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Trump Official Cited Security To Kill Visas For VOA Staffers. Emails Say Otherwise

Journalist Nabila Ganinda worked for Voice of America's Indonesian-language service for two years before the Trump administration rejected her visa extension. She is now back in Indonesia.
Courtesy of Nabila Ganinda
Journalist Nabila Ganinda worked for Voice of America's Indonesian-language service for two years before the Trump administration rejected her visa extension. She is now back in Indonesia.

Nabila Ganinda was awaiting a green light from the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The agency had hired Ganinda, a young Indonesian journalist, to work for two years at the Voice of America's Indonesian-language service, based in Washington, D.C. As those two years came to an end last fall, Ganinda's editors sought to have her specialized work visa extended. Colleagues described her as a capable multimedia producer. She had also appeared on camera in news reports. Ganinda thought she could build a successful career at VOA.

Instead, Ganinda got caught up in the ideological riptide that defined former President Donald Trump's administration and tore apart both VOA and USAGM, which oversees the network. In rejecting Ganinda's visa extension — and forcing her to leave the U.S. — the agency's most senior officials privately relied on reasoning that fit neatly with Trump's "America First" rhetoric, even though VOA veterans said that this made no sense for the international broadcaster.

"I was crying in front of my bosses," Ganinda told NPR from Indonesia. "My chief was fighting for me to stay there. But I don't know — what was my mistake? Like, what have I done that they do that?"

Until that moment, USAGM CEO Michael Pack had simply ignored requests to extend foreign journalists' visas. Publicly, Pack and his officials cited security concerns. The agency told NPR it wasreviewing each visa requestfrom VOA on a comprehensive, case-by-case basis. It cited the need to protect national security, even though it said it respected the job that the foreign journalists do. Pack told conservative media outlets that suchforeign contractors could be spies.

By October, Ganinda's visa was about to expire. Prompted by her application for a visa extension, Pack's chief of staff, Emily Newman, sent him a memo arguing that "USAGM must prioritize employment for American citizens." Additionally, the memo stated, "When employers trade American jobs for temporary foreign labor, it reduces opportunities for U.S. workers." Pack formally rejected Ganinda's J-1 visa application, setting a precedent for the agency and its networks.

For the seven months Pack ran USAGM, no such visas or visa extensions were granted. The move sent dozens of full-time VOA contractors scrambling to figure out where else they could live and work during a pandemic.

The rationale developed by Pack and other political officials appointed by the Trump administration was impractical at a news service that broadcasts overseas in 47 languages, VOA veterans say.

Voice of America reaches an estimated 280 million people abroad each week. Along with its sister networks, which include Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, VOA offers coverage for nations where an independent press cannot operate freely or viably. It is also intended to serve as a model of American values by reflecting political and social discourse in the U.S. in all its fractiousness.

VOA's foreign journalists often blend specific language and cultural knowledge with technical broadcasting skills in a combination that is hard to find within the American workforce.

Emails exchanges throughout Pack's tenure captured bewildered requests from VOA and USAGM staff members outside his inner circle. They asked senior leadership to explain why they had not granted the requests, which spanned Voice of America's African, Mandarin, Serbian, Latin American and other non-English-language services. Little information emerged.

The Oct. 18 memo sent by Newman to Pack did not simply urge Pack to reject the extension sought for Ganinda's visa. It also made a broader argument. It asserted that VOA was abusing the visa program by trying to get some of the visa recipients permanent-resident status. And it said that Pack would soon receive a recommendation that the agency terminate its involvement in the J-1 visa program altogether.

The question of background checks was first raised at the bottom of the page. It was listed as the seventh reservation. It was the only one mentioning security concerns. And it was the only element that directly addressed Ganinda's own circumstances, by saying her hiring in 2018 had happened during a period of insufficient security measures, in the view of Pack's team.

A day later, Pack replied to Newman that he would reject Ganinda's visa extension: "I concur with your recommendations. We should provide an explanation, similar to your memo, when we decline."

Ganinda tells NPR that USAGM employees did background interviews with her peers. She says she had no idea why her visa extension request was denied. Ganinda even says she wondered whether it was her decision to wear a hijab when appearing on camera for her predominantly Muslim audience. (There is no reference to any religious garb or her identity in the exchanges among Newman, Pack and USAGM officials.)

The correspondence is the fullest-known rationale for the agency's rejection of or refusal to act on scores of visa extension requests. It was released to NPR under the Freedom of Information Act. And it contradicts the statement USAGM officials gave NPR back in July, which said, "to improve agency management and protect U.S. national security, it is imperative to determine that hiring authorities and personnel practices are not misused."

In fact, Pack's embrace of the Newman memo suggests USAGM's concerns about VOA's foreign journalists focused on the need to adhere to Trump's America First rhetoric. The former president called for restrictions on immigration and advocated for reserving jobs for U.S. citizens.

Pack and Newman did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

Former VOA director slams policy as "stupid and shortsighted"

The USAGM typically hires staff from other nations only when it cannot find American candidates with the expertise and language skills required to do the work. The applications for visa extensions reflect the newsroom leaders' assertions that there are few qualified U.S. citizens with both capabilities.

"As part of government procedure, we had to go out and look for American citizens first," says former VOA Director Amanda Bennett, who resigned immediately following Pack's confirmation by the U.S. Senate last June. "We would have preferred to hire American citizens. It's cheaper and more convenient."

Bennett calls Pack's policy "stupid and shortsighted." To be credible, she tells NPR, Voice of America's foreign-language services need journalists conversant in current political and social trends in distant countries as well as present-day vernacular.

"It is a bit odd to give no reason," Pack wrote to Newman on Oct. 19, referring to the rejection of Ganinda's visa extension. "I do think we should prepare J1 guidance to go out after the firewall reg[ulation] is pulled."

The "firewall" is a policy meant to protect the editorial choices made in the newsrooms of VOA and its sister networks from interference by political appointees at USAGM. It is mentioned by federal law and more specifically spelled out in regulatory language adopted shortly before Pack took office. Days after his October note to Newman, Pack scrapped the regulatory firewall; a federal judge ruled in November that Pack unconstitutionally violated those regulations and acted unlawfully in setting it aside. The Office of Special Counsel, a federal government watchdog agency, demanded that USAGM conduct an investigation of its actions under Pack, including his refusal to authorize visas for foreign journalists. His tenure remains the subject of multiple federal reviews and investigations.

As of Dec. 1, 23 VOA employees and contractors had lost their positions because Pack refused to authorize extensions or sponsor a change in their immigration status, according to material previously reviewed by NPR. Another 25 would have lost their visas by the end of February had acting USAGM CEO Kelu Chao, named by President Biden, not acted to approve the visa requests. Chao, a longtime career news executive at VOA, had joined a whistleblower lawsuit against Pack last fall.

"I am hopeful"

In a statement sent to NPR, USAGM spokeswoman Laurie Moy says Chao has "removed the blockade that the former CEO had put on visa requests and extension requests and has approved all of the requests that have [been] sent to her by the Voice of America."

Moy says that the U.S. State Department has in turn started to approve the agency's requests once more. She added, "All visa-related requests are properly vetted according to agency policy. At the same time, USAGM is strictly adhering to all federal statutory requirements regarding the hiring of and preferences for U.S. citizens."

Ganinda notes that two of her Indonesian-service colleagues had their visas elapse without any extension. Pack failed to take any action on their applications, instead of outright denying their requests, as he did in her case.

"They felt abandoned," she says. "I felt rejected."

Now back in Indonesia, Ganinda is still working for VOA but as a stringer, meaning she is paid per assignment. She says the news service has posted an opening for her former position. She's planning to apply.

"I am hopeful," she says. "It's clear that there's not many people who have the knowledge about our countries that we do."

On Thursday afternoon, advocates for an editor who had lost her job over accusations by Pack that she was biased against Trump announced she had been reinstated to her old job.

In July, Pack initiated an investigation of a post by the VOA's Urdu-language social media site about a videotaped appearance of then-candidate Joe Biden as he sought to reach out to Muslim voters. Pack alleged the post was tantamount to an advertisement for Biden. Under duress from Pack and his senior aides, four full-time journalists for the Urdu service had their contracts severed. A longtime editor for the service, Tabinda Naeem, was placed on indefinite leave while VOA officials moved to have her fired.

Late last month, shortly after Biden took office, VOA dismissed its case against Naeem, according to her lawyers at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project. The network argued that her role in the video post was "tangential" and that it had concluded that she was not at fault for whatever shortcomings the post had. Naeem returned to work a few days later.

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR media and tech editor Emily Kopp. Because of NPR CEO John Lansing's prior role as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, no senior news executive or corporate executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was published.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.