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Trump’s Threat to Press Freedom Is Global

One of the largest news networks in the world is in danger of being turned into a propaganda tool for Trump.

Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in Bedminster, New Jersey, on August 7, 2020.

Conservative filmmaker Michael Pack is a true believer in Trump’s version of a global war of ideas, as was made evident by a recent editorial penned by the Trump loyalist. That is likely why the Senate confirmed his appointment in June as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), one of the largest news networks in the world. USAGM runs a number of state media and technology organizations, including Voice of America (VOA), Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Office of Cuba Broadcasting (which oversees Radio Televisión Martí) and the Open Technology Fund (OTF), which promotes internet access around the world.

Pack is the former president of the conservative Claremont Institute think tank, and has worked on projects with former Trump political strategist and former executive chairman of the Breitbart News Network, Stephen Bannon. The appointment of Pack to this vast international media agency has stoked fears in journalists and activists that the Trump administration might use this confirmation to recast the federal agency, and the media networks it operates, into a consolidated right-wing mouthpiece for the president, amplifying the hate and chaos Trump’s presidency has bred domestically onto a global stage already ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and rife with economic and political uncertainty.

The concerns seem well founded. First, Pack’s aides ordered the broadcasters supervised by his agency to “freeze” all staff promotions, new hires and other contractual obligations. All decisions were to go through him as CEO. Within one week of taking over the running of the USAGM’s vast global network, Pack removed the top chiefs of five of its news organizations, as well as the head of the OTF. The chief editors of Voice of America resigned in protest.

Pack then dissolved the bipartisan boards that governed and advised media services and replaced board members with political appointees of the Trump administration. Toward the end of the Obama administration, a provision was enacted that replaces the former bipartisan board structure with an advisory board elected by the president. While the Obama administration saw the move as a way to make the agency more efficient, critics of the Trump administration worry that the restructuring gives the new chief executive more unilateral power than previous leaders.

Pack also announced the agency would not renew visas for some foreign agency employees in order to “improve management and protect national security,” according to a statement from USAGM. Many of the journalists affected by this policy bring critical language skills, and some could actually be endangered if deported.

Trump’s increasingly authoritarian regime is tightening its grip on the publicly funded media agency. This slash-and-burn technique has been a tried-and-true element of Trump’s political arsenal. Attacks on the press and wholesale restructuring of regulatory and safety net agencies are part of a broader effort to isolate the United States on the international stage, and breed a level and type of confusion that forces a power vacuum which centralizes authority over U.S. institutions into the hands of the executive branch. These strategies mirror the vision of Pack’s ally and friend, Steve Bannon.

Craig Aaron, co-CEO at the national media rights organization Free Press, says that Pack’s appointment is a danger to U.S. democracy and democracy around the world. “His short time as head of the agency has been even worse than advertised — and he was advertised as a Steve Bannon crony unfit for the job,” Aaron said in a statement. “In a matter of weeks, he has abused the power of the position and is quickly undoing any reputation the agency had for independence and impartiality, seemingly pursuing political vendettas, knocking down firewalls, and sacking the experienced journalists and technologists doing important and independent work.”

While the strategy may be domestic, the impact on digital rights and freedom will definitely be felt around the world. When Pack fired the entire OTF leadership, he froze more than $10 million already pledged to internet freedom projects this year. OTF has become integral infrastructure for politically repressed communities worldwide. More than 2 billion people in 60 countries rely on OTF-supported tools like Signal and Tor to connect securely with privacy to the internet. Two-thirds of mobile devices around the world use some piece of OTF-supported technology. By bringing the organization to a standstill, Pack has placed people living under authoritarian regimes who rely on the organization to evade surveillance, navigate censorship and protect their human rights at risk.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and 17 leading U.S.-based internet freedom organizations filed an amicus brief which successfully urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to rule that Pack violated the First Amendment right of association and assembly in U.S. law when he replaced OTF’s president and bipartisan board with political appointees. The U.S. appellate court in Washington temporarily blocked the new USAGM chief executive from installing his appointees.

Perhaps the biggest concern for activists is that the USAGM could become a megaphone for President Trump’s authoritarian white supremacy and nationalism. If you are among those that fear these media outlets could be used to stoke the rise of anti-globalist white nationalism through deliberate propaganda at an international scale, you’re not alone.

But, while the threat posed by Pack’s appointment is real and urgent, this isn’t the first time the USAGM has been positioned to promote U.S. propaganda. Some critics, like Max Elbaum, a radical historian and author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, say the agency was founded with an empire-building agenda, and was never truly independent in the first place.

“The purpose of VOA has always been to be propaganda for whatever America’s interests were at the time, oscillating between crude and more sophisticated propaganda,” Elbaum told Truthout. “This is simply another oscillation, a dangerous one, but one with real precedent.”

This sentiment is borne out when you examine the agency’s history. The USAGM, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors, describes itself as an independent agency of the United States government with a mission to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” But, the Broadcasting Board of Governors only became an “independent agency” in 1999. Prior to that, it was called the United States Information Agency (USIA), established by President Eisenhower in 1953 to “understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest.” Influence has always been integral to the mission of the USAGM, which has its roots not in journalism but in public relations and propaganda.

VOA’s pro-American radio broadcasts were launched as part of the World War II war effort in 1942, with a more official U.S. propaganda program launched in 1946. These forms of soft-power diplomacy grew to include multifaceted messaging campaigns using radio broadcasts, libraries sponsored by the United States Information Service (the overseas name of the USIA), and the publication and distribution of leaflets and other literature in reaction to the global spread of communism.

Then, in 1952, Eisenhower convened a Committee on International Information Activities, which focused on Cold War propaganda efforts that targeted foreign populations with “psychological warfare” to achieve strategic influence. Under Eisenhower, all information activities were transferred from the State Department to the independent USIA in 1953. As the agency gained some measure of independence from the U.S. government, it also gained a mix of state actors and staff journalists committed to freedom of the press.

Though the USIA was still a neoliberal and anti-communist agency, many staff journalists did attempt to provide unbiased and fair reporting. These attempts often met with pushback: In early 1953, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the godfather of the investigations that hunted communists and other dissidents, joined the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigation, and immediately turned the committee’s attention to the Voice of America broadcast network, claiming it was rife with communists, sexual deviants and hippies.

Today, USAGM outlets remain a mix of journalists and state actors. Indeed, in nations with broken or highly censored news media that have been undermined by authoritarian governments or political instability (at times caused by U.S. intervention), these outlets can be as close to a free press as many residents can get.

Meanwhile, right-wing elements, including the current president of the United States, continue to attack the USAGM.

Whether you believe these U.S.-backed media outlets are trusted and authoritative independent global news sources soft-pedaling democratic values for the good of all, or that they are part of our national security infrastructure delivering overt propaganda, the fact is the U.S. has been in the worldwide propaganda business for more than 80 years. It might be time to reassess that strategy.

The U.S. narrative has developed in a centuries-old dance between independence, isolationism and imperialism. Rather than simply choosing to remain a mythical media institution that promotes an imaginary democracy that never truly existed, this political moment of global uprising gives Congress, the courts and civil society activists the opportunity to reinvent the agency beyond the authoritarian imaginings of Trump, Bannon and Pack. While the USAGM cannot run from its history, it can run toward a future that acknowledges the past and fulfills its mandate as power’s watchdog, not its lapdog.

“As an agency with its roots in producing propaganda, it’s crucial that the U.S. Agency for Global Media demonstrates transparency and independence,” Aaron said. “Pack has trashed that and unless Congress or the courts step in it will only get worse.”

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