When Donald Trump ramped up his criticism of China’s handling of coronavirus outbreak early in the pandemic, his anti-Beijing campaign included an unusual target — the Voice of America, the government-sponsored broadcaster nominally controlled by the president himself.
Mr Trump accused the VOA, set up during the second world war to counter Nazi propaganda, of unquestioningly accepting Beijing’s accounting of its Covid-19 caseload and death tally and comparing it unfavourably to the US.
“If you heard what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting,” Mr Trump said in April. “Things they say are disgusting toward our country.”
Two months later, the taxpayer-funded broadcaster is facing its most severe crisis since its founding. After the Senate confirmed a media ally of former Trump aide Steve Bannon as head of the agency overseeing the media group, the two veteran journalists who headed VOA resigned on Monday.
On Thursday, the agency’s new head, Michael Pack, incoming chief executive of the US Agency for Global Media, cleaned house by sacking the heads of most of the other media groups under his remit, including Radio Free Europe and Radio Martí.
Mr Pack, a conservative documentary film-maker who has called Mr Bannon his “mentor”, wrote to staff on Wednesday to insist he would safeguard their independence. But in addition to pushing out the broadcasting chiefs, people briefed on the matter said he has replaced the traditionally bipartisan boards that oversee them.
The moves have sparked outcry that Mr Pack was undermining the credibility of radio and TV broadcasters that have been credited with helping undermine Communist regimes in eastern Europe and providing unbiased information to democracy advocates in autocratic regimes.
“The wholesale firing of the agency’s network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump’s political allies, is an egregious breach of this organisation’s history and mission from which it may never recover,” said Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee.
The six entities overseen by Mr Pack are legally protected by a firewall intended to safeguard their editorial independence from political interference — although they are all run in the service of promoting US values of democracy overseas. The US secretary of state traditionally has a seat on the board.
The USAGM said Mr Pack had implemented “critical changes on his first day to steer the agency back toward its mission” and was bringing a leadership team committed to eradicating mismanagement and scandals that it said had plagued the agency for decades.
The outlets, which include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks, broadcast local news to countries that limit domestic press freedom, including China and Russia.
Radio Free Asia has broken several important stories, including reports that China was vastly undercounting incidences of coronavirus deaths in Wuhan and that authorities were rounding up Muslim Uighurs. Several of their reporters, which comprise large local networks, have been detained.
VOA has rejected Mr Trump’s criticisms, and Freedom House, a pro-democracy watchdog, said the firings were “a very bad sign for US democracy”.
In a letter sent to staff on Wednesday and obtained by the Financial Times, Mr Pack quoted Abraham Lincoln’s saying that “public sentiment is everything”, adding US adversaries had increased their disinformation efforts and were “aggressively promoting their very different visions of the world”.
He said he wanted to raise morale at the agency and “ramp up the impact” of the agency’s broadcasting entities, insisting he was committed to “the independence of our heroic journalists around the world”.
In a separate letter to staff from the departing VOA directors, Amanda Bennett and her deputy Sandy Sugawara, also obtained by the Financial Times, sought to remind Mr Pack that he “swore before Congress to respect and honour the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence”.
The US was this year deemed a “problematic” place for journalists for the first time by the press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders. The group in April downgraded the US in its global press freedom index, from “satisfactory” to “problematic”, citing increased threats and attacks on journalists under the Trump administration.
Mr Trump has repeatedly censured the media as president, labelling the press the “enemy of the people” and firing barbs at outfits ranging from The New York Times to Fox News. The anti-press sentiment has swelled in recent weeks as journalists were caught in the crossfire of mass protests, with hundreds of reporters suffering attacks from law enforcement authorities.