WASHINGTON — A federal judge issued a series of preliminary injunctions against a Trump appointee who has enacted sweeping and controversial changes at Voice of America and other government-funded news networks, effectively stopping the appointee’s efforts to reshape the international broadcasters.
The ruling late Friday by Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell in Washington was a setback for Michael Pack, who in June took over VOA’s parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), and immediately set about firing senior leaders and disbanding oversight boards.
Pack had asserted the right to direct how journalists at VOA and sister networks such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia covered the news, a violation of the traditional “firewall” that ensures the networks aren’t government mouthpieces. Pack’s declaration was viewed by journalists at the networks as both alarming and ironic, given that their broadcasts — which are intended to counter foreign government’s official censorship and propaganda — would themselves be subjected to potential censorship by a political appointee of the U.S. government.
Pack’s actions and statements, including evidence-free suggestions that VOA was a nest of foreign spies, raised concerns that Pack was seeking to create news favorable to President Trump, his political patron.
Howell’s ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed last month by five senior executives at USAGM whom Pack had fired or suspended in August in what was seen as a purge of those opposed to Pack’s plans. The former employees sought to stop Pack from interfering in the editorial affairs of the broadcasters his agency oversees.
In a ruling issued late Friday, Howell imposed preliminary injunctions that effectively bar Pack from direct involvement in the networks’ editorial operations.
The ruling prevents Pack from making personnel decisions involving journalists at the networks; from directly communicating with editors and journalists employed by them; and from investigating any editors or news stories produced by them.
The judge also said an investigation ordered by Pack early last month of VOA’s chief White House reporter, Steve Herman, “imposes an unconstitutional prior restraint not just on Herman’s speech, but on the speech of [Herman’s editors] and journalists at VOA.”
Pack ordered the investigation of Herman because of unspecified concerns about bias in Herman’s coverage of Trump. But no finding or disciplinary measures resulted from it.
Lee R. Crain, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs, said Howell’s ruling ensures that journalists at the agencies can “rest assured that the First Amendment protects them from government efforts to control” their reporting. “They are free to do exactly what Congress intended: export independent, First Amendment-style journalism to the world.”
USAGM’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
The order won’t restore the jobs of the employees whom Pack fired, including Grant Turner, the named plaintiff. (Turner had been USAGM’s chief financial officer when Pack fired him and the other senior employees.) The former employees’ work status is the subject of a separate administrative process.
It’s unclear whether USAGM will appeal Howell’s ruling given its timing and the likelihood that President-elect Joe Biden will probably replace Pack upon assuming the White House on Jan. 20. Biden’s aides have said that he intends to fire Pack.