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Politics & Government

New Chief's Ties Shock Radio Free Asia, While Pompeo Visit To VOA Stirs Outcry

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

The new president of the federally funded Radio Free Asia network most recently ran a consulting company from Boise, Idaho that has represented foreign governments and interests. Among them is Taiwan.

That connection has startled veterans of the international broadcaster.

"Are you serious?" said Libby Liu, who led Radio Free Asia for 14 years. "I don't think it's appropriate for a registered lobbyist for a foreign government to be leading a free-press organization, even democracies we support and admire."

Radio Free Asia distributes news to audiences in China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and North Korea as a "surrogate broadcaster." In recent years, RFA's reports on the oppression of Uighur Muslims by Chinese authorities helped to bring their plight to international attention.

The mission of Radio Free Asia, like its sister networks covering other parts of the world, is to provide independent coverage in countries without a free press. The recent professional activities of the network's new president, however, raise questions about how independent its coverage will prove to be.

A former adviser to then-Vice President Dick Cheney and former chairman of the Idaho GOP, Stephen J. Yates has represented other foreign governments and interests besides Taiwan. The list includes Qatar, Morocco, and Ukraine.

Yates was named to his post at RFA on Dec. 22, 2020. Disclosure forms filed with the U.S. Justice Department reflect that he registered as a foreign agent for an airport corporation owned by the Taiwanese government just 15 days earlier, on Dec. 7.

"I think it's troubling," Liu said. "The problem is the appearance of a lack of objectivity. The [Chinese Communist Party] can use that to discredit Radio Free Asia."

The Chinese regime considers Taiwan a breakaway province rather than an independent country.

Radio Free Asia's "credibility is constantly being attacked and maligned by the regimes of the countries we serve," she added.

A spokesman for the network says Yates' role in the Taiwan project ended Dec. 16, five days before USAGM contacted Yates about heading Radio Free Asia and six days before Yates was officially named to the post.

Yates's appointment is part of a frenzied effort by President Trump's appointee at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees RFA, to wrest control of federally funded international broadcasters from what he has called an anti-Trump "deep state." That CEO, Michael Pack, also appointed new heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Voice of America. VOA and the Cuba broadcasting units are owned by the U.S. government; the rest are funded by the government through USAGM.

Veteran journalists demoted at VOA

Pack's moves have thrown the networks into convulsions. And they've taken on new urgency in the days leading up to President-elect Biden's inauguration on Wednesday.

At Voice of America, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's address to staff on Monday — in person despite the coronavirus — led to a fresh crisis there, starting with the reassignment of two veteran journalists.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, added his voice to a group of more than 30 VOA journalists who publicly demanded the ouster of brand-new director Robert R. Reilly, who had invited Pompeo.

Reilly and Deputy Director Elizabeth Robbins had used the network "to stage a propaganda event for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo," the journalists wrote.

White House reporter Patsy Widakuswara was reassigned late Monday night, just hours after she pointedly asked Pompeo about Trump and America's standing in the world, as Pompeo was leaving the VOA building after his speech. Widakuswara then pressed Reilly, who had been on stage with Pompeo,for failing to ask the secretary adequate questions. Reilly's irate response, captured on audio reviewed by NPR: "You obviously don't know how to behave."

During a cordial question-and-answer period following Pompeo's formal remarks, Reilly did not ask Pompeo about Trump's incitement of supporters who descended as a violent mob upon Capitol Hill and sacked the seat of the U.S. Congress. The Secretary has yet to directly commented publicly upon the riot.

Pompeo instead told Reilly that VOA should be telling America's story as "the greatest nation in the history of the world," echoing Pack and Reilly's arguments that the news service focused too much on the country's shortcomings.

Four hours after Pompeo's departure, Widakuswara learned she was being given a general assignment position. She had been scheduled to be the pool reporter for President Trump's visit Tuesday to Alamo, Texas, where her on-site reports would be relayed to other news outlets including NPR. Instead on Tuesday morning, she was told of a second reassignment: She would go back to the Indonesian news service, where she worked years earlier.

"Let us be clear: it is not out of order for VOA journalists to ask questions of U.S. government officials. It is our job," her newsroom colleagues wrote in their letter demanding Reilly's resignation.

Also Tuesday, one of her most senior editors, Yolanda Lopez, was relieved of all editorial oversight of VOA's News Center. She was given a fresh job away from the newsroom, and now oversees program reviews for VOA. Lopez had run the English language news hub since January 2017. It is central to VOA's news coverage in English and translated into scores of languages for overseas consumption. Reilly announced he was replacing Lopez with long-time VOA journalist Luis Ramirez, who was grilled in a staff meeting over the sidelining of Widakuswara and Lopez.

Reilly and Robbins did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman said VOA would not comment on personnel decisions.

Pack seeks influence that outlasts tenure

It's expected that the Biden administration will replace CEO Pack in short order.And some of his top aides have departed ahead of next week's inauguration. But it's unclear how swiftly Biden could move to replace the new network chiefs. And Pack has sought to outlast his time in office by burrowing himself and conservative allies into boards that steer Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Pack declined to comment for this story.

The networks under the U.S. Agency for Global Media collectively reach more than 350 million people across the world each week. They historically have demonstrated American pluralism by providing balanced coverage of news events and robust political debate, regardless of how it reflects on current government officials.

The reassignment of Widakuswara has been taken as a blow against the credibility of VOA's newsroom. The Democratic chairman and the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Gregory Meeks of New York and Michael McCaul of Texas, jointly denounced what they considered Widakuswara's demotion.

"This is the United States of America – we do not punish our journalists for seeking answers to their questions," they wrote in a statement.

David Seide, an attorney for the non-profit Government Accountability Project who is representing whistleblowers within VOA, had said prior to Pompeo's speech that journalists there feared the secretary's remarks would constitute "propaganda." He wrote to Reilly after the address that his fears had been realized, and that VOA's action "sends a chilling message journalists in authoritarian regimes are very familiar with: if you dare ask questions, you suffer the consequences."

"You and Secretary Pompeo are making the First Amendment and the American freedom of the press a laughing stock around the world," Widakuswara's attorney, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., wrote in a letter to Reilly and Pack.

The new chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ted Lipien took pointed questions from employees at a virtual town hall on Thursday, at which he defended signing a contractual agreement with USAGM. The contract says no board member can be dismissed for two years, absent conviction for a crime. They can be removed after two years only for cause.

A conservative commentator, Christian Whiton, posted on his LinkedIn profile that he had been added to the boards of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

Others new to RFE/RL's board include conservative talk radio host and VOA critic Blanquita Cullum and the pro-Trump documentary maker Amanda Milius, according to two people with knowledge.

The boards traditionally have been bipartisan in nature.

Lipien said the network would have run out of money in February without the USAGM contract, according to an audio recording of the call reviewed by NPR. Others, though, suggested it might have been able to last until the Biden administration took over in just a few days. Lipien was also corrected by colleagues over the nature of the board, which has authority over him and the network, not just serving in an advisory role, as he asserted.

"In order to this job and protect RFE/RL, I had to do what I had to do," Lipien told his network's staffers, according to the recording. "I'm not very happy with the grant agreement but I think I was able to make it a little bit better, and I think it can always be amended."

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Tech and Media Editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

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