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Trump administration steps up efforts to turn broadcasters into propaganda outlets

Julian Borger in Washington
<span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

The Trump administration has accelerated its purge of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), in what critics warn is a further step towards turning Voice of America and other public broadcasters into propaganda outlets.

Seven senior officials had their security clearances withdrawn this week, making it impossible for them to continue in their roles. They included the chief financial officer and former interim CEO, Grant Turner, and the agency’s general counsel, David Kligerman, who both said they had been fired for their resistance to the politicisation of the organisation under its new chief executive, Michael Pack, a Trump supporter and ally of rightwing ideologue, Steve Bannon.

Career officials have in several cases been replaced by political loyalists. Politico reported on Thursday that a controversial former radio talk show host had been hired as a senior adviser to USAGM leadership. A CNN investigation found that Frank Wuco had a record of outrageous insults and groundless claims. He called President Barack Obama “a Kenyan” referred to the Democratic congressional leader Nancy Pelosi as a “Nazi”, and claimed former CIA director John Brennan had converted to Islam. The Washington Post found he had suggested the US should have dropped nuclear weapons on Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.

The change in tone has been reflected in recent digital output. On Thursday, the VOA tweeted a link to a news story titled “Ivanka Trump Continues Women Empowerment Agenda Amid Pandemic” illustrated by a smiling picture of the president’s daughter. The story makes clear that she was one of several officials and business leaders announcing new funding of women’s economic projects.

On Tuesday, the day Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate, Voice of America (VOA) put out a worshipful tweet about the vice-president, Mike Pence, who it said had “weathered storms that have shaken the Trump White House, standing by the president through an impeachment trial and many Cabinet reshuffles.”

The report the tweet linked to provided a more measured account of Pence’s role, with one expert casting some doubt on his impact. But that nuance was not reflected in the tweet, which declared: “Mike Pence: Backing Up a Demanding Boss” above a video about the vice-president with the VOA logo and slogan “A Free Press Matters”.

“We were shocked when we saw that. We were like: we cannot believe this is happening,” said a VOA journalist, who said the tweets appeared to have come from the VOA’s central news department.

“We can see how editors and others are beginning to act out of fear, and self-censoring.”

Since Pack took over in June, he has purged the heads of the broadcasting agencies under USAGM authority, like VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The new management has made clear that the visas of foreign journalists at VOA will not be renewed, forcing their return to their home countries, potentially putting some of them at risk. The first handful of journalists affected are expected to leave the US before the end of the month.

The digital managing director of the VOA’s Urdu language service was also reported by the New York Post to have been placed on leave after the service ran a news item about Biden’s campaigning among US Muslims. Pack announced he would be investigating the issue, something that would normally have been handled by the head of journalistic standards, Steven Springer, but Springer was removed from that post in June, and it has remained vacant since.

Pack has also launched an investigation in what he claimed are past security breaches, and USAGM issued a report this week, in support of the claim. It provided a timeline of a long-running dispute between USAGM and the US Office of Personnel Management over the vetting of journalists hired by the agency.

Officials with knowledge of the dispute said that USAGM had sought to retain its right to vet new hires as it used a higher standard, and that the dispute was lastly a turf struggle. They said USAGM journalists do not come in contact with classified material and no evidence has so been produced that foreign agents have succeeded in infiltrating the agency in recent years.

“This all feels like a pretext to me,” said a congressional aide. “It seems like any any anything he can do to clear people out, he’s grabbing on to and doing it.”

The two most senior targets of the latest purge said they were victims of retaliation.

Related: Voice of America's appointment of Trump ally sparks purge fears

“The reasons for my removal are without merit and simply retaliation for calling the CEO and his team to account for gross mismanagement of the agency,” Turner told Politico.

Kligerman told the news website: “There is no other conclusion to draw, except that it is in retaliation for attempting to do my job in an apolitical manner and to speak truth to power.”

A USAGM spokesperson told the Guardian: “We took action to restore integrity to and respect for the rule of law in our work at USAGM. We will take additional steps to help return this agency to its glory days.”

Democrats in Congress have tried to intervene to stop the forced departure of foreign journalists and executives.

“Michael Pack is once again attempting to purge USAGM of the apolitical, career officials who have helped ensure that the agency fulfills its mission to provide unbiased news and information around the world,” Eliot Engel, the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, said.

“He is destroying the decades-old legacy of America’s international broadcasting efforts in a clear attempt to transform the agency into an ideological mouthpiece to promote Donald Trump in advance of the election.”