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VOA, Radio Free Asia get editors back post-Trump but worry about damage

(Former Radio Free Asia journalists Oun Chhin (right) and Yeang Sothearin arrive at a court in Phnom Penh in August 2019, one of a number of cases of governments acting against the US-based broadcaster. Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON, (AFP):- Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are getting back experienced editors who were shoved aside by Donald Trump’s appointees as the outlets say they hope the tumult will not tarnish their credibility.

Michael Pack, a producer of conservative films whom Trump tapped to head the agency that oversees taxpayer-supported media, resigned hours after President Joe Biden was sworn in last week.

Pack had vowed to break down the legally guaranteed firewall against meddling in editorial decisions.

In his final days, he invited Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who berated VOA and said it should broadcast how the United States “is the greatest nation in the history of the world.”

Biden named Kelu Chao, a veteran journalist for Voice of America, as interim director of the US Agency for Global Media until the Senate approves a permanent replacement.

Radio Free Asia, whose mission is to report accurately on nations including China, Vietnam and North Korea that restrict press freedom, noted that its journalists face threats, with China detaining relatives of Uighur reporters.

“Our success relies on establishing trust with audiences and sources alike,” said Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s vice president of communications and external relations.

“There were serious concerns about the damaging effects of losing that trust. It could hurt not just our reputation but also further endanger our reporters and their ability to do their jobs,” he said.

Bay Fang, who has overseen RFA investigations into North Korean forced labor and China’s massive detention camps for Uighurs and other mostly Muslim people, was given back her job as the news outlet’s president Sunday after being fired by Pack in June.

Conservative author Robert Reilly was ousted as the short-lived director of VOA and replaced on an interim basis by Yolanda Lopez, a longtime journalist whom he had removed from a senior position days earlier.

Lopez had been reassigned along with one of VOA’s White House reporters, Patsy Widakuswara, after Widakuswara tried to ask Pompeo a question when he delivered his address at the headquarters.

Widakuswara was also allowed to return to her beat after her punishment drew outrage — even among some Republicans.

But effects could remain from Trump’s brief takeover of the US Agency for Global Media, which also oversees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Cuba-focused Radio and Television Marti, and Arabic-language Alhurra.

In the funding agreement in force this fiscal year for Radio Free Asia, the agency reserved the right for background checks on all personnel down to interns and restricted the news outlet’s ability to communicate directly with Congress.

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