Pushback as Trump appointee tries to control Voice of America
President Donald Trump speaking at the United Nations in 2017. (a katz / Shutterstock.com)

Voice of America's chief vowed Tuesday to defend the broadcaster's journalistic independence after an appointee of President Donald Trump said he was removing a "firewall" that prohibits political interference in US-funded media.

Michael Pack, the new chief executive officer of the US Agency for Global Media, which supervises VOA, Radio Free Asia, Cuba-focused Radio Marti and other outlets, said the president enjoys "broad latitude in directing the foreign policy of the United States."

He said he was rescinding a regulation prohibiting the CEO's editorial involvement that had been set by a previous board, which had supervised US broadcasting until June when the Republican-led Senate confirmed Pack to the newly created position.

The CEO by statute "must be able to ensure that the agency fulfills the 'broad foreign policy objectives' of the United States established by the president," Pack, a documentary filmmaker who has collaborated with former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, said in a statement issued late Monday.

Pack criticized the firewall as hindering his ability to stop stories that may endanger US soldiers or include classified information.

Pack faced criticism even by some Republicans, who said that US law already established journalistic independence at congressionally funded outlets.

"Mr. Pack may be able to repeal a regulation, but he cannot repeal the law," said Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In a message sent Tuesday to the Voice of America workforce, its acting director pointed to 1994 and 2017 laws that prohibited political interference in the "objective, independent reporting of the news."

"Those laws are still in place. VOA continues to operate under the pre-June 15 firewall standards," wrote Elez Biberaj, a veteran journalist originally from the Albanian-language service who took over when Pack fired the director in June.

He said that VOA served as a model of "how a free society treats journalists."

"We will not defeat America's enemies in the war of ideas if we mimic the worst examples of state-funded news outlets," he said.

Trump frequently attacks media coverage he sees as unfavorable and the White House has increasingly gone after VOA, saying that a taxpayer-funded outlet should promote administration policies.

The White House has criticized VOA in particular over its coverage of China's efforts to curb Covid-19 as the administration seeks to blame the pandemic on Beijing's initial inaction.