On January 11, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech to employees of the Voice of America (VOA) news service that was broadcast live, worldwide, through VOA channels. Prior to the speech, a group of anonymous whistleblowers within VOA asked that the speech not be broadcast and that no VOA employees be in the audience. The whistleblowers claimed that the speech was “political propaganda,” “a specific danger to public health and safety,” and “a gross misuse of government resources.” The whistleblowers argued that the speech was in violation of laws and statutes which protect VOA from political meddling.
VOA is an international broadcaster funded by the U.S. Congress. It produces digital, TV, and radio content that is distributed to affiliate stations across the globe. According to the VOA charter, the agency’s news products should be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” and “represent America, not any single segment of American society.”
In his speech, Pompeo accused VOA of “demeaning America,” according to CNN. CNN further reported that in his speech, Pompeo told the VOA employees in attendance that “your mission is to promote democracy, freedom, and American values in the world,” and that “it’s not fake news for you to broadcast that this is the greatest nation the world has ever known.”
Prior to Pompeo’s speech, a group of anonymous whistleblowers within VOA sent a letter to the Director of VOA and the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees VOA, outlining their allegations that the speech was a violation of law and requesting that it not be broadcast.
According to the whistleblowers, Pompeo’s speech violates “the statutory firewall” which “protects VOA journalists and editors from outside political meddling.” The whistleblowers wrote that “A broadcast speech by the outgoing Secretary of State on topics on which he has been widely covered should be seen for what it is: the use of VOA to disseminate political propaganda in the waning days of the Trump administration.” According to CNN’s coverage of the speech, “no questions were allowed after the remarks or the brief on-stage conversation with VOA Director Robert Reilly that followed, giving Pompeo a chance to tout Trump administration policies unchecked.”
The whistleblowers additionally alleged that the speech would be “a specific danger to public health and safety” due to its use of a live audience in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was held in the VOA auditorium, “a rarely used, windowless space,” according to their letter. The whistleblowers claim that the decision to have a live audience was especially “brazen” and “disingenuous” considering that the event was closed to outside media due to social distancing requirements.
Lastly, the whistleblowers claimed that the “event is plainly a publicity stunt devoid of public interest and thus constitutes a gross misuse of government resources.” They noted that eighteen VOA staffers worked on event preparation instead of producing editorial content for VOA services and pointed out that over $4000 in taxpayer funds were spent on the event.
These whistleblower allegations follow a June whistleblower complaint filed by USGAM employees. The whistleblowers alleged they faced retaliation for making protected disclosures “regarding their concerns about official actions primarily taken by Michael Pack,” USAGM’s Chief Executive Officer since June of 2020.Among the allegations against Pack, were allegations that he “‘crossed the firewall’ established to protect the journalistic independence of USAGM’s news networks from interference or influence by political officials.”