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Trump Appointee Unconstitutionally Interfered With VOA, Judge Rules

by DAVID FOLKENFLIK | Story Source    Sunday November 22, 2020 - 1:40 AM
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Trump Appointee Unconstitutionally Interfered With VOA, Judge Rules
The chief executive over the Voice of America and its sister networks has acted unconstitutionally in investigating what he claimed was a deep-seated bias against President Trump by his own journalists, a federal judge has ruled.

Citing the journalists' First Amendment protections, U.S. Judge Beryl Howell on Friday evening ordered U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack to stop interfering in the news service's news coverage and editorial personnel matters. She struck a deep blow at Pack's authority to continue to force the news agency to cover the president more sympathetically.

Actions by Pack and his aides have likely "violated and continue to violate [journalists'] First Amendment rights because, among other unconstitutional effects, they result in self-censorship and the chilling of First Amendment expression," Howell wrote in her opinion. "These current and unanticipated harms are sufficient to demonstrate irreparable harm."

POLITICS Voice of America's 5 Months Under Trump CEO: Lawsuits, Bias Claims, And A Sex Scandal Trump nominated Pack to be chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media more than two years ago, and the U.S. Senate finally confirmed him in June. Pack has since turned the agency upside down, firing and suspending top executives, reassigning Voice of America's top standards executive and initiating investigations of journalists for individual stories about the political campaign between Trump and Joe Biden, now the president-elect. Several contractors were dismissed; an editor was suspended.

Attention swung to various arms of VOA, including the French-to-Africa and Urdu language services, and its New York bureau chief. Senior aides to Pack — both political appointees with no experience in journalism — also urged the sidelining of Voice of America's White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, perhaps its most prominent journalist. They claimed, among other things, that Herman's tweets of people relaying criticism of the president betrays bias. Herman remains on the job.

Pack had announced in late October that he was scrapping a so-called "firewall" — protections for the newsroom from political interference. The regulation was written just before he took over by concerned agency officials to codify longstanding traditions that were also invoked by earlier federal laws.

On Friday, Howell pointed to those laws in ruling Pack's actions were unconstitutional.

USAGM has not responded to repeated requests for comment about the decision, but the director of VOA did.

"Editorial independence and journalistic integrity free of political interference are the core elements that sustain VOA and make us America's voice," Acting VOA Director Elez Biberaj said in a statement Saturday in response to the judge's ruling.

"A steady 83% of VOA's audience finds our journalism trustworthy. There are few, if any, media organizations that can claim such trust. I am proud of our journalists who continue to uphold VOA's traditions of providing our audience with accurate, objective and comprehensive reporting."

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