Court Injunction Bars USAGM From Editorial Interference

A federal district court in Washington on Friday granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting officials from the U.S. Agency for Global Media, including its head, Michael Pack, from interfering with the editorial independence and First Amendment rights of the journalists at Voice of America and the other networks it oversees.The ruling, issued by Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ordered that a request for preliminary injunction by the plaintiffs be partially granted. The order was a stopgap measure to prevent further actions laid out in a complaint until a trial can be held.The ruling relates to a complaint filed by five USAGM officials placed on administrative leave in August and VOA Program Director Kelu Chao, who argued actions taken by the new head of the USAGM were unlawful and violated the First Amendment and the statutory firewall set up to prevent outside interference.FILE – Michael Pack, whom President Donald Trump chose to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, is seen at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 19, 2019. Pack’s nomination was confirmed June 4, 2020.Howell’s ruling marked a major setback for Pack, a former conservative documentary producer tapped by President Donald Trump to head the newly reconstituted USAGM. Since Pack was confirmed by the Senate in late June, the top leaders at VOA and other networks resigned or were removed, hiring and spending were frozen and Pack stopped approving visa renewals for the agency’s foreign journalists.Moreover, Pack’s political appointees conducted internal investigations of reporters and editors suspected of producing news stories unfavorable to Trump and the administration that had a chilling effect on the work of editors and reporters, according to the complaint.Under the order, USAGM officials including Pack are prohibited from “making or interfering with personnel decisions” related to individual editorial staff at VOA and its sister networks; directly communicating with editors and journalists, with the exception of the heads of those networks, or unless they have a director’s consent; and conducting investigations into content, journalists and alleged breaches of ethics at the networks.Requests deniedThe court denied requests for a preliminary injunction involving alleged violations of the International Broadcasting Act, Administrative Procedure Act and Pack’s fiduciary duties as head of USAGM and alleged activities in excess of his authority.USAGM did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.“Editorial independence and journalistic integrity free of political interference are the core elements that sustain VOA and make us America’s voice,” VOA acting director Elez Biberaj said.“A steady 83% of VOA’s audience finds our journalism trustworthy. There are few, if any, media organizations that can claim such trust,” Biberaj added.Attorneys for the Department of Justice argued in a filing last week that the free speech protections of the First Amendment do not apply to VOA journalists because they are federal government employees, but Howell strongly disagreed.She said the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving Pack and his aides “violated and continue to violate” the First Amendment rights of VOA journalists “because, among other unconstitutional effects of their actions, they result in self-censorship and the chilling of First Amendment expression.”Howell cited an investigation into VOA’s White House correspondent Steve Herman, saying it “imposes an unconstitutional prior restraint not just on Herman’s speech, but also on the speech of Chao and other editors and journalists at VOA and the networks.”The court will rule later on the full complaint filed against USAGM.VOA’s Serdar Cebe.One of those, Serdar Cebe, an anchor who hosted two shows, including the Turkish division’s flagship, “Studio VOA,” was due to fly to Istanbul on Sunday after his grace period ended without a visa renewal.Cebe was aware other colleagues at VOA had lost their J-1 visas but said he did not become worried until the end of August, when his service chief suggested the journalist prepare for bad news.“I was shocked as I did not see that coming. I thought that the U.S. was the champion of the world for the freedom of press and that I would never find myself in a situation where a journalist could be expelled from the VOA due to a visa issue,” Cebe said in an email exchange.Journalist sees biasGrace Oyenubi, a Nigerian journalist who worked for VOA’s Hausa Service, also said the lack of visa renewals seemed biased.“I just feel it’s discrimination. It’s discriminatory,” she said, adding that she passed “vigorous” security checks before being hired by VOA.The loss of her visa has repercussions for Oyenubi’s family. Her husband, whose visa is tied to Oyenubi’s, had to leave his job and they could be forced to uproot their 7-year-old son, who has been to schools only in the U.S.Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, in September proposed a bill to grant a temporary extension to journalists affected by the J-1 delays.A spokesperson for Merkley told VOA the senator “is continuing to push his Republican colleagues to stand up and support free, fair and independent journalism at USAGM.”The spokesperson added, “Senator Merkley is hopeful that January will mark the beginning of a new chapter for USAGM, for the journalists wronged by USAGM, and for press freedom around the world, and he will continue to do all that he can to support those efforts from the Senate.”

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