Press release

United States: Media Agency Removes Editorial Protection for Journalists at Publicly Funded Broadcasters

The decision threatens the independence and reputation of news outlets that have informed foreign audiences for decades.

In response to steps taken by US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) head Michael Pack to eliminate the firewall protecting editorial independence at the agency, Freedom House issued the following statement:

“The elimination of the firewall undermines both journalistic independence and US efforts to push back against authoritarian influence,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “It runs counter to the long tradition of nonpartisan reporting and harms the credibility of US public broadcasters operating in foreign countries.”

“Broadcasters like Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) provide essential information and independent reporting in closed environments, like those seen in Russia and China, and in countries where press freedoms are under threat. Their continued success depends on whether media consumers consider their reporting objective, credible, and trustworthy. While this move does not do away with statutory guarantees of independence, it seriously harms the broadcasters’ image and hence their effectiveness in countering propaganda.”

Background

On October 26, 2020, Michael Pack, USAGM's recently appointed chief executive officer, rescinded a regulation that affirmed the existence of a “firewall” between editorial staff and management at USAGM and prohibited pressure on journalists as they fulfill their duties. Pack argued that the regulation was harmful to “US national interests” and created “substantial hurdles to everyday USAGM operations,” preventing him from taking action in cases of “biased reporting.”

This move comes after the Trump administration launched several attacks on USAGM’s editorial independence. In April 2020, the White House falsely accused VOA of using taxpayer money to promote foreign propaganda. Later that month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff were instructed to ignore media requests from VOA journalists.

Funded by the US government, USAGM oversees VOA, RFE/RL, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, and the Open Technology Fund. The broadcasters’ editorial independence is legally protected; the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 guarantees a firewall that prohibits government interference in their work.

The United States is rated Free in Freedom in the World 2020 and Free in Freedom on the Net 2020.