Journalists sue U.S. broadcasting arm for wrongful dismissal under Trump

Seven foreign journalists working for the U.S. Agency for Global Media who were fired by the Trump administration have sued the agency for breach of contract and wrongful termination.

The journalists argue in their complaints that their careers and livelihoods have been significantly hurt by being fired and are seeking back pay. Most also claim that USAGM deceitfully backdated termination documents to make it appear that the agency was following the proper procedures for how to hasten their departure. Three of the seven who have filed suit, Valdya Baraputri of Indonesia and Paula Alves Silva and Julia Riera of Spain, were forced to leave the country.

The complaints note that Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker who was installed as CEO of government-run media group USAGM in June 2020, expressed his distrust of foreign journalists working for the various broadcast entities under the USAGM umbrella and refused to renew more than 30 of their visas, causing them to lose their jobs. In an August 2020 interview with The Federalist, cited in the complaint, Pack said that being “a journalist is a great cover for a spy” and said that J-1 visa holders might try to “penetrate” USAGM.

Another of the journalists filing suit is Carolina Valladares Perez, a former war correspondent in the Middle East who previously had worked for the BBC, earning high performance reviews and a $4,000 bonus in her work as a broadcast journalist for Voice of America’s Spanish service. After USAGM did not sponsor a renewal of her visa in August 2020, she was soon fired, according to her lawsuit.

“Plaintiff has since disappeared from the news radar, which has had devastating consequences,” her complaint says, noting that she’s only made a few thousand dollars in freelance work since. “With no show or time on-air, it has been extremely difficult to find a position as a news anchor. Over time, the audience forgets about prior on-air presence. Plaintiff has found it nearly impossible to get her career back on track.”

Valladares Perez’s lawsuit, which asks for more than $100,000 in monetary damages, says that the termination “devastated” her career and led to “significant financial, personal and professional harm.”

The U.S. government has not filed a formal response to the complaints, and recently asked the court for an extension.

In a statement, USAGM spokesperson Laurie Moy said: “USAGM leadership has been working since January to build back the agency following actions taken by the previous CEO. Acting CEO [Kelu] Chao and her team are fully committed to seeing this work through. We have achieved a great deal, and continue to work to right any outstanding wrongs.” Moy declined to comment on the specific claims in the lawsuits but said they took the matter “quite seriously.” Pack did not respond to a request for comment.

The seven journalists passed full security and background checks, according to the complaints. Pack gave no evidence that they posed security risks to the country, the lawsuit says.

Some of the journalists who sued USAGM have been offered their jobs back, but others have not due to background investigation protocols and other requirements that haven’t been rolled back during the new administration. All are seeking to recover back pay and related damages, according to one of their attorneys.

The lawsuits, which haven’t been publicly reported, also say that the fired journalists weren’t given an opportunity to defend themselves against vague accusations that they were disloyal to the United States.

“All of this occurred without USAGM ever providing Plaintiff with formal notification of, or facts supporting, any claim or allegation that Plaintiff’s performance had been inadequate, that Plaintiff was untrustworthy or disloyal, or that Plaintiff was a potential spy, and without ever providing Plaintiff with a hearing in which [she] could rebut any such allegation,” Valladares Perez’s complaint alleges.

The complaints, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, also allege that the journalists didn’t receive the required 15 days written notice of termination specified for in their contracts, and that their contracting officer backdated their termination notice in a “deceitful” way.

The journalists have also filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the government’s actions constituted unlawful employment discrimination.

“VOA journalists routinely put themselves at great risk doing their job to report the news from around the world — often from hostile and dangerous places,” said attorney Burt Braverman, who’s representing the journalists. “USAGM’s refusal to make them whole for the losses they suffered, is a real disservice to a group of loyal, committed professional journalists. USAGM needs to do right.”

One of the lawsuits also accuses the agency under Trump of seeking to muzzle them, in violation of the news agency’s independence.

Bricio Segovia, a former VOA journalist, alleges he was retaliated against for asking questions about the visa situation to Mauricio Claver-Carone, who was the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Trump administration.

In the interview, Claver-Carone told Segovia that the White House valued the journalism being done by VOA journalists and that they would have a “conversation” on the visa issues and hoped it would get “resolved as soon as possible.”

The lawsuit alleges that Segovia’s story concerning that interview was sanitized by USAGM, his VOA tweets were taken down and his VOA online account was quickly de-authorized. He was then suspended.

Pack, who had previously made documentaries for PBS, came into the job with the expectation he would shake up the agency. But the journalists allege that his role in reviewing J-1 visa applications on a case-by-case basis played a “decisive” role in personally selecting the journalists that the networks employed and thus breached the journalistic firewall between the networks and their funding parent organization.

While USAGM told most of them at the time that the firings were in “the best interests of the government,” the lawsuits say that they “constituted direct, improper interference by USAGM officials in VOA editorial and journalistic personnel decision-making that was not reasonably necessary, breached Plaintiff’s contract, and violated applicable laws and regulations, including the statutory firewall.”

USAGM, meanwhile, remains in limbo after a turbulent last year under Trump.

Even though advocates for the agency had hoped Biden would make government broadcasting a priority, the White House still has not selected someone to lead it, a Senate-confirmed position. Amanda Bennett, the former director of VOA who resigned shortly after Pack arrived, is being considered to lead the organization, according to four people familiar with the matter. One of them said her nomination could come in the next few weeks. Bennett didn’t respond to a request for comment.

USAGM also hasn’t picked someone to be the director of VOA, the top journalistic job in government broadcasting. Three people familiar with the matter said that at the end of March the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office blocked Steve Capus, the former president of NBC News, from being named director of VOA. Two of the people said that the White House didn’t block him on his merits but instead wants whoever ends up becoming CEO of USAGM to get to pick their own head of VOA. A White House spokesperson declined to comment and Capus didn’t respond to a request for comment.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this report misstated Valdya Baraputri's name.