October 31, 2021

Government Accountability Project Applauds Just-Released GAO Report on Management Abuses in 2020 at Voice of America Overseer, the U.S. Agency for Global Media

Trump Political Leadership Repeatedly Breached Firewall Designed to Protect the Editorial Independence of Voice of America and Its Sibling Networks

WASHINGTON— The editorial Independence of Voice of America (VOA) and its sibling networks (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Network, Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Open Technology Fund) is guaranteed by federal law and regulation.  Known as the Firewall, the guarantee is designed to protect the editorial judgment of reporters and editors from political and bureaucratic meddling.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked by the U.S. Senate to assess whether U.S. Agency Global Media (USAGM) management respected the Firewall and protected editorial independence.  USAGM is the overseer of VOA and the other networks.  But as shown in this GAO diagram, the Firewall is supposed to wall off USAGM from the networks.

On October 27, 2021, GAO published its assessment.  Its report reveals multiple examples where, in 2020, USAGM Trump political appointees improperly inserted themselves into the networks’ editorial processes.  The consequences for VOA, network, and some USAGM employees were dire.  They were fired, transferred, or demoted.  Government Accountability Project represented as whistleblower counsel over 30 affected employees.  Fortunately, they were reinstated in 2021, within days of President Biden’s inauguration.

The GAO report is important because it contains in one document an excellent summary of abuses in the last six months of the Trump administration.  Among its highlights:

  • Several USAGM investigations into, or disciplinary actions taken against, VOA journalists undermined VOA’s editorial independence and violated the Firewall, according to VOA officials;
  • When VOA’s Urdu language service produced a video in 2020 that allegedly favored one U.S. presidential candidate over another, VOA began an internal investigation. But USAGM political appointees took over the investigation — which resulted in the termination or suspension of several VOA staff.  VOA officials told GAO that USAGM’s “intervention” adversely affected VOA’s editorial processes and weakened the network’s ability to address problems with editorial content in the future;
  • A senior USAGM official told GAO that personnel actions taken against Radio Free Asia’s former Executive Editor were a clear violation of the firewall;
  • Senior VOA officials told GAO that a political appointee working in the USAGM CEO’s office requested to participate in VOA editorial meetings ahead of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election (the request was ultimately denied).

Government Accountability Project alerted federal oversight agencies and the Congress about these individual abuses as they arose.  Investigations are now underway.  The State Department Office of Inspector General told GAO that it currently has multiple projects opened or planned; new USAGM management told GAO that, in response to mandates issued by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the agency hired three independent experts to conduct a review of the abuse allegations.

Government Accountability Project applauds the GAO report.  It starkly reveals the breadth and depth of the problem.  While the report notes that current USAGM leadership has taken steps to strengthen the Firewall, GAO recommends that Congress consider enacting additional Firewall protection legislation.  Current USAGM management concurs.

Government Accountability Project Senior Counsel David Z. Seide, who represents the victimized employees, said:

“The GAO report is a catalog of misconduct.  The information it reveals continues to shock. It is gratifying to see this review.  Congress must act.”



Andrew Harman, Government Accountability Project Communications Director
[email protected]
202.457.0034 x156

Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.