The Voice of America has effectively demoted a reporter who tried to ask questions of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he delivered a speech praising American freedoms and condemning repressive regimes such as China and Iran.
Patsy Widakuswara, who covers the White House, was reassigned on Monday hours after trying to engage with Pompeo, who also stayed for a Q&A with VOA Director Robert Reilly in which no audience questions were permitted and the Secretary was allowed to tout administration policies unchecked. When Pompeo refused to respond to her, Widakuswara turned to Reilly and asked why he hadn’t presented the Secretary with any VOA reporters’ questions, according to people present who spoke to CNN.
“Who are you,” Reilly asked, according to people present in the crowd around them and a contemporaneous audio recording. “I’m the White House correspondent for VOA,” Widakuswara answered. Reilly responded with a reprimand: “You obviously don’t know how to behave.”
The White House Correspondents Association condemned Widakuswara’s reassignment, which sources at VOA say was made without explanation just hours after Pompeo’s speech and comes amid an assault on US democracy by supporters of President Donald Trump who besieged the Capitol on January 6, leaving five dead. On Wednesday, she was reassigned for a second time, again without explanation and this time, without direct notification.
‘An assault on the First Amendment’
“At a moment when the world already has watched an assault on our democratic institutions, the Trump administration has chosen to send another message — with an assault on the First Amendment,” said Zeke Miller, president of the WHCA, who spoke on behalf of the organization’s board.
“It did so at the Voice of America, a taxpayer-supported service tasked by Congress with broadcasting uncensored journalism to the world to demonstrate freedoms — particularly freedom of the press — that the United States hopes all nations will emulate,” Miller continued. “VOA’s reassignment of Patsy Widakuswara for doing her job, asking questions, is an affront to the very ideals Secretary of State Pompeo discussed in his speech Monday.”
The top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said in a joint statement that they “were incredibly frustrated to hear the Voice of America White House senior correspondent Patsy Widakuswara was demoted from her position after questioning Secretary Pompeo about last week’s attack on the Capitol.”
“Absent a legitimate reason for this move, which has not been provided, we believe she should be reinstated,” said Chairman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and ranking member Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican.
“This is the United States of America — we do not punish our journalists for seeking answers to their questions. A free and fair press is at the core of our Constitution and our democracy,” the lawmakers said.
According to a statement, the committee reached out to VOA and its parent agency, the US Agency for Global Media about the news, “but has received no information as to why Widakuswara was demoted.”
Sources at VOA said that on Monday evening, Widakuswara was told she had been removed from the White House beat and had been reassigned to a “general assignment” position within the VOA News Center. On Wednesday morning, these sourcse said Widakuswarra learned she had been reassigned yet again, when she was copied on an email addressed to the VOA Indonesia Service chief, saying that she had been assigned to the Indonesian Service.
David Seide, senior counsel with the with the Government Accountability Project, which represents VOA whisleblowers, said in a letter that, “neither Ms. Widakuswara nor her Union representative were consulted and no reason has been given for these reassignments. The shuffling of Ms. Widakuswara is further evidence of your animus. It is also gross mismanagement.”
Widakuswara declined to comment for this story. A VOA spokesperson told CNN they do not comment on internal personnel matters. Asked whether Pompeo had comment on Widakuswara’s reassignment or had requested it, the State Department referred questions to VOA and USAGM.
In contrast, last year Pompeo berated China for seeking to silence US journalists in Hong Kong.
“It has recently come to my attention that the Chinese government has threatened to interfere with the work of American journalists in Hong Kong,” Pompeo said at the time. “These journalists are members of a free press, not propaganda cadres, and their valuable reporting informs Chinese citizens and the world.”
The controversy is just the latest clash between members of the press and the Secretary, who is known to berate reporters, and particularly women, for asking questions he dislikes, sometimes using expletives, as he did with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly.
Widakuswara’s effective demotion and Pompeo’s use of VOA airwaves to broadcast his speech worldwide in 40 languages are just the latest signs of trouble at VOA and USAGM, where the Trump appointed director Michael Pack has made sweeping charges of bias against employees and conducted what some call a pro-Trump “purge.”
The Government Accountability Project said in a January 8 letter that the speech contravened the statutory firewall that protects VOA journalists and editors from outside political meddling, describing it as “a violation of law, rule and policy.”
VOA staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity told CNN they are angry, saying that in their view, Pompeo and VOA leadership violated the agency’s journalistic integrity. More than one expressed disgust for the Secretary’s use of VOA and the reporters in the audience “as a propaganda prop” for the speech and Q&A.
One source at VOA said their biggest disappointment was Reilly’s failure to defend the institution after Pompeo’s diminished it in his speech, describing VOA as “demeaning America” in the past and now suffering from a culture of “censorship, wokeness, political correctness, it all points in one direction — authoritarianism, cloaked as moral righteousness.”
“VOA did not fail yesterday; our director failed,” this source said.
Pompeo asserted that it was “morally wrong” for the VOA staff to object to his speech, which staffers say was arranged by Elizabeth Robbins, a recent transplant from the State Department who was named VOA deputy director in late December despite having no journalism experience.
Pack, a documentary filmmaker who took charge as CEO in June and is under criminal investigation by the DC attorney general for self-dealing and self-enrichment, appointed Reilly, a former VOA director and conservative writer, to lead the VOA in December.
After Reilly told his White House reporter she didn’t know how to behave, sources in the crowd in front of VOA’s auditorium said Widakuswara told him that, “there are so many questions that we want to know, and you didn’t ask them.”
Reilly told her, “you are not authorized,” to which Widakuswara responded that, “I am a journalist and I’m paid to ask questions, and none of those questions you asked.”
“You’re out of order!” Reilly said, before Robbins stepped in, saying, “OK we’re done. Thank you.”
Since Pack’s arrival at USAGM, he “has attempted to whitewash the primacy of the journalistic mission: both figurative and literally,” said David Kligerman, the former general counsel at VOA until he was allegedly forced out by Pack last month. “On his first day, he painted over an epigraph (by his predecessor John Lansing) celebrating the First Amendment and the sacred duty of journalists to hold public officials accountable.”
Kligerman said on the record what many others at VOA echo privately — that Pack has since “waged war against the Agency’s journalists and editorial independence,” including by firing all the network heads and rescinding the agency’s firewall regulation meant to insulate it from political meddling, refusing “to renew J1 visas for our journalists for purely nativist reasons, forcing them out of the country; and pretextually firing journalists for covering stories perceived to be harmful to the administration.”