The White House on Friday launched an extraordinary attack on Voice of America, the U.S.-funded but independent international news outlet, accusing the broadcaster of using taxpayer dollars “to speak for authoritarian regimes.”
The broadside came in the “1600 Daily” newsletter, which one White House official said gets blasted out to approximately 2.5 million subscribers. Friday’s edition of the newsletter laid into the outlet, created in 1942 to deliver news to people abroad — particularly those living under authoritarian rule — asserting that as of late, “VOA too often speaks for America’s adversaries—not its citizens.”
The newsletter, which has no listed author, went on to accuse VOA of amplifying Chinese propaganda related to coronavirus.
Among the White House’s complaints raised Friday: VOA’s comparison of China’s death toll to that of the U.S., where more than 16,000 people have now died of Covid-19.
The Trump administration has cast doubt on the Covid-19 numbers coming out of China, pointing to the lack of transparency and cooperation from Beijing from the earliest days of the outbreak, as well as the Chinese government’s history of fudging official statistics.
The White House newsletter also singled out one VOA correspondent in particular for helping to “highlight” the Twitter feed of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif by tagging Zarif’s handle in a tweet — implying that the reporter, who was then retweeted by VOA’s official account, was unnecessarily drawing its audience to Zarif’s timeline filled with anti-American threats and propaganda.
It then pointed to VOA’s charter, which declares the organization “will represent America.”
“For years after its founding during World War II, VOA served that mission by promoting freedom and democracy across the world for audiences who longed for both,” the newsletter proclaims. “Today, VOA is promoting propaganda instead—and your tax dollars are paying for it.”
VOA Director Amanda Bennett offered a full-throated defense of her agency in a lengthy statement issued Friday.
“One of the big differences between publicly-funded independent media, like the Voice of America, and state-controlled media is that we are free to show all sides of an issue and are actually mandated to do so by law as stated in the VOA Charter signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976,” Bennett wrote on VOA’s website. “We are thoroughly covering China’s disinformation and misinformation in English and Mandarin and at the same time reporting factually — as we always do in all 47 of our broadcast languages — on other events in China.”
Bennett added that VOA has “literally carried hundreds of stories on China’s response and narrative,” linking to nearly two dozen articles from recent weeks. Moreover, she added, “data from the graphic cited in the White House press release was drawn from Johns Hopkins, which is used throughout the world.”
In the greatlakes region, the VOA has segment in Kinyarwanda/Kirundi languages targeting Rwanda, Burundi and eastern DR Congo. For Rwanda, the broadcaster runs an FM frequency with segment called “Ijwi ry’Amerika”, also airing various syndicated programs in Kinyarwanda, French, English and Swahili.
For years, Government of Rwanda has openly accused the broadcaster of being propaganda platform for Rwandan militia groups in DR Congo, dissidents and individuals or institutions that negate the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
VOA’s international counterpart on Rwanda’s broadcast airwaves is British broadcaster BBC’s “BBC Gahuza“, which had a local FM frequency but was switched off in 2015 on Rwandan territory. The broadcaster had had a frosty relationship with government in Kigali for years, also accused of same acts like VOA.
The last stroke for BBC Gahuza came after it translated a controversial documentary from the parent company in London, which was casting doubt on the official and internationally accepted narrative of the genocide. Since then, BBC Gahuza airs via Facebook Live and its website.
It’s unclear what in particular prompted the Trump White House’s icy blast, which came as Voice of America has boasted of “record audience numbers” amid its global coronavirus coverage.
On Thursday, however, President Donald Trump’s social media guru Dan Scavino took issue with one VOA tweet that showed a video of a light show in Wuhan, the city in central China where the coronavirus outbreak began and which is finally out from under a months-long lockdown.
“American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!!” Scavino wrote.
“We love facts,” Bennett shot back at Scavino, the White House’s director of social media and a close presidential aide. “The fact is Wuhan has ended their lockdown and this video shows exactly that.”
The onslaught comes as tensions flare between the U.S. and China due to the pandemic, which originated in China but has since wreaked havoc all over the globe, killing tens of thousands and cratering economies. After praising Chinese leader Xi Jinping early on, Trump more recently has deflected domestic criticism of his response to the pandemic by accusing China of hiding the extent of the outbreak.
The attack on VOA also follows a pattern by the Trump administration of routinely assailing the media. Friction between the U.S. and China has spilled over into each country’s respective attacks on journalists, resulting in tit-for-tat battle over press access over the past few months that got three U.S. outlets expelled from the country while VOA and Time Magazine were designated as “foreign missions” in China.
A White House official defended its criticism, disputing VOA’s claim of a “firewall” guarding its objectivity and pointing to its statutory charge to, among other things, “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.”
“They’re going to come back and talk about the times that they did call out Chinese propaganda,” said the White House official. “But VOA is taxpayer funded and should never be promoting adversary messages. Sometimes calling out those adversaries doesn’t give you top cover to abandon the rest of your mission.”
Another official noted that the newsletter is read by a number of people within the White House before it gets sent out.
A former senior White House official in the George W. Bush administration couldn’t recall any instance when that White House ripped an executive agency like the Trump White House did on Friday, observing, “a public action like this was certainly uncommon, if not unprecedented.”
Additional Reporting from POLITICO