Voice of America Refuses to Disclose Review of Deleted Work by Former VOA Freelance Reporter Questioned in Ukraine and Arrested in Poland for Alleged Spying for Russia
Voice of America refuses requests to disclose the results of its review of VOA news reports by its freelance reporter.
USAGM Watch Commentary
The management of the Voice of America (VOA)–the U.S. government-funded and managed international media outlet–has refused requests to disclose the results of its prolonged review of VOA news reports filed in 2020-2021 by its former freelance reporter. Nearly eight weeks ago, VOA removed from the VOA English News websites Pablo González’s reports following the journalist’s arrest by the Polish authorities for alleged spying for Russia. He was arrested in Przemyśl, eastern Poland near the border with Ukraine, around February 27, 2022 after being earlier detained and questioned in Ukraine by the Ukrainian security service and asked to leave the country. The journalist’s Spanish lawyer has strongly denied the spying accusations and insists that González is completely innocent, as do other journalists who know him and his Basque family. Polish media reports said a second unnamed journalist was also arrested in Poland, but the Polish opposition paper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that prosecutor’s evidence about the alleged spying appears weak. A Polish court denied a request by authorities to keep the second journalist under detention. The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees VOA, has not responded to a request for comment.
A March 9 report by VOA said that Pablo González, a Spanish journalist also known by his Russian name, Pavel Rubtsov, “denies spying for Russia.” But since then, the VOA management has refused to answer further questions after removing his reports from VOA English news websites and social media pages. His video reports have not been restored by VOA, nearly four weeks after they had been removed.
In a separate statement issued on March 7, 2022, the Voice of America management appeared trying to distance itself from the arrested journalist. Pablo González had filed reports for VOA, which other broadcasters re-voiced for him in English, an indication that his reporting on Russia-related news was highly valued by VOA editors.
In the March 7 statement, however, the VOA management went to great lengths to distance itself from González, even though it regarded him earlier as an expert contributor to VOA’s news programming with special knowledge of Russia.
Voice of America [March 07, 2021] Statement on Arrest of Freelance Journalist by Polish Authorities
The allegations pertain to someone who would have had no direct relationship with the Voice of America; no VOA issued credentials; and who provided only a small number of stories to VOA, and over a fairly short time frame.
Gonzalez is a freelance journalist based in Europe who has provided content to a number of media outlets, including VOA. As a freelancer, his services were arranged through a third party company used by news organizations around the world. Again, he was never a VOA employee; nor did he have a contract directly with VOA.
Gonzalez ultimately appears to have submitted six stories to VOA from October 2020 to July 2021. He also provided some camera operator work last month [February 2022] in Ukraine. Given his indirect relationship with VOA, we understand that he never had VOA media accreditation; a press pass from or facilitated by VOA; or even a formal assignment letter.
Consistent with standard policy, upon being made aware of his arrest, VOA notified its security office. While VOA is currently unaware of any information that would confirm the allegations against this freelancer, out of an abundance of caution, VOA has removed all of Gonzalez’ content from its websites and social media accounts and is thoroughly reviewing the stories. VOA will provide any additional details that is able to provide at a future date.End of Voice of America Statement on Arrest of Freelance Journalist by Polish Authorities
The VOA management’s statement, written in a language more typical of a government bureaucracy than a news organization, appears to try to create a distance between VOA and the reporter, even though the relationship seemed quite close and was promoted by VOA through the re-voicing of his reports in English using another broadcaster.
The VOA management’s statement seems misleading also on other points. VOA managers and most VOA reporters who are not freelancers are U.S. federal government employees.
Even if González had no formal employment contract, VOA’s audiences do not know whether a particular news report is produced by a staff member or a freelancer.
The same standards are expected from all, regardless of the employment status. Whether a Voice of America news report is written by a staff correspondent, a freelancer, or consists of material from Reuters, AP, or other news agencies, by U.S. law, it must meet all requirements under the VOA Charter for accuracy, balance, and comprehensiveness.
By minimizing its relationship with the reporter, VOA managers may be trying to avoid transparency and the need for accountability. VOA and USAGM executives may also want to limit publicity and avoid taking any necessary actions, whatever the results of the evaluations of the reporter’s work may have been.
Refusal to comment may also suggest that VOA and USAGM may be trying to protect current and former senior VOA and agency leaders from negative publicity.
In 2013, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the agency in charge of VOA as ”practically defunct.” Some of the same executives and managers still occupy key positions. In 2014, the agency issued statements and VOA posted some reports which lending support to Vladimir Putin’s false propaganda claims regarding the illegal annexation of Crimea.
Pablo González’s name and his arrest do not appear to have been mentioned in any online statements by VOA and USAGM officials in connection with International Press Freedom Day on May 3 and VOA’s 80th-anniversary observances.
Acting VOA Director Yolanda López, described on the VOA public relations website as a “native of Barcelona, Spain,” spoke at some of these events.
Earlier this month, López delivered the keynote address at the Academic Conference on the Safety of Journalists during the “UNESCO World Press Freedom Global Conference” at Punta Del Este, Uruguay. According to a VOA news release,” she pointed to the ‘unprecedented change’ in the press freedom environment during VOA’s 80-year history and the challenges media face each day in reporting the news.”
“Establishing safety protocols and protecting our journalists is certainly something we can do,” López said. “But we cannot control some of the hostile rhetoric targeting journalists around the world.” The VOA public affairs office would not provide a specific answer whether she mentioned Pablo González, who worked as a freelance journalist for the Voice of America and is also a native of Spain.
While VOA managers choose silence, the International Press Institute (IPI) issued a statement on April 28 calling “on Polish authorities to provide further and sufficient justification for the continued detention of journalist Pablo González on espionage charges.” IPI also said that: “His nearly two-month detention has been characterized by a lack of transparency and a lack of access to legal support.”
IPI, according to its website, “is an association of media professionals representing leading digital, print and broadcast news outlets in nearly 100 countries … conducting direct advocacy with governments [and] raising awareness on violations of media freedom….” The organization was established in 1950 at a gathering at Columbia University in New York to defend press freedom. The current IPI chair is a South African journalist, Khadija Patel. An earlier IPI report, dated February 28, “Poland: IPI urges release of Spanish journalist detained near Ukraine border. Security services urged to provide justification for arrest,” included more information about González and statements from his supporters who insist that he is innocent.
A later IPI report, dated April 25, “Poland: Further justification needed for journalist Pablo González’s continued detention. IPI expresses concern about lack of transparency and apparent violation of right to legal aid,” claimed that the Polish authorities may be denying the journalist legal aid.
Asked whether the Voice of America management made any inquiries about González, the VOA spokesperson refused to comment, a curious position by an organization that claims to be journalistically independent and supportive of government transparency and press freedom abroad.
VOA English central newsroom reporters were urged to contact the VOA public relations office and to do their own investigative reporting on the conditions of González’s arrest in Poland, but there has been no such VOA reporting in recent weeks.
Since his detention, González has had little access to legal support and little to no contact with family or the outside world. His wife, Oihana Goiriena, told IPI she had only been able to speak to him once, on the morning of his arrest on February 28. His lawyer has not had any direct contact with the journalist since his arrest, as his status as a lawyer has not been accepted by Polish authorities, IPI reported.International Press Institute, “Poland: Further justification needed for journalist Pablo González’s continued detention. IPI expresses concern about lack of transparency and apparent violation of right to legal aid,” April 25, 2022, https://ipi.media/poland-further-justification-needed-for-journalist-pablo-gonzalezs-continued-detention/.
IPI also reported after Polish media reports that the Polish authorities have charged “with spying for Russia” a second, yet unnamed “journalist who is an acquaintance of Pablo González.” According to the IPI news release, the female journalist “has reportedly denied the charges,” and a Polish court refused to approve the authorities’ request for her detention. The statement repeats the conclusions of the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza report. Gazeta Wyborcza does not seem to know the name of the second journalist. It identifies González as “Pablo G.” and blurs his photograph because under Polish law suspects are presumed to be innocent and cannot be identified until they are convicted in a court trial.
Opposition media in Poland are highly critical of the current Polish government and question the professionalism of its security services. While Poles remain divided in their views about the competency of the current government, the vast majority of people in Poland, both backers and opponents of the current government, strongly support Ukraine’s struggle to defend their country from Putin’s war of aggression and have welcomed more than a million Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, by giving them shelter in their private homes. Poland is one of the largest providers of aid to the Ukrainian government and to Ukrainian refugees.
According to Ukrainian and other media reports, the Voice of America freelance reporter detained in Poland was earlier in trouble with the authorities in Ukraine. “In early February, Gonzalez was interrogated by Ukrainian security forces, accused of being a ‘pro-Russian’ for his work with Gara [Basque] newspaper but was released shortly afterwards and asked to leave the country,” a statement issued by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said. IFJ and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) have called for González’s release.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media management has not commented on the conditions under which VOA’s former freelance journalist is being held, or on the reasons for his arrest in Poland.
Asked to share the results of the Voice of America’s review of Gonzalez’s reports removed from the VOA News website in early March, a VOA spokesman responded on May 4:
At this time, we have nothing new to report… .Voice of America spokesman responding on May 4, 2022 to a request for information whether VOA has completed its review of Pablo Gonzalez’s work and plans to restore it on the VOA News website and VOA’s social media pages.
VOA and USAGM senior executives, current VOA acting director Yolanda Lopez and current USAGM acting CEO Kelu Chao, were in charge of VOA English and foreign language VOA news programs when most of González’s reports for VOA were posted online and on social media.
In a separate controversy, unconnected with González, López and Chao were in charge when VOA employed earlier another journalist from Spain. The other journalist had previously worked for the Russian state media channel RT and appeared proud of his reporting for RT from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
The Washington-based journalist’s VOA contract was not renewed during the brief time USAGM CEO was Trump appointee Michael Pack, who had served at the agency only a few months in 2020 and into January 2021. Pack criticized VOA and USAGM managers and former VOA directors for mismanaging the hiring of staff and staff security.
They in turn accused him of trying to interfere with VOA’s journalistic content. Pack countered that he was trying to stop violations of the VOA Charter, including examples of VOA broadcasting partisan U.S. presidential election campaign video ads in 2020.
An Office of Personnel Management (OPM) report released in 2020 by Pack detailed years of assessments of deficiencies at the agency and its failure to comply with numerous standards involving “personnel suitability and vetting programs,” but Kelu Chao rejected Pack’s accusations. After Pack resigned in January 2021 when President Biden took office, Chao immediately reinstated several managers whom he had suspended.
In June 2021, Russian journalists working for Meduza, a Riga, Latvia-based independent online news site, harshly criticized the Russian Service of the Voice of America for reporting inaccurately that Meduza was closing down due to pressure from President Putin. They called the VOA Russian Service report “irresponsible and amazingly stupid.”
Under Chao and former VOA director Amanda Bennett, Voice of America managers employed several journalists who previously worked for state media outlets in Putin’s Russia and Lukashenko’s Belarus. One VOA Russian Service TV anchor and reporter working at the VOA headquarters in Washington, DC was discovered to have produced before his employment by VOA Russian language videos with anti-U.S. propaganda, conspiracy theories, and themes, which critics described as antisemitic.
After senior VOA and USAGM leaders were alerted to the reporter’s pre-VOA employment anti-American propaganda videos, he was reportedly allowed to continue working for the VOA Russian Service in Washington for several more months until his contract expired.
These older controversies at the VOA headquarters in Washington, D.C. are not connected with González’s freelance work from Europe for VOA.
A search of Russian state media English language websites did not produce any results for reports either by him or about him. Russia’s RT English website has not posted an online text report about his arrest in Poland, according to results of a Google search.
However, the RT Spanish website did carry short text news reports on March 4 and March 17. The March 17 RT Spanish language report included a 4-minute video featuring a Spanish lawyer and a Spanish journalist defending González. RT Spanish reports did not identify González as a reporter doing freelance work for the Voice of America.
President Biden has nominated former VOA director Amanda Bennett to be the next USAGM CEO. In a 2017 Facebook post, which appeared to have been posted by her while she was the Voice of America director, she seemed to question whether requiring Russia’s RT to register in the United States as a foreign agent was a good idea. The post was later removed. The U.S. Senate has not yet confirmed her nomination. While in charge of VOA, Bennett often expressed her strong admiration for the work done by Yolanda López and Kelu Chao and for their mutual support for press freedom despite numerous reports of management and programming scandals and low employee morale under their and her watch.