Global Media Agency Head Replaces Acting Voice of America Director
This article features our Senior Counsel David Seide and was originally published here.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO brought in a conservative author and former government official during Republican administrations to be acting director of Voice of America, replacing a 40-year veteran of the agency.
The removal, first reported by NPR, is the latest in a series of controversial moves by Michael Pack during his six months in office. Elez Biberaj, who has been at VOA since 1980, was installed as acting director in June 2020 after the director and deputy director resigned shortly after Pack was confirmed. Biberaj will now return to his previous post as director of the Eurasia Division.
“I am profoundly grateful to Mr. Pack for the opportunity to serve, and to former [U.S. Agency for Global Media Chief Operations Officer] André Mendes for recommending me for this important assignment,” Biberaj wrote in a message to staff, shared with Government Executive. “The last six months have perhaps been the most challenging period in VOA’s recent history. Regrettably, this period was characterized by an adversarial relationship between VOA and [the U.S. Agency for Global Media].”
He continued: “Some agency officials failed to respect rules, protocols and processes that I considered inviolable, and displayed an indifference to the disruptive impact their actions and decisions had on VOA’s operations and mission. Attempts to trample VOA’s journalistic independence threatened to undermine our hard-won credibility at a time of global democratic backsliding and increased international threats to America’s values and moral leadership.”
After several news outlets reported it, Pack announced on Wednesday that he will replace Biberaj with Robert Reilly, who served in the federal government for 25 years in a variety of capacities (including two years of active duty), worked at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and was VOA director for a year during the George W. Bush administration. Reilly is currently the director of the Westminster Institute, a think tank that promotes individual freedom and dignity around the world through research that focuses on threats from extremism and radical ideologies.
“Bob’s inimitable experience and proven leadership as both a public servant and a private citizen will greatly benefit the entire agency,” Pack said. “Bob has dedicated his career to – and, indeed, succeeded in – promoting the national interest and advancing U.S. foreign policy. His respect for and profound knowledge of the legacy and traditions of VOA combined with a clear understanding of the network’s charter will ensure that America’s exceptional experience is shared effectively with the world.”
Reilly has also written 14 books on a variety of topics, which include one about how “further institutionalization of homosexuality will mean the triumph of force over reason, thus undermining the very foundations of the American Republic,” and another on “the frightening behavior coming out of the Islamic world.”
Reilly wrote an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal in 2017 arguing that VOA “was never envisaged in its charter as simply a news organization,” but rather as a means to “advance the justice of the American cause while simultaneously undermining our opponents.”
The news that Reilly will replace Biberaj has provoked concerns from outside observers.
“With just 6 weeks left in office, Trump officials aren’t done decimating the civil service,” Chris Lu, former White House Cabinet secretary and Labor deputy secretary during the Obama administration, tweeted on Tuesday. “But it’s actually worse. It’s about destroying the editorial independence of Voice of America and putting a Trump slant on the news distributed around the world.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday that, “Pack should be packing up his office, not packing the leadership of U.S. broadcasting entities with right-wing ideologues and bigots.” He also called on Pack to tell his staff to help President-elect Biden’s transition team “find its footing” at the agency.
David Seide, senior counsel for the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group that represents current and former staff members at the agency, told Government Executive on Wednesday, “This latest ‘personnel move’ eliminates any remaining confidence in Mr. Pack.”
Donald Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post and co-founder of TheDream.us, which helps “Dreamers” graduate from college and be career-ready, spoke to Biberaj’s credibility during his long tenure at VOA. “Elez Biberaj was well-known for his honest VOA broadcasts to Communist Albania,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “When he served as Jim Baker’s translator on the first U.S. official’s visit to Albania, crowds began chanting his name when they heard his voice.”
This news comes less than a week after the Office of Special Counsel determined in its ongoing investigation that there was a “substantial likelihood” that Pack and other top political officials engaged in wrongdoing in their management of the agency.
There have been several lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by Pack. On November 20, a federal judge issued several preliminary injunctions, which prevented Pack from getting involved directly in editorial operations, making personnel decisions about journalists, communicating directly with journalists and editors, and investigating any of their stories, The Washington Post reported. It is not clear if this recent move will violate the court order.
A Biden campaign spokesperson told Vox in June that Joe Biden would fire Pack if he were to win the presidential election. The transition team declined to comment on Biberaj’s removal.
“I strongly believe that it is imperative that VOA uphold its legally mandated editorial independence, free of political pressure, while at the same time live up to its own standards of producing high quality journalism in support of freedom and democracy,” Biberaj wrote to his colleagues. “Only then can VOA truly serve as America’s voice and effectively advance our foreign policy objectives, promote our democratic values, and serve as a model of a free press for the rest of the world.”