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VOA Director Forced Aside In Drive To Embed Trump Loyalists Before Biden Era

Elez Biberaj was acting director of Voice of America until Tuesday, when he accepted a demotion rather than retire.
Elez Biberaj was acting director of Voice of America until Tuesday, when he accepted a demotion rather than retire.

The Trump appointee who oversees the government's overseas broadcasters reassigned the head of the Voice of America on Tuesday as part of a broad effort to install Trump supporters before the Biden administration comes to power.

U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack is intending to name as VOA director Robert Reilly, an ally who briefly served in the job under President George W. Bush nearly two decades ago.

This story is based on interviews with nine people with knowledge of the events described, including current and former USAGM employees and Congressional aides. They sought anonymity given the number of people that Pack has fired in his relatively short time in office. USAGM officials including Pack did not respond to a detailed request for comment.

Pack informed acting director Elez Biberaj of his ouster at his routinely scheduled noon meeting. Biberaj will return to his prior job as head of the Eurasia desk, one of six large regions covered by the global network, rather than resigning or retiring.

Biberaj, a 40-year veteran of the network, was named by Pack over the summer to lead Voice of America on an acting basis, meaning he could be removed at any time. He has walked a fine line ever since. While he never publicly condemned Pack, he frequently reasserted the importance of the independence and credibility of the VOA newsroom even as Pack publicly condemned it and initiated a wave of investigations of its journalists for perceived anti-Trump bias.

Reilly, Biberaj's apparent replacement, has written in strenuous defense of Pack and similarly holds stridently conservative beliefs. Reilly is a former State Department official and author. He has written critically of Islam and gay rights, the latter in a 2015 book titled "Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything."

Pack is also said to be weighing the ouster of the acting leaders of VOA's sister networks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia.

Pack was first nominated by Trump in 2018 but was not confirmed by the Senate until June. The two top officials of the VOA at the time immediately resigned. Pack moved swiftly to fire the remaining chiefs of the networks overseen by the agency and to push out many top executives.

Taken together, VOA and its sister networks reach more than 350 million people overseas, in an effort that both models American notions of free speech and political debate and fills the need for independent journalism in those countries that do not have a free or viable press.

Pack's actions have turned the agency and its networks upside down.

A federal judge recently ruled in a case brought by a top VOA news executive and five suspended executives that Pack had acted unconstitutionally in initiating those investigations. U.S. Judge Beryl Howell wrote that Pack had violated those journalists' free speech protections by violating the "firewall" protecting the newsroom's editorial decisions from the parent agency's interference.

Four contractors lost jobs and an editor was suspended from the Urdu language service. Biberaj did not take action against the other journalists, despite intense pressure to reassign or fire several staffers. Foremost among them: White House bureau chief Steve Herman, who displeased Vice President Mike Pence with reports about his violating Covid-19 protocols at the Mayo Clinic last spring.

Disclosure:This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Media & Tech Editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.