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Voice of America employees protest order to broadcast Pompeo speech, calling it ‘propaganda’

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to give a talk to Voice of America employees that the government-funded news organization has been ordered to broadcast to its global audience. (Saul Loeb/Pool/Reuters)

Staffers at Voice of America, the government-funded international news organization, have filed a whistleblower complaint raising concerns about an upcoming address by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying it would be risky for them to gather at the agency’s headquarters amid the coronavirus pandemic and that orders to broadcast his speech amount to promoting “propaganda.”

In a letter to Michael Pack, the Trump appointee who heads VOA’s parent agency, the employees wrote that the planned speech “endangers public health and safety, violates law, rule and regulation and grossly wastes government resources.”

The complaint is the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle among current and former employees of VOA and Pack, a conservative former documentary filmmaker who runs the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA and four other international news networks.

Since his appointment in June, Pack has fired longtime managers and installed a cadre of loyalists while asserting the right to dictate news coverage, despite legal requirements prohibiting it.

The agencies, which include Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, were set up by the federal government decades ago to provide independent news reporting and commentary to countries in which authoritarian governments suppress free speech and the news media.

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Pompeo is scheduled to address VOA employees at its headquarters in Washington on Monday afternoon. According to a staff announcement sent Friday, Pompeo will address “the continuing importance of our work given emerging threats to the values and interests of the United States.” VOA Director Robert Reilly will conduct a question-and-answer session with Pompeo afterward.

The protest letter, which was also sent to Reilly and the congressional committees that oversee VOA, was written on behalf of five VOA employees by the Government Accountability Project, a public-interest law firm that represents whistleblowers.

Last month, the group raised a complaint about Pack’s appointment of Reilly, questioning Reilly’s qualifications and calling his published writings critical of gay and Muslim people “hate speech.” Reilly briefly served as VOA director — its top editorial executive — during the George W. Bush administration.

Pompeo will address VOA employees in the agency’s auditorium, which holds about 400 people. But VOA officials said capacity for his speech will be limited to about 50 people due to social-distancing requirements. Internal video links will enable employees to watch remotely.

David Seide, the senior counsel for the Government Accountability Project, said Reilly’s intention to broadcast the speech worldwide via VOA’s 47 foreign-language channels and video streams amounts to a violation of a statutory “firewall” prohibiting political influence over editorial judgments. He said Reilly was acting at Pack’s direction.

“The secretary of state has the First Amendment right to make any speech he’d like, and VOA has every right to cover it, but we’ve crossed a line when the coverage is being dictated and the way this is being staged,” Seide said in an interview.

He said it is “disingenuous” for VOA to exclude outside news media from covering Pompeo’s talk because of covid-19 restrictions while inviting employees to attend. The decision to carry it on VOA’s channels should be left up to its journalists, he added.

In his letter, Seide wrote: “A broadcast speech by the outgoing secretary of state on topics on which he has been widely covered should be seen for what it is: the use of VOA to disseminate political propaganda in the waning days of the Trump administration. . . . The event is plainly a publicity stunt devoid of public interest and thus constitutes a gross misuse of government resources.”

A VOA spokesperson, Bridget Serchak, said the agency “scrupulously adheres to all [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] covid-19 guidelines.” She offered no further comment.

Pack’s representatives at the U.S. Agency for Global Media didn’t respond to a request for comment.