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Trump Administration Forced Foreign Journalists Out Of VOA To Score Political Points


Last summer, editors at Voice of America noticed they couldn't get the Trump administration officials who ran VOA's parent agency to approve any visa extensions for foreign journalists who work for the international network. Scores of its journalists had to scramble to figure out where they could live and work during a pandemic and a recession. Now NPR's David Folkenflik has obtained documents that show the real story. David, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: What did you discover?

FOLKENFLIK: So it helps to know who is running this parent agency. It's a guy named Michael Pack. He was appointed by President Trump, took over this parent agency back in June.

Voice of America is an international broadcaster funded by the U.S. government. It broadcasts news - reliable and credible news abroad. It's supposed to model American democracy in the process. And it does so to about 280 million people in about 47 different languages. To do this, they often rely on foreign nationals. So they hire people through these visas for two years at a time, many of them based here in the U.S.

Then suddenly, these visas stop being approved. We were told this was due to concerns about security procedures, which the parent agency, Michael Pack's agency, said were lax. But these new documents that we got this week under a Freedom of Information Act request showed that those officials basically misled us. They focused very intently on the idea that Americans were being denied jobs and that they should focus squarely on getting these jobs to U.S. citizens instead of foreign nationals.

SIMON: David, is it even possible to always hire U.S. citizens for a network that has to broadcast in 47 different languages around the world?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they're required by policy and practice and I think law to try to do so. But in practical terms, it's very difficult to do. They need to hire people who both have digital proficiency, journalistic experience and also not only mastery of the language, but an understanding of current cultural and political events in those countries.

Take the case which sparked the documents that I was able to use to show what the real motivation was here. It involved a young woman who was working for the Indonesian-language service. She came to this country after an internship with VOA to work for two years on this visa. What she was doing was she was able to perform as a multimedia broadcaster and also appear on the air synthesizing news events.

I talked to her about what it was like to be denied for a visa. And it was the first denial that actually happened, as opposed to just not responding by Michael Pack. Here's what she told me it was like. We spoke on Thursday from Indonesia. And just to be clear, we were on WhatsApp, so the quality of the audio is not that great.

NABILA GANINDA: I was crying, like, in front of my bosses. I was crying because I was like - because my supervisor and my, like, chief was, like, fighting for my stay there. But I don't know what's my mistake. It's like, what have I done that they rejected it, you know?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, in some cases, people were looking at having to return to countries where the regimes are hostile to the U.S. There was one foreign journalist from Pakistan who would have to return home. She had been put on a list by the Pakistani government of people who are viewed as a suspect way as working for a foreign agent - that is, for our government, which the regime there is in some ways hostile to.

SIMON: What's happening now, David?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there are a number of investigations of what Michael Pack did in this regard and others. Additionally, the acting CEO appointed by new President Biden, Kelu Chao, has started to, in a very rapid way, try to work through the backlog of visa requests, get them approved, get people here. Nabila Ganinda, whom we heard from a few moments ago - she is hoping to apply for her job. She's seen that her old job is now posted now as open. And she's hoping to get back on board.

SIMON: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.