Some 16 Voice of America journalists will have to return to their native countries in the coming weeks unless the government agrees to either renew their visas or extend grace periods for them to depart, according to congressional aides. Several of the journalists, from China and Indonesia notably, could face difficulties at home because of their work for VOA, the aides said.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, complained Friday that the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA and its sister outlets, had ignored congressional requests for an explanation as to why the usually routine visa renewals had not been processed.
In addition, he said not even the affected journalists had been given details of their status. There are roughly 80 foreign VOA employees in the United States, but the documents of the 16 are among the first to come up for renewal, according to congressional aides who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Engel, D-N.Y., also appealed to the departments of State and Homeland Security to extend grace periods for those journalists whose visas have already expired so they are not forced to leave without having the time to make adequate arrangements.
“It’s unconscionable that a U.S. government agency would create such fear and uncertainty for people whom we asked to do a job," Engel said in a statement. “Congress’s attempts to seek answers from USAGM on this matter have been met with silence. It’s clear that the agency is just trying to run out the clock until these journalists are forced to leave."
Engel blamed USAGM's new chief, conservative filmmaker Michael Pack, for the situation. Pack, an associate of President Donald Trump's former political strategist Steve Bannon, has come under fire from both Democrats and Republicans for major changes he has made to the agency since he took over in June following a contentious confirmation process in the Senate.
“Michael Pack’s failure to seek visa extensions for these journalists means that they must leave the country, some of them going home to nations where governments regularly silence and harass journalists,” Engel said. “Mr. Pack still has time to act to resolve this situation, but make no mistake, he is accountable for what comes next. Any harm that comes to these brave individuals will be a direct result of Michael Pack’s inaction.”
Among Pack's other changes have been purges of various AGM outlets' management, including officials supported by Republicans, the wholesale replacement of their boards and the suspension of funding for some projects. The firings have prompted at least one lawsuit, which remains in litigation.
The moves have increased fears, particularly among Democrats, that Pack intends to turn the agency into a Trump propaganda machine at odds with its congressionally mandated mission to broadcast impartial news around the world.
Pack has defended his moves as necessary to overhaul the agency, which critics have long said is beset by bureaucratic and journalistic issues. That criticism exploded earlier this year when the White House attacked VOA for its coverage of COVID-19.
USAGM did not immediately respond to a query about the visa situation but has previously said it is reviewing the use of so-called J-1 visas for journalists with critical foreign language skills needed to communicate with foreign audiences.