(Washington, D.C.) — PEN America today joined the bipartisan outcry against actions by the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Michael Pack, who declared Monday that he has unilaterally torn down the longstanding “firewall” that separates the professional and credible journalism of the USAGM family of broadcasting agencies from untoward political manipulation. USAGM includes Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, as well as the Open Technology Fund.

“Michael Pack’s tortured explanation for the action he has purported to have taken to de-professionalize the journalism at VOA and other respected news outlets likely violates the 1994 law that created the firewall he now finds inconvenient,” said Thomas O. Melia, Washington director of PEN America. “His vandalism of this important pillar of American foreign policy and soft power must halt before he does lasting damage to the credibility of these outlets traditionally dedicated to independent, professional journalism.”

Last week, PEN America joined 16 other media organizations, led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in filing an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit to enforce the firewall against editorial interference by political appointees overseeing U.S. international broadcasters.

Five suspended executives at the USAGM are suing over Trump appointees’ efforts to unduly influence news gathering operations. These efforts include USAGM CEO Pack firing several employees in August, initiating investigations of “bias” into others in the newsroom, and refusing en masse to renew crucial J-1 visas for VOA’s foreign journalists whose work is a critical part of the reporting that is done in 47 languages.

“The ongoing actions of USAGM CEO Michael Pack are a gross affront to press freedom,” said Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s director of U.S. free expression programs. “For nearly eight decades, exacting separation of government intrusion and editorial independence are precisely what set VOA and its sister broadcasters apart from state-funded outlets in authoritarian countries where broadcasters are obliged to toe a political line, rather than provide real journalism. The journalists of the USAGM deserve the opportunity to do their jobs consistent with their lawfully-established and -protected mission. Once broken, it may never be possible to repair the sacred trust between reporters and their audience. The court must act now in enforcing the firewall against editorial interference before it’s too late.”

The amicus brief argues that the international broadcasters were clearly established to be objective and independent media outlets, protected by both federal law and the U.S. Constitution. “Congress mandated professional journalism of the highest quality, a mandate that law, regulation, and functional norms have protected for decades,” the brief reads “VOA is clearly a First Amendment institution.” 

The brief goes on to cite the long history of providing vital information to audiences throughout World War II and the Cold War. “Since its inception, public broadcast journalism’s challenge has been to win the trust of its audience—to bury any impression that Radio Free Europe, for example, is an American Pravda.”

Learn more about PEN America’s defense of press freedom and our own First Amendment lawsuit to prevent the White House and President Trump from limiting a free press.