WASHINGTON — Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, andRepresentative Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, today led seven of their Senate and House colleagues in sending a letter to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack seeking answers to his reported decision not to renew visa extensions for foreign nationals working as journalists in the United States for USAGM networks and grantees including the Voice of America (VOA).
USAGM’s ability to fulfill its mission of informing, engaging, and connecting people around the world in support of freedom and democracy, particularly in places where free press is limited or banned, would be significantly undermined without VOA’s foreign national staff and contractors.
Joining Menendez and Engel in sending the letter were Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Representatives Bill Keating (D-Mass.), Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).
The members conclude their letter listing a series of questions to Mr. Pack surrounding his questionable leadership and the decision making process that led him to decide against renewing the visas of VOA’s foreign national employees and contractors.
A copy of the letter may be found HERE and below:
Dear Mr. Pack,
We write to express concern about reports that you have decided not to renew visa extensions for foreign nationals working as journalists in the United States for Voice of America (VOA) and other entities.[i] Despite repeated inquiries to your agency, we have not received a response on this or numerous other issues including other staffing decisions, and it is our understanding that some of these journalists have already had to return to their home countries after their visas expired.
Failure to expeditiously extend these visas is counterproductive and runs counter to each of your stated objectives for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Furthermore, you are potentially putting the lives of these journalists in danger by forcing them to return to countries where political leaders may target them for their work on behalf of an American media outlet dedicated to truth and transparency.
According to news reports, you have chosen not to extend visas held by foreign-born journalists despite calls by managers to do so.[ii] These journalists report stories and help ensure that USAGM entities can share their reporting globally in 47 different languages. That reporting is often the only unvarnished, transparent and reliable news many people in foreign countries can access. VOA reports that you are assessing on a case-by-case basis the J-1 renewal applications of 62 contractors and 14 full-time employees at VOA as well as an unknown number of journalists at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks.[iii]
Failing to renew these visas constitutes more than callous treatment of a class of employees and contractors who have put their unique skills and insights to use in service of the USAGM’s mission. Precisely because of their reporting on foreign countries, including their candid assessments of authoritarian governments, many foreign national employees and contractors would be at risk in their countries of origin.[iv] It is unacceptable that you would risk the safety of these individuals without a compelling justification.
A decision not to renew these visas would also needlessly undermine USAGM’s effectiveness. VOA has long expended considerable time and effort to recruit foreign nationals because of their crucial language skills, their contacts abroad, and their understanding of the cultures and histories of foreign countries.[v]
Your visa review has already been counterproductive in another sense. By applying the Trump administration’s inhumane and self-defeating approach to immigration within your organization, you are only compounding the concern voiced by observers, including recently the Committee to Protect Journalists, that USAGM agencies under your leadership are focused not on journalism but instead “on promoting the political agenda of the current administration.”[vi] We have yet to receive any explanation, for example, of your decision to fire all the heads of the organization’s networks and grantees. [vii]
Recently, more than a dozen journalists who have served VOA sent a letter expressing their concern over your leadership, following an interview with a partisan news outlet where you undermined the credibility of your own agency, saying that your own staff could pose a “security risk”. This fundamentally undermines the mission of USAGM and plays directly into the hands of our adversaries, to say nothing of imparting a devastating blow to morale of your own team.
With these concerns in mind, we respectfully request written responses to the following questions by September 30, 2020:
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to hearing from you by September 30.
[i] David Folkenflik, U.S. Broadcasting Agency Will Not Extend Visas For Its Foreign Journalists, NPR (Jul. 9, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2020/07/09/889301025/u-s-broadcasting-agency-will-not-extend-visas-for-its-foreign-journalists.
[ii] Paul Farhi, Voice of America faces loss of international journalists as new overseer lets visas expire, Wash. Post (Jul. 9, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/voice-of-america-faces-loss-of-international-journalists-as-new-overseer-lets-visas-expire/2020/07/09/42f09844-c192-11ea-b4f6-cb39cd8940fb_story.html.
[iii] Jessica Jarreat, Visa Delays Could Hamper VOA News Coverage, Journalists Say, VOA (Jul. 11, 2020), https://www.voanews.com/press-freedom/visa-delays-could-hamper-voa-news-coverage-journalists-say.
[iv] Lindsay Underwood, National Press Club and Journalism Institute call for renewal of VOA journalists’ visas, National Press Club (Jul. 10, 2020), https://www.press.org/newsroom/national-press-club-and-journalism-institute-call-renewal-voa-journalists-visas.
[v] Paul Farhi, Voice of America faces loss of international journalists as new overseer lets visas expire, Wash. Post (Jul. 9, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/voice-of-america-faces-loss-of-international-journalists-as-new-overseer-lets-visas-expire/2020/07/09/42f09844-c192-11ea-b4f6-cb39cd8940fb_story.html.
[vi] Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ sends letter to U.S. Agency for Global Media head encouraging unbiased coverage, (Jul. 8, 2020), https://cpj.org/2020/07/cpj-sends-letter-to-u-s-agency-for-global-media-head-encouraging-unbiased-coverage/.
[vii] Matthew Lee, Undaunted, US global media chief plows ahead with changes, Wash. Post (Jul. 13, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/undaunted-us-global-media-chief-plows-ahead-with-changes/2020/07/13/d75cded0-c4c0-11ea-a825-8722004e4150_story.html.
[viii] Michael Pack, CEO Message to Staff (Jun. 18, 2020), https://www.usagm.gov/2020/06/18/ceo-message-to-staff/.