The letter also criticized Reilly and Robbins for disciplining a reporter for seeking to question Pompeo afterward. The reporter, Patsy Widakuswara, who was removed from the White House beat after the incident, was one of the letter’s signatories. A top editor was reassigned in the wake of the event as well.
A VOA spokesperson declined to comment on the petition, saying the agency would not comment on “internal personnel matters.” Reilly did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The extraordinary demand follows months of underlying hostilities between VOA’s newsroom and Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker who was appointed by President Trump to head VOA’s government parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Pack has swept aside longtime managers at VOA and related agencies such as Radio Free Europe and replaced them with his own appointees. Since taking office in June, he has asserted the right to breach VOA’s “firewall” that prohibits political appointees like himself from influencing VOA’s news coverage. His short tenure has been marked by lawsuits, whistleblower complaints and adverse court decisions.
Pack named Reilly, a conservative writer and former VOA director, to run the government-funded agency last month. Reilly brought on Robbins, who worked for Pompeo at the State Department as a public affairs specialist.
In his speech at VOA headquarters, Pompeo spoke about “American exceptionalism” and criticized censorship by governments in China, Iran and elsewhere. He advised VOA to focus on America’s strengths, not its flaws. “It is not fake news for you to broadcast that this is the greatest nation in the history of the world and the greatest nation that civilization has ever known,” he said.
Reilly, who held a brief Q&A with Pompeo after his address, ordered VOA to carry Pompeo’s appearances on its TV channels and Web streams, leading to internal complaints that he was using VOA to promote the views of a political ally and the administration.
Reporters from outside news organizations were barred from the event, and VOA reporters weren’t permitted to ask Pompeo questions after it. When Widakuswara sought to question Pompeo as he departed, Reilly openly rebuked her, telling her she didn’t “know how to behave” and that she was “out of order,” according to people at the event.
Robbins later informed Widakuswara that she was being taken off the White House beat, effectively sanctioning her for trying to ask a prominent government official questions. On Wednesday, one of VOA’s top editors, Yolanda Lopez, was reassigned as well without explanation.
One VOA journalist called the demand for resignations “an unprecedented revolt by VOA rank and file against politically appointed management. Everyone who signed the letter, as a federal government employee, is taking a risk. Most, if not all, see themselves as putting their reputations as journalists above their jobs.” The journalist, who was among the signatories, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the group hasn’t designated an official spokesperson.
The journalist said the letter is being circulated throughout VOA’s newsroom and other staff members are likely to sign on.
Addressing Reilly and Robbins, the employees wrote, “As journalists, our job is to pursue the truth, to ask questions even when it is uncomfortable or difficult.”
It added that “Ms. Robbins’ actions [in reassigning Widakuswara] send a dangerous message to every VOA journalist: Ask questions critical of this administration and be punished.”
Separately, Widakuswara’s attorney wrote to Pack on Wednesday demanding she be restored to the White House beat. Her reassignment violated her First Amendment and due process rights, argued attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., who also represented journalists Jim Acosta and Brian Karem when the Trump administration sought to bar them from covering the White House.