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Voice of America faces loss of international journalists as new overseer lets visas expire

Without extensions, the agency would lose about 100 of its foreign-language specialists.

by Washington Post Jul 9th 2020 · 3 min read
Voice of America faces loss of international journalists as new overseer lets visas expire

Voice of America, the government-funded international broadcaster, could be facing the loss of many of its international journalists under a new overseer appointed by President Trump.

The new boss, Michael Pack, has so far ignored calls by VOA managers to extend visas held by foreign-born journalists who work at the news agency. This has set off alarms among employees who fear that dozens of employees could lose their jobs, threatening production of VOA’s many non-English-language programs and newscasts.

About 100 Voice of America news employees are not U.S. citizens; they work for the agency in Washington under visas that must be regularly extended or renewed. The journalists are foreign nationals who report stories and produce news reports in many of the 47 languages that Voice of America transmits, such as Mandarin, Persian and Amharic.

With a fresh round of visas expiring this month, Pack — who heads VOA’s parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) — has declined to approve renewals, leaving some employees facing the possibility of returning to their home countries — a daunting prospect given that their reporting has sometimes angered authoritarian governments.

Pack hasn’t communicated his intentions, despite pleas from VOA, people at VOA said.

The visas, known as J-1s, are among several kinds temporarily banned by Trump in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But Trump’s presidential proclamation bans new visas for six months; it’s unclear whether it affects renewals of existing ones.

Pack took over the agency last month after a long and bruising nomination battle in the Senate. Many Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, opposed Pack, Trump’s choice to head the bureaucracy that oversees VOA and other government-funded international broadcast entities, such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia.

In lobbying for Pack’s confirmation, Trump and the White House portrayed Voice of America as an out-of-control news organization that has distributed “propaganda” favorable to regimes in China and Iran — a claim vigorously disputed by VOA.

Within days of taking office, Pack stunned five of the media agencies under his control by firing their top officials via a brief email sent after business hours. VOA’s director and deputy director probably would have been dismissed as well, but they resigned two days before the purge. Pack hasn’t explained his actions.

A VOA spokesman referred questions to USAGM officials, who didn’t return requests for comment.

VOA has used foreign nationals in its newsroom for decades and expends considerable time and effort to recruit them. The individuals are experienced broadcasters and digital journalists; they are also bilingual and are versed in the culture and history of the countries they cover for VOA.

The journalists’ J-1 visas enable them to work in the United States for a period up to several years. People at VOA said renewals have been routine in the past, in part because the journalists have specialized skills that can’t be easily replaced by U.S. citizens.

“We’ve never had a problem with extending [the visas],” said one VOA manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak for the agency. “It’s going to be really difficult to function without them.”

VOA has utilized J-1 visas in the past, for example, to assemble its Somali-language news service. It recruited former Somali broadcasters who had fled to Canada and Britain from the war-torn African nation.

The J-1 visa of a Thai journalist who has been working at VOA since last year expired on July 1, and the USAGM hasn’t responded to requests to approve a renewal, the manager said. The journalist, one of four in VOA’s Thai service, is a Fulbright scholar and has worked for other U.S. news organizations.

“These are people you don’t just walk down the street and bump into” if you have to replace them, the manager said.

last updated: 2020-07-09@20:07