Is Voice of America still a public institution respecting free speech?
BBG Watch Commentary
In the United States the right to petition is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the federal constitution, which specifically prohibits Congress from abridging “the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The most important component of this First Amendment guarantee is the right to make a complaint to, or seek the assistance of, one’s government, without fear of punishment or reprisals. The First Amendment also guarantees the freedom of the press.
An independent American journalist, Matthew Russell Lee, whose reporting has exposed corruption by United Nations officials, has had a professional conflict with another journalist at the U.N., a Voice of America correspondent who also happens to be a U.S. government employee.
Mr. Lee became deeply concerned that an internal action against him by some of his colleagues to expel him from their voluntary association of journalists at the U.N. — a move in which a Voice of America reporter is involved — encourages threats against him from extremists in Sri Lankan who object to his human rights reporting and benefit from the negative publicity generated by the dispute.
Hoping to use his right to petition government officials for a redress of his grievance, Mr. Lee wrote an email to the Voice of America director David Ensor and his deputy Steve Redisch, both high level U.S. government officials, asking them to persuade their reporter at the U.N. to withdraw from the action against him that he believed was putting his own safety at risk. Not receiving a response, Mr. Lee sent another email and then another.
It’s bad enough that U.S. government officials in charge of the Voice of America, a taxpayers-funded media organization that helps to promote press freedom abroad, ignored a complaint from a U.S. citizen and a journalist. But what happened next should be a chilling warning to all Americans and journalists.
VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch sent an email to the head of the UN News & Media Division asking that Mr. Lee’s press credentials at the UN be “reviewed,” which amounts to asking for banning him from working as a reporter at the UN. Mr. Redisch accused Mr. Lee of “frequent, unprofessional and borderline harassing email correspondence.” “Voice of America’s interest in this matter is to insure our correspondents can operate in a professional work environment,” the VOA Public Affairs office responded to a media inquiry about Mr. Redisch’ actions but did not comment on any of the details.
Mr. Redisch admitted in his email to the UN that Mr. Lee has not physically threatened the VOA correspondent.” But for daring to petition his government and annoying government officials like Mr. Redisch, Mr. Lee now faces the prospect of not being able to work at the U.N. and to support himself. His exposes of corruption at the U.N. may cease without an easy access to sources within the U.N. headquarters. Media freedom will suffer worldwide as the U.N. an international organization and Mr. Lee is one of the few reporters exposing waste, fraud and abuse by U.N. officials. Some of the other reporters at the U.N. don’t like him because of his aggressive style, for questioning their ethics, and for revealing internal information from the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA).
Journalists whom Mr. Lee has accused of ethical violations connected to their work and their professional association — charges which they deny — did not try to deprive him of his U.N. press credentials, they only tried to expel him from their professional association. VOA Executive Director Steve Redisch, a U.S. government official, did call for his U.N. press credentials to be revoked. He has set a very dangerous precedent.
Let’s keep in mind that Mr. Ensor, Mr. Redisch and executives of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal government agency which oversees the Voice of America, want to change the decades-old Smith-Mundt Act prohibiting VOA from becoming a domestic U.S. broadcaster. What would happen to media freedom in America if government executives like Mr. Redisch were allowed to use their style of dealing with the public on other American broadcasters and journalists?
Why wouldn’t Mr. Redisch answer Mr. Lee complaint and call him to hear his side of the story? What gives Mr. Redisch the right to ignore a petitioning U.S. citizen? What gives him the right to retaliate if he thinks a U.S. citizen annoys him with “frequent, unprofessional and borderline harassing email correspondence”?
Did Mr. Redisch violate Mr. Lee’s First Amendment rights?
Mr. Redisch was put in charge of reforming VOA programs to Iran. Does his concept of media freedom at the U.N. or in Iran bode well for for this important effort?
Did Mr. Redisch’s management style and his personnel decisions contribute to the reported atmosphere of fear and dismal morale among VOA newsroom staff and correspondents?
Is Mr. Redisch a public official and is the Voice of America still a public institution, or are they no longer respecting the First Amendment under the leadership of the Broadcasting Board of Governors? The BBG has recently threatened its employees with punishment for disclosing internal communications, defined as “deliberative and pre-decisional,” to the media and members of Congress?
Will the BBG do the right thing and order Mr. Redisch to withdraw his complaint to the U.N. against an independent American journalist? Or will the agency continue its attacks on the First Amendment and ruin VOA’s reputation and America’s public diplomacy image abroad? The Voice of America has a proud record of defending and expanding media freedom in countries ruled by dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. VOA journalists do not deserve this kind of management and this kind of negative publicity.