But the new chief executive of VOA’s parent agency, a Trump appointee named Michael Pack, has stopped renewing visas, leaving 76 VOA employees like Segovia facing imminent removal — and undermining the agency’s ability to deliver news to non-English-speaking audiences around the world, staffers argue. Pack hasn’t said why.
“We are here because we worked for it, by the merits, legally,” says Segovia, an experienced journalist who speaks seven languages. “I feel frustrated because I can’t get an answer from Mr. Pack, and sad because we know this will hurt VOA. At the end of the day, we’re here because we love this country. It is unjust.”
For some of Segovia’s colleagues, the stakes are even higher. They include people from countries headed by authoritarian regimes who fear persecution once they are repatriated, among them journalists from Venezuela, China, Russia, Iran and other nations in which VOA’s broadcasts serve as one of the few sources of independent news and information.
Another journalist, whose visa has expired, said security agents in her home country have questioned family members about her work and will probably greet her return with suspicion. “I think they’ll find it very weird that the U.S. government has sent back someone who was working for the U.S. government as a journalist,” she said. “It’s just a grotesque situation.”
The journalist spoke on the condition of anonymity, asking not to identify her name or home country, out of concern for potential reprisals.
Pack, who declined an interview request through his representatives, has been vague about the reasons for not renewing the visas. In response to questions this week, his spokesman sent a news release issued last month in which Pack said “other federal agencies” had found “systemic, severe, and fundamental security failures” at the agencies Pack supervises, including VOA. Many of these alleged lapses, he said, “have persisted for years.”
Pack hasn’t said what threats have arisen or why journalists holding visas at VOA warranted special scrutiny. VOA’s international journalists undergo extensive background checks before they are hired.
Pack’s apparent lack of interest in renewing visas, however, is in keeping with the Trump administration’s generally tough stance on immigration. Citing the pandemic and its effect on American workers, Trump in June temporarily banned new entries via J-1 visas, the kind held by VOA workers. It’s not clear whether the ban affects renewals.
The visa issue is one of several policies enacted by Pack that have roiled the agencies under his control since he was confirmed in June to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media. He won confirmation after a bruising and largely partisan confirmation battle in the Senate.
Among his first official acts, Pack summarily fired the directors of each of the agencies he oversees, including Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, replacing them with his own managers. The director and deputy director of Voice of America resigned two days before Pack’s purge.
The shake-up was preceded by an extraordinary White House campaign to vilify Voice of America, an independent news organization that was founded by the federal government during World War II to counter Nazi propaganda and that later served as an information bulwark against oppressive communist regimes. The White House alleged in April that VOA had published “propaganda” on behalf of China and Iran, though it offered little evidence of it. White House social media director Dan Scavino followed up the statement by sharing a tweet from VOA’s official Twitter account that highlighted an Associated Press video of a light show in Wuhan, China, staged to celebrate the city’s alleged eradication of the coronavirus. “DISGRACE!!” he wrote.
USAGM said last week that it was opening an investigation into VOA’s publication of an Urdu-language video that supposedly promoted Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in violation of VOA’s rules against partisanship. A VOA spokeswoman also said it was looking into the video, which has been deleted from its website. (Biden’s campaign has said he would fire Pack if Biden is elected.)
VOA has long employed journalists who are citizens of other countries because they offer specific knowledge and expertise, including fluency in English and one or more of the 47 languages in which VOA broadcasts. In addition to their language skills, they are steeped in the history, culture and recent politics of the countries they report on, and they often have hard-to-replace sources and contacts among dissident communities. Many were educated at American universities and have worked at other Western news organizations.
People at VOA say the potential loss of dozens of such journalists would undermine the organization’s ability to produce news and information aimed at non-English-speaking audiences abroad.
Segovia, for example, has sometimes contributed news and interviews to a weekly news program called “Venezuela 360,” one of the few sources of independent reporting available in the strife-scarred nation. Five of the seven people involved in production of the program, he said, are facing the expiration of their visas, complicating its future.
VOA noted the disruption it was facing in a news story it published last month that spotlighted a broadcast journalist in its Thai-language service, one of three people in the eight-person unit who holds a visa. With her visa renewal in limbo, the journalist, Warangkana Chomchuen, had to apply for a repatriation flight back to Thailand. Her wife, who is in the United States on a spouse visa, isn’t eligible for a repatriation flight because she isn’t a Thai national. Instead, she will have to return to her home city, Toronto, leaving the couple indefinitely separated.
Segovia is hoping he won’t have to make similar departure plans. “We got no warning whatsoever about this,” he said the other day. “We’ve gotten no explanations, just the silent treatment from [Pack]. He should understand what’s at stake. He’s playing with people’s lives.”