The heads of four news organizations overseen by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) were ousted on June 17 in what a former US official described as the “Wednesday night massacre,” just two weeks after Trump administration ally Michael Pack was confirmed as the agency’s CEO. In an unprecedented move, the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund were all abruptly dismissed from their positions. The director and deputy director of Voice of America (VOA), another news organization overseen by USAGM, resigned from their positions two days prior.
Pack, a conservative filmmaker and once an associate to President Trump’s former political advisor Steve Bannon, also removed the members of each outlet’s board and replaced them with his own allies. While he assured agency employees in a memo that he is “fully committed to honoring … the independence of our heroic journalists around the world,” there is mounting concern that these actions will compromise the integrity of USAGM’s outlets, which are typically known to provide international audiences with independent news and information.
“The firing of the heads of these major media organizations signals that the USAGM is on a dangerous trajectory towards becoming a propaganda machine for the Trump administration,” said Dokhi Fassihian, Executive Director of RSF USA. “Pack’s decision to plant allies in positions of leadership at USAGM is concerning for the editorial independence of these news outlets, which nations without a free press rely on for reliable news. Pack and the new heads of these outlets must not forget the statutory “firewall” that protects the editorial processes from interference or outside pressure, and must abide by the requirements of this firewall in the course of their work.”
This latest move comes as the Trump administration has been highly critical of VOA’s reporting on coronavirus, accusing the outlet of promoting Chinese propaganda and directing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employees not to speak to VOA reporters. But ever since taking office, President Trump has explored ways to further his control over the USAGM, introducing Pack as his preferred pick for CEO in 2018. Prior to his presidency the USAGM had been governed by a bipartisan board, but in late-2016, a Republican-controlled Congress passed a law that concentrated the USAGM so a single powerful CEO had governing power.
The United States is ranked 45th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.