The funding freeze imposed by the Trump administration on the U.S. Agency for Global Media has heavily impacted the protest movement in Hong Kong.
Once an independent agency: The agency, which oversees funding for various international news and information operations such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, has undergone massive changes after President Donald Trump’s recommended CEO assumed office, reported the New York Times.
- Formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), USAGM operates various state-run media outlets under the supervision of the Inspector General of the State Department and the Foreign Service.
- It was previously supervised by a nine-member bi-partisan board; eight were appointed by the president with Senate confirmation, and the ninth member ex officio was the Secretary of State, according to the USAGM. By law, no more than four members could be from the same political party.
- Under the previous set-up, the president designated one member (other than the Secretary of State) to serve as Chairman. The Board served as a “firewall” between lawmakers and journalists.
- After the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 was signed into law, the agency was placed under one CEO, and the International Broadcasting Advisory Board was reduced to five members appointed by the president.
- Conservative filmmaker Michael Pack was nominated by Trump as CEO of the influential agency and assumed office in June 2020 after Senate confirmation.
- Critics have pointed out the USAGM can no longer be independent when its CEO and board are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate.
Management overhaul: Immediately after Pack assumed office as its new CEO, the agency underwent a restructuring that resulted in the firing of the heads of at least three outlets he oversees and replaced their boards with conservative allies, Associated Press reported.
- Among those removed from their positions were the head of Radio Free Asia, Bay Fang, the head of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Jamie Fly, and the head of the Middle East Broadcasting Network, Alberto Fernandez.
- Meanwhile, the director and deputy director of the Voice of America, Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara, had resigned from their positions.
- Pack also disbanded a bipartisan board that oversees the USAGM and installed Trump loyalists in leadership positions within the organization, according to CNBC.
- Soon after, Pack informed senior staff that the funding for a range of activities at the agency had been suspended.
- USAGM’s chief financial officer Grant Turner sent out an email citing Pack’s directive to immediately freeze “new contracts or extensions of any contract” from the agency’s federal operations and grantees, as well as on new hires and promotions.
- The freeze affected several contracts, including the $2 million which had reportedly been earmarked for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Alleged funding exposer: Previously denied by local protesters and Democrats, funding from the U.S. government intended to help people in Hong Kong was inadvertently revealed by the restructuring, a report by TIME highlighted.
- Sources told the magazine that the funding was intended to help Hong Kong protesters evade surveillance by the Chinese government following a new national security law in Hong Kong by Beijing, which sparked more protests in the city in recent weeks.
- Another initiative impacted by the funding freeze was the $500,000 rapid response fund, which was set to provide fast relief for civil society groups, protesters, journalists and human rights defenders who have come under digital attacks around the world.
- While the fund is open to international applicants, it has reportedly made several payouts to groups in Hong Kong since June 2019 when the political unrest began escalating.
- The USAGM released a statement not disputing the $2 million figure, but defending that it was supposed to promote Internet freedom in the region.
- “USAGM CEO Michael Pack understands the scale and nature of the threat posed by opponents of freedom of expression, and that is precisely why he considers bolstering [Chinese] firewall circumvention a top priority of his tenure at the agency,” a spokesperson was quoted as saying.
- An agency official who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity noted that the funding freeze will put Hong Kong protesters as well as lots of others around the world at risk.
- “I’m almost certain that they didn’t take into account the timing of the national security law. It was sort of a carte blanche thing on day one and I’m not sure if they are really appreciating the operational impact,” the source said.
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