WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's appointee to oversee U.S.-funded broadcasters has reassigned the acting director of Voice of America to make way for a political partisan just weeks before the Biden administration takes office.
Michael Pack, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the parent agency for VOA and other international media outlets, announced on Wednesday he will replace a career journalist running the Voice of America with Robert Reilly, a conservative commentator who briefly served as the director of the Voice of America during George W. Bush's administration.
The reassignment of the acting director of VOA, Elez Biberaj, is the latest move by Pack, a conservative filmmaker who worked with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, that appears aimed at installing partisan loyalists in senior positions before President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House in January.
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, condemned Pack for naming a new VOA directly only weeks before a new administration takes office.
“Michael Pack should be packing up his office, not packing the leadership of U.S. broadcasting entities with right-wing ideologues and bigots,” Engel said in a statement.
Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was "disturbed” at the situation at the U.S. Agency for Global Media under Pack.
“He still owes Congress answers, including on his latest personnel decision. The work of brave VOA journalists should be respected, not undermined,” McCaul said in an email to NBC News.
The next administration is expected to replace Pack once Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, but replacing Reilly could be more difficult under proposed legislation.
Language in the defense spending bill passed by the House would require the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media to gain approval from an advisory board before naming new directors of VOA, Radio Free Asia and other federally funded media outlets. The proposed language was designed as a check on the power of the CEO and came as a response by lawmakers to Pack's actions since he took over in June.
The incoming VOA director, Reilly, is the author of such books as "Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything," raising concerns among VOA reporters that he could seek to promote a partisan political view on the broadcaster's coverage. Reilly's book "The Closing of the Muslim Mind" was described as ill-informed "war literature" by a Yale University professor of religious studies, Frank Griffel, who wrote that Reilly was trying to tell the reader "why the way we think is right and our enemy's way wrong."
In a statement announcing Reilly's appointment, Pack said, "Bob's inimitable experience and proven leadership as both a public servant and a private citizen will greatly benefit the entire agency." Pack said Reilly "has dedicated his career to — and, indeed, succeeded in — promoting the national interest and advancing U.S. foreign policy."
"I have always been a firm adherent of VOA's mission of telling America's story to the world," Reilly said in the same USAGM statement. "I'm delighted to have the opportunity to serve VOA again."
The outgoing VOA director Biberaj, who worked at Voice of America for 40 years, wrote to staff telling them of his reassignment and referred to threats to editorial independence during Pack's tenure at the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
"The last six months have perhaps been the most challenging period in VOA's recent history," Biberaj wrote in an email. "Regrettably, this period was characterized by an adversarial relationship between VOA and USAGM. Some agency officials failed to respect rules, protocols and processes that I considered inviolable, and displayed an indifference to the disruptive impact their actions and decisions had on VOA's operations and mission."
He added, "Attempts to trample VOA's journalistic independence threatened to undermine our hard-won credibility at a time of global democratic backsliding and increased international threats to America's values and moral leadership."
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and press freedom groups have blasted Pack over his actions since he took over in June, accusing him of undermining the broadcasters' editorial independence and defying congressional authority.
A federal judge last month ordered Pack to stop interfering in the newsrooms of VOA and other media outlets and found that he had jeopardized the First Amendment rights of journalists that his office had targeted for investigation.
Last week, a federal watchdog agency, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, said it found "a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing" by Pack and his deputies.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media did not respond to requests for comment.