The Voice of America's visa conundrum

The Voice of America's visa conundrum
© istock

Voice of America’s language services have been left hobbling, after Michael Pack, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, VOA’s parent body, announced J-1 visas for non-citizen journalists would not be renewed. 

VOA is a U.S. government-funded international broadcaster. The new move not only threatens the fate of a source for international news coverage, but it leaves foreign journalists uncertain about their ability to remain in the U.S. and could potentially implicate them in their home countries. 

VOA broadcasts in 46 languages. The government’s hiring process gives preference to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and because there are people living in the U.S. who speak these languages, they can be hired without any journalistic experience if given the proper training.

ADVERTISEMENT

Nevertheless, there are reasons VOA would want to seek employees among non-citizens outside of the country. Chief among these would be up-to-date language skills, knowledge about the target country and, perhaps most valuable, familiarity with sources. In addition to “telling America’s story,” VOA’s audience accesses the network to get news about their own country that is more reliable, credible and comprehensive than the news they might otherwise get from state-controlled domestic media in their own countries.  

One might argue that USAGM’s decision to half the visas won’t affect news coverage because U.S. citizens who know how to speak the language in a certain country could continue reporting. However, apart from probably not being current with the linguistic intricacies and slang, non-native reporters are less likely to be fully acquainted with the nuances of politics and life in their home country. This could diminish in-depth coverage of hard-to-access news coverage, such as the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

Additionally, the requisite and uncommon combination of language knowledge and journalistic experience, coupled with skills and talent in video and audio — which VOA has fully vetted — might be difficult to find if the search is limited to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Recruiting from abroad is also necessary for VOA to acquire the star talent that is helpful to attract audiences. This might include popular journalists forced to leave their home countries because of censorship. 

We don’t know exactly what precipitated Michael Pack’s hesitation to renew the visas, or what the outcome of this controversy will be. There may, however, be a hint in a USAGM press release on July 23, which was remarkable for its lack of details given the seriousness of its allegations. 

In the statement, Pack said federal agencies conducted assessments of USAGM — which he ordered — and found “systemic, severe and fundamental security failures,” that apparently had gone on for years.

ADVERTISEMENT

Pack also said he ordered the probe because he was concerned about “efficiency” and “effectiveness,” and even a national security threat.  

The concern about “security failures” might be based on the premise that foreign journalists brought into VOA have been insufficiently vetted. 

VOA, however, is not a super secret agency, with filing cabinets full of classified materials. It’s a news organization; How can its own news outlet post a threat to national security?

Hypothetically, it might be that an operative of another country manages to get hired as a journalist for VOA, or one of the other USAGM broadcasting entities. That operative might try to write news stories that are favorable to the regime of their home country. But VOA language services have editors, whose job is to detect and correct such biases. Moreover, each VOA language service undergoes an annual program review, which among other things, is conducted to detect bias at a more macro level.

And unlike intelligence agencies, where distribution of reports are generally limited to official circles, the output of VOA and the other USAGM entities is online, for all to see. It is broadcasting. If audiences, observers, scholars, pundits and critics see bias in these news items, they can — and will likely — speak out. 

Whatever the intentions of non-citizen visa holders when they came to VOA, if they did their jobs, they leave VOA as journalists. That could make them more dangerous to the regimes they return to than they ever would have been to the United States.

Kim Andrew Elliott is a retired Voice of America audience research analyst and media journalist.