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.

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.

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 KennedyConor Lamb defeats Trump-backed challenger for reelection in Pennsylvania Van Drew fends off challenge from Kennedy after party switch Markey wins reelection in Massachusetts MORE (D) called on Pack to resign, and a bipartisan group of senators, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale GOP urges Trump not to tank defense bill over tech fight Pressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal MORE (R-Fla.), Dick DurbinDick DurbinCongress faces late-year logjam Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (D-Ill.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBiden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country The Memo: Harris moves signal broad role as VP Former US attorney asks for probe of allegations Graham pressured Georgia official MORE (R-S.C.), Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyGovernment used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Incoming Congress looks more like America MORE (D-Vt.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranSweeping financial crimes bill to hitch a ride on defense measure It's time for Congress to act: Save jobs and stabilize the aerospace industry Lobbying world MORE (R-Kan.), Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOn The Money: COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Slowing job growth raises fears of double-dip recession | Biden officially announces Brian Deese as top economic adviser GOP blocks effort to make payroll tax deferral optional for federal workers Democratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry MORE (D-Md.), and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him GOP blocks effort to make payroll tax deferral optional for federal workers COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks 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-BalartCountering China's influence in the Caribbean with a second Caribbean Basin Initiative House Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Judge whose son was killed by gunman: 'Federal judiciary is under attack' Emergency housing assistance for older adults needed now 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."