WASHINGTON — The chief of the U.S. Agency for Global Media on Monday rescinded a rule that protects news outlets funded by the government, including Voice of America, from federal tampering.
The official, Michael Pack, defended the move as a way to improve management, but critics have expressed concerns that he is turning news outlets under his purview into a pro-Trump public relations arm.
Mr. Pack said the provision, called a firewall, made his agency “difficult to manage.” He added that the news outlets he oversees — which include Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting — “are not commercial news companies.” He said the firewall rule, which prevented him from providing editorial oversight for those outlets, “threatened constitutional values.”
Mr. Pack’s action, announced on Monday night, prompted concern from some lawmakers and former Voice of America officials, who warned that the move could undermine the integrity and authority of U.S.-funded news outlets. The outlets Mr. Pack oversees provide news to over 350 million people across the globe every week, many in censored societies that have no other access to unbiased information.
David B. Ensor, the director of Voice of America from 2011 to 2015, said: “It’s terrible news. The firewall is something that distinguishes Voice of America from authoritarian radio and broadcasting organizations.”
One lawmaker said the law behind the firewall regulation still remains.
“Although Mr. Pack can huff and puff,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel, the New York Democratic who serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “he can’t blow that wall down.”
The concept of a firewall to protect the editorial independence of U.S.-funded news outlets found its origin in the Voice of America charter signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. In 1994, legislators strengthened the editorial independence of these news outlets after passing the International Broadcasting Act.
In June, days before Mr. Pack took over the U.S. Agency for Global Media, its bipartisan board of directors codified editorial protections in federal regulation, which state that a firewall separating the political and editorial sides of the agency is “essential to ensuring the continued credibility and therefore effectiveness of the journalism” of these outlets.
“The firewall articulates clearly that the decisions about who writes what are left to the journalists and not the politicians,” said David Kligerman, who wrote the June regulation and was later suspended from his role as general counsel at the agency by Mr. Pack. “When you look at the state-sponsored broadcasting of nondemocratic regimes such as Russia or China, they lack such protections.”
Mr. Pack’s attempts to control the editorial operations of the news outlets he oversees have prompted a rare bipartisan rebuke of his management.
In one of Mr. Pack’s first moves after taking charge, he fired the heads of the four news outlets and an internet technology nonprofit under his oversight. He also replaced the bipartisan board that supervises the organizations with allies of the Trump administration.
Earlier this month, five employees whom Mr. Pack had suspended sued him and his top aides, claiming they broke the law by repeatedly violating the firewall rule. The lawsuit detailed incidents in which Mr. Pack or his aides tried to exert control on journalists critical of his tenure. One example was an attempt by an aide to investigate Voice of America’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, after he signed a letter in August saying Mr. Pack risked “crippling the news outlet.”
“Michael Pack is turning V.O.A. into a propaganda machine,” said Bricio Segovia, a former White House correspondent for the outlet’s Spanish language television service, “and he’s not even trying to hide it anymore.”