointments.

Last week, Republicans in the Senate unanimously voted to approve Pack’s appointment, despite an ongoing investigation into allegations he may have made improper payments between is non-profit and for-profit businesses. 

On June 15, VOA’s director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara announced their resignations. It remains unknown whether they were asked to leave by their new boss or did so by choice.

This week also saw the resignation of Libby Liu, chief executive of Open Technology Fund, an internet freedom promoting non-profit that is also overseen by the USAGM. Before that, Liu was president of RFA for 14 years.

There are already concerns about how the shake-up will affect media output in Asia. VOA and RFA report from across all of Southeast Asia and produce content in the Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese, Lao, Indonesian and Burmese languages.

“This kind of blatant political interference is the norm in many countries in Southeast Asia, but not in the US,” said Janet Steele, a professor of journalism at the George Washington University and the director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, who specializes in Southeast Asian media. 

Voice of America’s office front in Washington DC. Image: VOA

“It is thus a very sad day for those of us who value the contribution of journalists at the USAGM – many of whom themselves escaped authoritarian regimes – and credible, non-partisan reporting,” she added.

A survey last year by the USAGM found that the audience for VOA and RFA in Southeast Asia and East Asia was an estimated 117 million people. But several authoritarian states, including those in Southeast Asia, still portray VOA and RFA as outlets of American propaganda.

Accusations that they have received funding in the past from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have proven true, while during the Cold War several directors of the outlets saw their role as fighting communism.

In more recent decades, however, both have committed themselves to impartiality.  The USAGM – formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors until 2018 – operates independently of the US government and strict rules are in place to ensure neutrality and objectivity.

But with a Trump ally heading up the USAGM, some analysts believe that accusations of merely espousing US government propaganda directed at the outlets by world dictators will be harder to deny.  

“VOA outlets were respected by people in dictatorships simply because they told the truth, unlike our media. If it becomes propaganda under Trump – what it’s always been accused of being by authoritarians – that ends,” Garry Kasperov, chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, tweeted this week.

In Cambodia, two former RFA journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were arrested in 2017 on espionage charges just months after the news outlet was forced to close its Phnom Penh bureau because of government pressure.

Around the same time, Cambodian authorities also banned local radio stations from carrying news reports produced by RFA and VOA.

Former RFA journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin still face espionage charges for their reporting activities. Image: RFA

This came just before the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party moved to shut down the country’s leading opposition party and arrest its leader on treason charges, over of accusations it was plotting a coup with US support.

In the years since the opposition party’s forced dissolution, ruling party sources have insinuated that RFA and VOA might have been part of this spurious plot.

Authoritarian Vietnam has also singled out RFA and VOA contributors for repression. Truong Duy Nhat, a blogger who contributed to RFA’s Vietnamese Service, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in March on questionable corruption charges.

He was kidnapped by Vietnamese agents in Thailand and driven back to Vietnam after applying for political asylum with the United Nations in Bangkok.

Months earlier, noted VOA contributor Pham Chi Dung, president of the outlawed Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, was arrested for conducting “anti-regime activities such as producing anti-state articles, [and] cooperating with foreign media.”

Joining VOA’s long line of critics is Trump himself, who in recent months has accused it of promoting Chinese propaganda and doing the work of “America’s adversaries.” Reports suggest that in private he refers to it as “Voice of the Soviet Union.”

At a news conference in April, Trump blasted the broadcaster: “If you hear what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting.” Weeks earlier the US leader tweeted: “American taxpayers — paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the US Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!”

US President Donald Trump in an interview with Voice of America. Image: VOA

In late April, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread in America, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention circulated an internal memo telling staff not to give interviews to VOA, apparently after instruction by the White House.

“The Trump administration has created an environment of fear for officials speaking to the press, which interferes with the media’s work as a watchdog,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a recent statement.

Trump’s hostility towards VOA was noted by Eliot Engel, a Democrat Representative from New York and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“VOA has become a favorite target of the president and his allies, presumably because VOA has abided by the legal requirement that it be an independent news source and not a propaganda outlet for the administration,” he said in a statement on June 15.

In their letter of resignation, outgoing VOA executives Bennett and Sugawara said that “Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us.”

Technically, Pack’s new position has no editorial oversight over the numerous publications under its control, and staff at these outlets deny that they will be swayed by the opinions of the senior executive.

However, changes introduced near the end of Obama’s presidency in December 2016 granted far more power to the position Pack now holds at the USAGM than previous heads wielded.

That year, reforms created a new Chief Executive Officer position, appointed by the US president, and a board that holds only advisory powers. Previously, the USAGM was led by a bipartisan board of nine members with direct powers over administration.

Trump clearly sees Pack’s appointment as a win.

“Nobody has any idea what a big victory this is for America. Why? Because he is going to be running the VOICE OF AMERICA…and everything associated with it,” Trump tweeted on June 5.

For those in the more repressive parts of Asia who depend on VOA and RFA’s independent reporting, however, it’s not immediately clear that Pack’s appointment will be a win.