"It is appalling that the VOA's new boss could be so reckless about the safety of journalists," said PEN America.
Dozens of foreign journalists are expected to be sent back to their home countries from the U.S. following a decision on Thursday by the newly appointed head of the federal government's global news agency to not renew their visas.
As Common Dreams reported, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) was taken over last month by Michael Pack, a close ally of Steve Bannon, former advisor to President Donald Trump.
The new visa rule was announced three weeks after Pack purged several top career officials from Voice of America (VOA) and other news agencies overseen by USAGM in what one former employee called a "Wednesday night massacre."
Colleagues of the foreign journalists who will be affected by the decision expressed concern that many could face retribution for their work if they are repatriated to countries hostile to the United States or to press freedom.
"Many are likely to face repercussions, some very severe," Matt Armstrong, a former member of Broadcasting Board of Governors—which oversaw USAGM until Pack took over—told NPR Thursday.
PEN America said the decision amounts to a "betrayal" of reporters who have worked for years for the agency, which promotes American-friendly coverage of world events and is seen by progressives as a vehicle for U.S. propaganda.
"This reported decision puts the lives of intrepid, free-thinking foreign journalists at risk," said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of the organization. "Many of these journalists have worked with VOA precisely because it offers them the opportunity to report stories that they cannot tell in their home countries without risk of severe punishment. If these journalists are forced to return home, some of them will be greeted with jail cells or worse. It is appalling that the VOA's new boss could be so reckless about the safety of journalists."
Laura Rosenberger of the Alliance for Secure Democracy tweeted that "xenophobia" is the only rationale for threatening journalists' ability to remain in the United States.
The gutting continues. There is no rationale, other than xenophobia, for this move. https://t.co/RHjYe9xelt— Laura Rosenberger (@Laura Rosenberger) 1594296730.0
The decision is in line with the Trump administration's position on limiting work visas, supposedly in the interest of preserving jobs for Americans. Foreign journalists are particularly needed as employees of USAGM's news agencies because of their foreign language skills. One VOA journalist told NPR that more than 100 employees in the agency's foreign language service could be forced to leave.
Another employee told The Guardian that the decision to not renew the visas follows a significant change in tone in Pack's regular communications with the agency and the press. Press releases from USAGM now contain anonymous praise for the new director.
"It is a bit Dear Leader-like, isn't it?" the employee told The Guardian. "For him to say that he's trying to improve morale and at the same time he's sending Voice of America journalists back home to places like Thailand, or Cambodia, or China. How in the world is that going to improve employee morale when you're sending people home, perhaps to their deaths? And that's not hyperbole."
Norm Eisen, co-founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), compared the move to ICE's recent decision to order international students back to their home countries if the American colleges they are attending move to an online-only model in the fall.
This is an outrage—the journalism equivalent of the visa policy that Harvard & MIT are suing about. Trump & gang… https://t.co/wNC3EuVDrL— Norm Eisen (@Norm Eisen) 1594296308.0
"Trump and gang are looking at the possibility of losing and are vandalizing the joint on the way out," Eisen tweeted. "For some of these journalists, a death sentence."