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VOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage

VOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage
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The decision not to renew visas for foreign journalists at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) could endanger a key part of the administration's Venezuela policy, as a news show specialized on the country is at risk of losing its top talent.

USAGM CEO Michael Pack announced earlier this month the agency would no longer renew visas for its foreign journalists.

As journalists leave or prepare to leave USAGM, the parent agency of the Voice of America (VOA) and other state-owned media networks, entire language services have been hobbled, as have shows like Venezuela 360, a news magazine specialized on covering the country's humanitarian crisis.

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Venezuela 360 was funded through an act of Congress in 2019, created to coincide with the Trump administration's tripling of pro-democracy aid to the country in September of that year.

After a search for U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident journalists with expertise on the matter – VOA is mandated to prioritize hiring of U.S. nationals – the agency finally hired the show's top talent out of the pool of foreign correspondents in Washington.

At least two of those journalists, reporter/producer Jaime Moreno and anchor Carolina Valladares, are among the VOA journalists slated to lose their jobs over Pack's visa ban, according to sources with knowledge of internal deliberations.

VOA's Spanish-language White House correspondent, Bricio Segovia, a contributor to Venezuela 360 who is also losing his job over the visa ban, on Friday announced publicly he is currently seeking new employment.

"It's as if they wanted to weaken VOA, because many of these language divisions will not be able to function with their remaining personnel," Segovia told The Hill.

Pack's two-month tenure as USAGM CEO has been tumultuous: he has fired or accepted the resignations of the heads of all five broadcast agencies under his command; replaced the members of the organization's bipartisan advisory board with conservative appointees; and announced his visa ban, drawing the ire of groups like the National Press Club.

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Representatives for USAGM did not return a request for comment on this story.

In an interview with RealClear Politics, Pack defended his moves as a way to have "a fresh start."

The perceived politicization of the agency has also elicited reactions from Congress.

Earlier this month, Massachusetts Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedySupreme Court confounding its partisan critics Warren says she'll run for reelection to Senate Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE (D) called on Pack to resign, and a bipartisan group of senators, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Senate panel delays Iraq war powers repeal | Study IDs Fort Hood as least-safe base for female soldiers | Pentagon loosens some COVID-19 restrictions Senate panel delays war authorization repeal after GOP push Eliminate family and child poverty: Richard Nixon may help in today's debate MORE (R-Fla.), Dick DurbinDick DurbinDemocrats go down to the wire with Manchin Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave MORE (D-Ill.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden support, gas tax questions remain on infrastructure This week: Senate set for voting rights fight MORE (R-S.C.), Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyShelby signals GOP can accept Biden's .5T with more for defense Bipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua Biden budget expands government's role in economy MORE (D-Vt.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranDemocrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle MORE (R-Kan.), Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDemocrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Zombie Tax punishes farmers to fill DC coffers Democrats face new pressure to raise taxes MORE (D-Md.), and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPortman: Republicans are 'absolutely' committed to bipartisan infrastructure bill Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE (R-Maine), lambasted Pack over the firings of the agency heads.

But Pack has given the silent treatment to most of his critics, as well as to visa holders at VOA, who have received no confirmation on their status after nearly a month of constant requests to USAGM management.

Acting VOA Director Elez Biberaj on Friday wrote an email to the agency's employees, implying he has received no word from USAGM management on visa renewals.

"I want you to know that we are regularly updating and informing USAGM leadership on VOA’s requirements necessary to advance our mission and the critical deadlines and priorities, especially those regarding the visa issues and the importance of continuing the services of our talented visa holders," wrote Biberaj.

"We are working hard to ensure that USAGM leadership understands the vital role that each individual plays in producing VOA content and supporting our mission. Once we receive USAGM guidance on these matters, we will provide you with updates," he added.

"In that email, what's written between the lines is that Pack is not giving out instructions," said Segovia.

For Venezuela 360, that means uncertainty in its programming, and in its mission to provide one of the last sources of free, unbiased information in a country that routinely represses freedom of the press.

VOA's information is particularly important to the small, independent digital media organizations who can use Venezuela 360 segments free of charge and cannot afford to buy content from privately-run news wires.

And U.S. government officials routinely appear on the show, providing one of the few remaining lines of communication between policymakers in Washington and people in Venezuela.

The show's first broadcast in September featured U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, Rep. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartBottom line GOP lawmakers ask Biden administration for guidance on reopening cruise industry The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by Facebook — Biden delivers 100 million shots in 58 days, doses to neighbors MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSchumer says Senate will vote on repealing 2002 war authorization The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week Sanders drops bid to block Biden's Israel arms sale MORE (D-N.J.).

It's also consistently featured top voices on Venezuela like Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas.)

“Voice of America helps us understand people around the world and helps people around the world understand the United States," said Castro, who is also the vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I’m concerned that if international journalists are forced to return to their home countries they could face serious retribution for their independent reporting.

"There is no good reason to risk reporters’ lives by taking away their visas in the middle of a pandemic," he added. "I urge Michael Pack and U.S. Agency for Global Media to extend their visas so they can continue their vital work."

Aside from the dangers of potential return to countries with repressive regimes, some VOA journalists may not be able to leave the country if their visas expire, as borders around the world remain closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And Pack's move has raised concerns among some VOA journalists that the legally-mandated firewall between political appointees and the agency's content could be chipped away at through indirect pressure on its reporters.

Segovia, the most senior VOA Spanish language correspondent, has worked for a variety of private news organizations, as well as for Russian and French public broadcasters.

"I have never seen something as awful as what's being done to VOA in the United States, in the country of liberty," he said. "At the end of the day we love this country, that's why we're here and it's sad to see how Americans are going to lose the public broadcaster they deserve as citizens."