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Trump administration purges news execs from U.S. agency meant to counter disinformation, leaving staff fearing more to come

Combating coronavirus disinformation
Combating coronavirus disinformation 06:37

The overnight purge of top news organization officials at the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has raised concern among its federal government employees and reporters that their jobs, immigration status, and editorial independence may soon be at risk following the arrival of new CEO Michael Pack. 

Pack, who is a conservative filmmaker and close ally of one-time Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and had just stepped into the job after being confirmed by the Republican-led Senate earlier this month, did not respond to a request by CBS News for comment or explanation.

"Pack uses deep state language. Is Bannon calling the shots?"

A USAGM source said this is the question being pondered by executives and journalists inside the organization now.

Four news division heads were removed from their positions, including Middle East Broadcasting Network chief Alberto Fernandez, who is a former US Ambassador, Radio Free Asia's Bay Fang, Emilio Vazquez of the office of Cuba Broadcasting, and Radio Liberty's Jamie Fly. Replacements have yet to be named.

Steve Capus, the former CBS and NBC News executive who had been serving as a senior advisor, was also dismissed. Earlier this week, the top director and deputy director at Voice of America resigned as did the head of the Open Technology Fund Libby Liu, which promotes global internet freedoms.

"These people are doing extraordinary things to push back against China and Russia," the USAGM source said, emphasizing that the work these journalists do is to counter disinformation from authoritarian regimes. Yet it appears that Pack was willing to stomach any congressional outcry related to the firings even just five months out from the US presidential election.

The overnight firings has added to uncertainty among the staff of the networks who had already been shaken by the resignations of the Voice of America director Amanda Bennett, and deputy director Sandra Sugawara. President Trump recently accused the VOA of broadcasting Chinese propaganda, and accusation that many found Orwellian given the historic role of the agency in presenting a counter narrative to  communism during the Cold War.

The USAGM is an independent federal agency, and under its umbrella is the Voice of America and other networks which broadcast what is described on its website as "unbiased news and information in countries where the press is restricted." It was formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

According to the agency's website, there is a firewall meant to prevent interference by U.S. government officials in the reporting of the news by USAGM networks, and the reforms made by the 2017 National Defense Authorization are meant to maintain 'the longstanding statutory firewall language protecting the professional independence'.

"What I see from colleagues is concern. There is big concern," a Voice of America journalist told CBS News, adding that in particular there is fear that independent journalism will be replaced with propaganda. "We have a firewall in place, and I hope it remains. But yes, the arrival of this man is concerning."

Another source familiar with what happened told CBS News that Wednesday's purge was demoralizing considering that the agency networks' focus is to tell the stories that aren't being told by authoritarian regimes. 

A co-worker of the now dismissed head of Radio Liberty, Jamie Fly, described how dedicated the executive had been in defending his reporters who often faced intimidation and threats while reporting on Russia. Fly had recently relocated his young family to Prague.

The recent pioneering reporting of Radio Free Asia has revealed details of China's mass internment camps of more than a million Muslim minorities, mostly Uyghurs, in Xinjiang province. Yet its head, Bay Fang, was unceremoniously removed from her position on the same day President Trump signed the Uyghur human rights bill into law.

CBS News obtained an email from Fang to her staff at RFA following news of her dismissal, in which she obliquely mentioned "structural changes" as the reason for the transition out of her role. She also urged staff to remain focused on the mission of bringing unbiased news and information otherwise unavailable to their audiences in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Cambodia, and described that mission as "even more important at this time."

Ambassador Alberto Fernandez had recently launched an investigative team at the Middle East network, and had been praised for work on corruption in Iraq. Yet Fernandez was alerted via email of his firing. In tweets posted Wednesday night, he said: "Wish the incoming people at @USAGMgov well. I hope they know what they are doing." He declined further comment.

A coworker familiar with Fernandez's work described the long-time diplomat as a republican with rock solid credentials. In fact, Fernandez had been harshly critical of the Obama administration, as a CBS exclusive interview with him had indicated in 2015.  Yet, he was still pushed out by Pack who was described to CBS as enigmatic, and distrustful of the agency.  This same coworker said that before Pack arrived at the office Wednesday, he had security go through the trash and sweep for listening devices.

Another USAGM employee told CBS News that there is fear that the new management may also choose not to renew visas for some of the journalists who work to create the non-English language broadcasts, which could mean that journalists would have to leave the U.S. "The CEO signs off on the visas. This is my fear. We also have a backlog of J-1 visas that Mr. Pack has to sign that he has not signed yet."

Two more sources familiar with the internal workings of USAGM said that there had been little or no communication between the network heads or leadership prior to Pack's dismissal of them. Their outreach to Pack and his team had been largely ignored, including inquiries on operational details such as how to handle new COVID19-related procedures to reopen the buildings for employees. 

When Pack reached out to the directors on Wednesday, essentially his first day on the job, he provided no reason for the firings. One source said that notices were sent out Wednesday evening informing the heads of the agency's networks that the board had been dissolved and replaced by an assortment of appointees from various agencies without including anyone with news experience or time at the State Department. 

According to a copy of one of these notices obtained by CBS News, the new board members include senior counsel of Liberty Counsel Action Jonathan Alexandre, a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Housing Secretary, a communications director from the Office of Management and Budget, a USAID deputy, and the agency's Chief-of-Staff Emily Newman. 

Senator Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted the firing of the news chiefs, saying in a statement on Wednesday: "This latest attack is sadly the latest – but not the last – in the Trump Administration's efforts to transform U.S. institutions rooted in the principles of democracy into tools for the President's own personal agenda".

The U.S. government funded democracy watchdog organization Freedom House on Thursday called the removals "deeply concerning", and said "The U.S. should be an exemplar, not a detractor of press freedom."

Emily Tillett contributed reporting

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