By Bill Gertz
May 23, 2019
The official Voice of America radio has fired two more reporters for their role in a broadcast interview with a dissident Chinese billionaire amid charges radio executives caved to Chinese government pressure in canceling the broadcast midstream.
Fred Wang and Robert Li, veteran VOA reporters with the Chinese language branch, were notified May 15 by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the entity in charge of VOA, that they were terminated as a result of the 2017 interview with Guo Wengui.
Guo is an exiled Chinese billionaire living in New York who has been targeted by Beijing through cyberattacks and influence and propaganda campaigns aimed at discrediting his anti-Chinese Communist Party activities. Pressure from Beijing forced Twitter, Facebook, and Google to block his access to social media.
Beijing also has enlisted American business leaders with ties to China to try and force Guo's repatriation, including casino magnate Steve Wynn, who provided President Trump with a letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping asking Trump to forcibly send Guo back to China.
Earlier, the USAGM fired Sasha Gong, VOA's Mandarin language division chief who arranged the April 17 live interview with Guo. Guo once had access to intimate details of high-level corruption within the Chinese Communist Party and has been revealing them in online broadcasts for the past two years.
The Guo interview had been scheduled for three hours but was cut off after an hour and 19 minutes following protests from the Chinese Embassy in Washington to VOA and the State Department.
The VOA did not respond to an email request for comment on the latest firings.
In the past, a spokesman for the radio agency denied VOA caved to Chinese government pressure and claimed the interview violated their guidelines.
Gong was dismissed for failing to follow orders and failing to supervise others in following orders. Wang was fired for failing to follow orders and for broadcasting a short video clip provide by Guo that VOA had directed not be aired. Li was fired for not cutting off the interview when directed by a VOA official.
All three denied the charges and said they were unfairly targeted by VOA leadership.
"I feel that the agency scapegoated me to cover their blunder," said Li, who provided technical support for the Guo interview. He believes VOA damaged the broadcaster's reputation by caving to Chinese pressure in canceling the Guo interview.
When ordered to unplug the Guo interview, Li, who was in charge of an internet broadcast team, asked the manager who made the request to provide a written order, and thus was fired unfairly, he said.
Wang, who was the co-anchor for the interview with Gong, was defiant. "I feel honored to be targeted by the Chinese government," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "This is the high point of my 30-year professional life as a journalist."
Meanwhile, VOA has come under fire for apparently censoring remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on China.
VOA's Mandarin service failed to report comments critical of Chinese human rights violations during a Pompeo speech on American foreign policy in California May 11.
According to the online watchdog BBG-USAGM Watch, the Chinese service was the only radio among official government broadcasters that reported on the Pompeo speech. But the Mandarin service failed to mention his critical remarks on China.
The secretary of state said in the speech that "the Chinese Communist Party has detained more than one million Chinese Muslims in labor camps, and it uses coercion and corruption as its primary tools of statecraft." The comment was left out of VOA's report.
VOA also did not respond to a request for comment on the apparent censorship of the Pompeo speech.
The firings and censorship highlight the Trump administration's apparent inability to initiate America First foreign policy reforms within the government's official broadcasters.
The government spends around $750 million annually on radio broadcasts that have been criticized for not promoting American policies.
Critics have charged the official and semi-official radio corporations are poorly structured for the information age and lack good managers.
VOA's director, Amanda Bennett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is married to former Washington Post publisher Donald E. Graham, who is chairman of Graham Holdings, an international educational subsidiary with business ties to China.
"I can sense so much personal hatred from Amanda Bennett," Gong told the Free Beacon. "It is inconceivable that someone rich and powerful like her can be so determined to deprive livelihood from a few immigrant reporters who devoted decades of their professional lives to Voice of America."
Pompeo told a House subcommittee in March that the VOA and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which was renamed the USAGM, had become politicized and needed new leadership.
"It still has a leadership challenge, because we all know the history of the board and how it came to be fractious and had become political," Pompeo said in March 27 testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.
"We still have not resolved that situation, and I would urge to get a CEO of that organization in place so that the BBG will have the right leadership so they can do the traditional mission, perhaps in a different information environment than we did back in the Cold War, but can perform its function in a way that is important and noble and reflects the enormous resources that American taxpayers have put towards that," he said. "I'm very concerned about it."
VOA conducted four inquiries into its canceled Guo interview, including a probe by a team in Beijing, another by a Washington law firm, and a third by former University of Maryland professor. The inquiries confirmed VOA management claims that the Guo interview did not meet journalistic standards.
The State Department inspector general also investigated but its results were unknown.
The official in charge of the probe, Jeffrey Trimble, delayed issuing a judgement on the matter for six months and eventually retired. His successor, Grant Turner, an accountant with no journalistic experience, was the official who made the decision to fire the three VOA broadcasters.
Gong said Turner told him that VOA management could not prove she violated journalistic rules and thus she was fired for insubordination, although she said management could not provide evidence of an order that she disobeyed other than a spoken directive.
Two other VOA employees were disciplined in the case. Huchen Zhang, who was demoted, and Yang Chen were eventually allowed to return to work.