A coalition of Voice of America journalists has called for the director of the organization and his deputy to resign, alleging in a letter they retaliated against a veteran reporter for questioning Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In the letter dated 14 January, some two dozen reporters charged that three days previously VOA director Robert Reilly and deputy director Elizabeth Robbins “violated” the organization’s journalistic code by staging “a propaganda event” for Pompeo.
They also said that the violation stemmed from the decision to remove Patsy Widakuswara from her role as VOA White House correspondent, after she tried to question Pompeo as he left the network’s headquarters.
The letter also slammed the “sudden and unexplained” reassignment of Yolanda Lopez, formerly central news director.
VOA is an international broadcast service funded by Congress. In his speech there last Monday, Pompeo praised Michael Pack, a Trump-appointee who heads the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which runs VOA, but has faced criticism for allegedly trying to undermine VOA editorial independence. Pack has denied such claims.
Pompeo also discussed “American exceptionalism” and took questions from Reilly, who the VOA journalists said “did not pose questions submitted by the agency’s main newsroom about recent news events”.
Pompeo touted a free press in America but claimed VOA had been overly negative in past coverage, according to NBC.
Widakuswara posted to Twitter a description of the questioning which allegedly led to her removal from her beat. On 11 January, she wrote, she asked Pompeo “What are you doing to repair [the] US reputation around the world?” and “Mr Secretary, do you regret saying there will be a second Trump administration?”
“The nation’s top diplomat [ignored] my questions,” she wrote.
According to the VOA journalists’ letter, Reilly shouted at Widakuswara: “‘You obviously don’t know how to behave. … You are out of order!’”
Several hours later, the letter said, Robbins removed Widakuswara from covering the White House. According to NPR, Widakuswara was initially placed in a general assignment position and then, the next day, informed she was being assigned to the Indonesian news service, where she worked almost two decades ago.
“Because I wanted to hold Secretary Pompeo to his words, I followed him and shouted two questions,” she tweeted on Sunday. “He ignored me. He has yet to address these issues.
“Hours after the incident, I was informed that I have been taken off the White House beat. Per directive from VOA top leadership, starting today I am reassigned to VOA Indonesia, where I started my career in 2003.”
The Government Accountability Project has since filed a whistleblower complaint, claiming: “It is obvious that this investigation is retaliatory and potentially illegal …The applicable federal statute … prohibits supervisory employees like Ms Robbins from taking personnel actions against employees like Ms Widakuswara who are whistleblowers.”
USAGM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Asked for comment, a VOA spokesperson said: “VOA does not comment on internal personnel matters.”