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Voice of America journalists demand resignation of top officials, protest sidelining of two staffers

“It is not out of order for VOA journalists to ask questions of U.S. government officials. It is our job,” the journalists wrote in a letter.

WASHINGTON — A group of Voice of America journalists has signed a letter demanding the resignation of the director of VOA and his deputy, accusing them of using the network "to stage a propaganda event" for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and for the "sudden and unexplained" reassignments of the chief news editor and White House correspondent.

The journalists said the actions of VOA Director Robert Reilly and Deputy Director Elizabeth Robbins violated the network's decades-old charter, which states that the U.S.-funded outlet does not speak for the U.S. government, according to the letter obtained by NBC News.

Reilly and Robbins were recently installed by President Donald Trump’s appointee, Michael Pack, who runs the parent agency that oversees VOA, the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The letter was sent to Pack, Reilly and Robbins and has so far been signed by two dozen journalists from the VOA's staff of about 1,000.

At the network's headquarters in Washington on Monday, Pompeo delivered a speech carried live on VOA, extolling the virtues of America's free press and accusing the service of having overly negative coverage of the U.S. in the past. The broadcasters' reporters were barred from asking questions and outside media were not allowed to attend, according to the letter and journalists who spoke to NBC News.

Pompeo "used this opportunity to attempt to direct VOA journalists to cease critical coverage of the United States," and Reilly, who was on stage with the secretary of state, "did not challenge him — a disservice to our international audience," the letter said.

One VOA journalist, White House correspondent, Patsy Widakuswara, did try to ask Pompeo questions after his speech. Hours later, she was ordered off the White House beat, NBC News previously reported.

According to the letter, after Widakuswara tried to ask Pompeo about America's image abroad after last week's storming of the Capitol, Reilly shouted at her: "'You obviously don't know how to behave. ... You are out of order!'"

The journalists condemned Reilly's response. "Let us be clear: it is not out of order for VOA journalists to ask questions of U.S. government officials. It is our job."

Widakuswara was kicked off the White House beat hours after the event by Robbins, who until recently worked for Pompeo and has "no journalistic experience," according to the letter.

VOA declined to comment and the Agency for Global Media did not respond to requests for comment.

The reassignment of Widakuswara sends a dangerous message to every VOA journalist that they will be punished if they ask critical questions, the letter said.

"Voice of America was founded upon the belief that all countries deserve honest and reliable news without the meddling of their governments. Unfortunately, Monday's events have shaken that foundation," the letter said.

VOA was established during World War II with the mission of reporting on events in the U.S. for foreign audiences. The Agency for Global Media is the parent of several foreign-language broadcasting services for Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Cuba that have large international audiences.

Since Pack took over at the agency last year, he has fired senior executives and governing boards, refused to renew visas for dozens of foreign journalists and suffered rebukes from Congress and a federal judge. Press freedom groups and lawmakers have accused him of trying to turn the government-funded media outlets into propaganda mouthpieces for President Donald Trump.

Pack has rejected the criticism, saying he is returning the networks to their original mission and that some of the past coverage was politically biased.

It remains unclear why Pack has made major personnel changes only days before a new administration is due to take office. President-elect Joe Biden's team has made it clear it plans to fire Pack.

They appear to be "trying to burn the place down on the way out," said one VOA journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution by the network's management.