Taxpayer-Funded Reporter's Demotion After Questioning Mike Pompeo Raises Eyebrows
The newly appointed head of Voice of America, a taxpayer-funded news organization, reassigned White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara on Monday after trying to ask Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after an event at VOA headquarters.
The downgrade, first reported by the Washington Post early Tuesday, was another sign of the alarming transformation of the US agency for global media, the umbrella organization that funds VOA and other US government-backed broadcasters. Although journalistic impartiality should be respected as a role model for the outside world, the government agency under President Donald Trump and his new agency chief Michael Pack has become a political battlefield. Pack, a right-wing documentary filmmaker and long-time associate of former White House advisor Steve Bannon, won conservative commentator Robert R. Reilly to lead VOA last month.
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But if Reilly's goal was to shift the focus of VOA and tighten the grip on the Trump team, it failed. Legislators, including a powerful Republican, spoke out in favor of Widakuswara on Tuesday. And its staff and other observers said the move showed that President-elect Joe Biden must protect the agency's editorial standards and professionalism.
On Monday, Reilly, whose homophobic and Islamophobic writings were scrutinized, hosted Pompeo at VOA headquarters for a live streaming conversation during which VOA staff were not allowed to ask questions. Pompeo told the assembled reporters, "It is not false news for you to send that this is the greatest nation in the history of the world and the greatest nation civilization has ever known."
"This is not the 'America vice' focusing on anything wrong with our great nation," Pompeo continued, according to the Post. "It is certainly not the right place to provide a platform for authoritarian regimes in Beijing or Tehran."
Widakuswara followed the conversation with questions - a common practice for journalists, especially when dealing with great personalities like Pompeo.
"Mr. Secretary, what are you doing to repair the US's reputation around the world?" Asked Widakuswara, who has been with VOA since 2003, regarding last week's attacks on the US Capitol and Trump's challenges for a peaceful transition to a Biden presidency. "Mr. Secretary, do you regret there will be a second Trump administration? “She asked, referring to a statement made after Trump's re-election.
Soon after, she was recalled from her role on the Beat of the White House, people familiar with the matter told the Post. A VOA spokesperson told HuffPost that they would not comment on internal personnel matters.
After Widakuswara lost her position - just before she was scheduled to fly Trump on Air Force One - staff, lawmakers and surveillance groups said it was the Trump administration that was flirting with autocracy.
"The hypocrisy shown by Secretary Pompeo and Michael Pack yesterday and today is just giving ammunition to the same authoritarian leaders and undermining our ability to promote free speech around the world," said Rep. Gregory Meeks (DN.Y.), who Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The White House Correspondents' Association described the VOA's action as an "attack on the first amendment".
On Tuesday evening, Meeks and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the heads of the Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a joint statement saying Widakuswara should be reinstated. Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, a leading Democratic voice on national security, reiterated her appeal in a statement to HuffPost.
"Voice of America is intended to be a source of fact to counter the repression of the free press around the world," said Castro. “This work is more important than ever, especially when President Trump tries a coup and unleashes a deadly uprising in the US Capitol - made possible by administrative officials like Secretary Pompeo. The apparent retaliation against a reporter for asking Pompeo a question is unacceptable and must be reversed. "
Since taking over the agency last summer, Pack has sought to reshape it, removing those in charge of the newsroom, challenging norms designed to protect independent reporting from political influence, removing foreign journalists, and saying his priority is who eradicate alleged biases of its new employees against Trump. Several judges and lawmakers have questioned Pack's control, and Biden has pledged to replace him - but Pack has made plans to keep his allies in place after Trump's tenure by overseeing operations like Radio Free Europe .
A representative from the agency, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, said Widakuswara's demotion had worried staff and fueled fears that the entire agency would be overtaken to permanently sell a federally funded vehicle for pro-Trump views to provide.
The development was evidence of an urgent need for reform, according to a former professional diplomat who was familiar with the agency and who was looking for anonymity in order to speak openly.
"In order to make VOA a propaganda outlet for Trumpism, Pack claims he wants to tell America's story. But Pompeo showed us yesterday how he wants this story - a government that seeks authoritarian rule and refuses to answer questions from the media, a simple hallmark of democracies. Those of us who are interested in the democratic values of the US are ashamed, ”said the diplomat.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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