Fears of crackdown on US journalism as Trump ally removes editorial 'firewall'

Julian Borger in Washington
·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

The US diplomats’ union has denounced an attempt by a Trump appointee to remove the “firewall” protecting the editorial independence of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other US overseas broadcasters, warning that it marked an attempt to turn them into vehicles for “government propaganda”.

The CEO of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Michael Pack, announced overnight on Monday that he would be rescinding the “firewall rule” insulating journalists from editorial direction from politically appointed management.

The rule, Pack argued, was “in tension with the law and harmful to the agency and the US national interest”.

“The rule threatened constitutional values because the constitution gives the president broad latitude in directing the foreign policy of the United States,” Pack wrote in a message to his staff.

Related: Trump administration steps up efforts to turn broadcasters into propaganda outlets

The move follows several steps already taken by Pack, an ally of the rightwing ideologue Steve Bannon, to exercise greater political control USAGM broadcasters that include Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Since taking up the job in June, he has conducted a purge on senior journalists and refused to renew the visas of foreign reporters.

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) said it stood in solidarity with USAGM staff in opposition to the move

“This action runs counter to the tradition of independence and non-partisanship of US public broadcasting … and tarnishes America’s tradition of a free press that goes back to the founders,” AFSA said in a statement. “Government propaganda has no place in official US news reporting. Truth is the best antidote to foreign disinformation.”

Eliot Engel, the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, said Pack had no legal authority to rescind the “firewall rule”.

“Congress created that firewall by law and although Mr Pack can huff and puff, he can’t blow that wall down. The rule he rescinded yesterday clarified the legal protections. The firewall remains,” Engel said in a statement.

Government propaganda has no place in official US news reporting. Truth is the best antidote to foreign disinformation

AFSA

In another potential threat to independent journalism, the Department of Homeland Security has proposed reducing the length of journalist visas from five years to 240 days with the possibility of just one extension, which would be contingent on a DHS review of “the content that the foreign information media representative is covering in the United States”.

“The proposed changes by the DHS would restrict the ability of independent foreign news organizations from reporting news within the US and could lead to reprisals affecting US journalists in other countries,” the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Matthew Hall, said.

“Both outcomes are unacceptable.”