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House Democrat warns of potential staff purge at US media agency

House Democrat warns of potential staff purge at US media agency
© Greg Nash

The new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees congressionally funded broadcasting services, is preparing to force out a number of senior staff, the top House Democrat with oversight of foreign affairs said Tuesday night.

Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelTrump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin Dozens of progressive groups endorse Joaquin Castro for Foreign Affairs chair Castro pledges to term limit himself if elected Foreign Affairs chair MORE (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had learned USAGM head Michael Pack intends to push out a number of the career senior leadership Wednesday morning, saying the move represents a worrying trend of political appointees acting out against nonpartisan federal employees.

“I have learned that Michael Pack, the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, intends to force out a number of the agency’s career senior leadership tomorrow morning,” Engel said in a statement. “My fear is that USAGM’s role as an unbiased news organization is in jeopardy under his leadership. USAGM’s mission is ‘to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy’— not to be a mouthpiece for the President in the run up to an election.”

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The USAGM did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill late Tuesday.

News of the expected staff firings comes one day after two senior officials at the Voice of America (VOA), one of the flagship broadcasting services under the USAGM, resigned.

The USAGM, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is the umbrella organization of at least five international broadcasting services meant to provide objective reporting to places around the world, including those with limited press freedoms.

The services include VOA and independent news outlets that broadcast in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Cuba.

Pack’s confirmation as CEO of the USAGM earlier this month has drawn criticism from Democrats who say the conservative filmmaker and ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE risks compromising the independence of U.S. state-run media.

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The VOA has come under fire from Trump, with the White House accusing the media outlet of promoting Chinese propaganda amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda," a message on the White House website read in April. "This week, VOA called China’s Wuhan lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world—and then tweeted out video of the Communist government’s celebratory light show marking the quarantine’s alleged end.”

VOA journalists were subsequently put on a block list for interview requests at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with public affairs officers directed to the White House's statement as part of their instructions to reject journalist inquiries. The CDC policy was revealed as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. 

Engel on Tuesday night called Pack’s expected firing of career officials “part of a trend that we have seen from the very first days of the Trump administration,” pointing to a push to oust certain State Department employees and the president’s reference to career employees as the “Deep State” working against his administration.

“Mr. Pack’s targeting of career experts is part of a trend that we have seen from the very first days of the Trump Administration. At the State Department, Trump appointees have attacked and tried to force out career officials simply because they worked for prior administrations,” the chairman said.

“Trump’s obsession with the myth of a so-called ‘Deep State’ has jeopardized our national security by depriving that agency of untold years of experience, sometimes breaking the law in the process.”

Engel called for Pack to “reverse course” and “allow the nonpartisan public servants who run USAGM to keep doing their jobs.” He reiterated the importance of keeping the broadcasting services under the USAGM “independent, unbiased, and targeted toward audiences around the world.”

Pack was a controversial pick to lead the USAGM. He is currently under investigation in the District of Columbia for alleged misuse of funds from his nonprofit organization Public Media Lab put toward his for-profit film company.

Democrats are fearful Pack will turn the independent news outlets into a mouthpiece for the president. Pack is a close ally of Stephen Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and earlier executive chairman of the far-right media site Breitbart.

Engel said that Pack "needs to understand that USAGM is not the Ministry of Information."

"The law requires that our international broadcasting be independent, unbiased, and targeted toward audiences around the world … I will use every tool at the Foreign Affairs Committee’s disposal to make sure career employees are protected, the law is followed, and USAGM’s credibility remains intact,” he said.

Voice of America’s Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara resigned Monday as Pack took the helm of the agency, noting in their farewell statement that Pack had sworn before Congress to protect the legally protected separation between the agency and the journalists.

“Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us. We know that each one of you will offer him all of your skills, your professionalism, your dedication to mission, your journalistic integrity and your personal hard work to guarantee that promise is fulfilled.”

— Joe Concha contributed.