MINISCULE, They Are Not: Violations of the VOA Charter



A commentary 

BBG-USAGM Watch publishes this brief commentary by a contributor, in response to a recent email sent to staff by VOA Acting Director Elez Biberaj

Since he was appointed acting director of VOA by Michael Pack, the USAGM CEO, Elez Biberaj has sent a series of emails to staff, who he repeatedly makes clear he considers to be “esteemed colleagues.”

Biberaj strikes a common theme, namely that the “mission” of VOA had not changed.  His rise to the acting directorship coincided with a series of revelations about political bias being reflected in some of VOA’s reporting and social media content under the previous VOA and USAGM senior management team, in which Elez Biberaj was the Eurasia Division director.

Some violations of the VOA Charter, U.S. law, occurred after Biberaj was appointed acting VOA director. These included – though they are really the tip of an iceberg of the earlier ones, some in his division – the video posted by VOA’s Urdu Service about which a USAGM spokesperson said caused “significant concern that the VOA content targeted potential voters in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election”.

In his first note to staff in July, Biberaj stated that “credibility is the greatest asset we have and any breach of our journalistic standards will have a lasting adverse impact.”  

In that July note, he said “our coverage remains fact-based, balanced, unbiased and comprehensive and that the content we produce on a daily basis and across all platforms upholds the VOA Charter and adheres to the highest standards of journalistic integrity.”

A few months ago, BBG-USAGM Watch reported on yet another problem – the revelation that the introduction to a VOA newsroom-originated report on Jill Biden had been translated to describe her as “the future first lady”.  

Whether that translation, which one has to assume was vetted in one of VOA’s major language services, was an innocent mistake or not has never been fully determined.  

What we do know is that the “mistake” remained online on VOA for more than two weeks.  And a management official was quoted as describing this as a “tolerable mistake”

In his email to staff on October 27th, the VOA acting director said this:  “We make every effort to ensure that all content produced on our multiple platforms adheres to the principles of our Charter and high journalistic standards.  But VOA, as any other media organization, is not perfect and mistakes occur.  Given VOA’s complexity and the enormity of the content we produce, these mistakes are minuscule and cannot tarnish the credibility of hundreds of dedicated reporters working around the clock to fulfill our mission.”

Given the extent to which Biberaj has gone in his notes to stress the importance of objectivity and accuracy in VOA content, and against a background of numerous violations of VOA’s own standards and practices in recent years, describing any incident as “minuscule” is pretty outrageous.

It’s clear that Mr. Biberaj would like to hold on to his position, to which he was appointed by Michael Pack, who has been targeted by attacks in ways that far exceed any previous incoming or serving agency head.  

That is true even if one looks back to the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan’s choices for USIA director and VOA directors faced criticisms in the media environment then existing, long before the Internet and social media dominated the landscape.

But Biberaj does both employees and VOA a disservice when he applies the word “minuscule” to the issues seen at VOA and the agency as a whole.

Here is a list of just some of the events in VOA’s recent past that, in theory, would have fallen under the acting director’s broad description of “minuscule”:

Leaving a mistake online for 2 weeks that could have been (and was) seen by many as biased in favor of one presidential candidate was not MINISCULE (or tolerable).

Putting up a video in Urdu that could have been seen (and was) as favoring one presidential candidate was not MINISCULE.

Reporters using their personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to post obviously biased opinions in violation of VOA’s own standards and practices guidelines, is not MINISCULE.

VOA newscasts which are obviously lacking in technical quality, even considering challenges amid the COVID-19 situation, are not MINISCULE.

VOA staffer participating in person, or online, in demonstrations on behalf of personal political interests is not MINISCULE.

Management officials and employees openly displaying in the workplace their political leanings in ways that fellow employees could find intimidating is not MINISCULE.

Federal employees at VOA openly campaigning against the agency’s legally nominated and installed CEO is not MINISCULE.

Employees accepting a bribe from foreign officials is not MINISCULE.

VOA directors, or staff, posing for photographs with foreign leaders (which can send significant messages to VOA’s audiences) is wrong, and not MINISCULE.

VOA federal managers and employees condoning satirical skits lampooning incoming presidents and their families, and critics of the agency, is wrong and not MINISCULE.

There is a long list of others.  And yes, no one is perfect.  But strong leaders need to know when not to minimize and diminish the significance of challenges that VOA and the agency faces.

Describing any of this as “minuscule” raises serious questions about whether the current acting director is capable of appreciating the magnitude of problems, and the extent to which these and other matters further damaged VOA’s reputation and the morale of employees.

VOA Photo: (L to R)- VOA Albanian Service Chief Arben Xhixho, [then] VOA Eurasia Division Director [now Acting VOA Director] Elez Biberaj, [now former] VOA Director Amanda Bennett, Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, in Pristina, September 29, 2017.