US broadcast chief fires heads in major shakedown

Don Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post, and his wife Amanda Bennett — who recently announced her resignation as director of The Voice of America — attend an event in the US state of Idaho. (File/AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2020

US broadcast chief fires heads in major shakedown

  • The shakeup added to existing fears, many from among conservatives, that news outlets in the US were being politicized

DUBAI: On his first day at work on Wednesday, Michael Pack, CEO of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), fired the heads of four organizations — Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund, according to CNN. 

The shakeup added to existing fears, many from among conservatives, that news outlets in the US were being politicized and that Pack, an appointee of US President Donald Trump, is seeking to end the editorial independence of the outlets under USAGM, a government funded agency structured to operate with editorial independence to serve countries lacking a free press.

Voice of America (VOA) Director Amanda Bennett and Deputy Director Sandy Sugawara, both veteran journalists, announced their resignations on Monday, just two days before Pack’s arrival.

In addition to the agency chiefs, Pack dismissed veteran broadcast news executive Steve Capus, who had been a senior adviser to the organization and its leadership, according to two congressional aides and a USAGM employee who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press (AP).

Capus, who was previously president of NBC News for nearly eight years, did not respond to a query sent to a USAGM work email address.

Pack also ousted the head of the Open Technology Fund, a non-broadcast arm of the USAGM that works to provide secure Internet access to people around the world. Last week, the fund’s chief, Libby Liu submitted her resignation, effective mid-July, but she was removed on Pack’s arrival in post.

No public explanation for the dismissals was given beyond the general statement of improving the agency.

The firing of Alberto Miguel Fernandez, head of Middle East Broadcasting, in particular, has raised conservative hackles. A former career diplomat fluent in Arabic, Fernandez had been hailed by many on the American right for bringing what they saw as balance to Arabic-language outlets Radio Sawa and television channel AlHurra.

“Ambassador Fernandez was the greatest asset America had in foreign broadcasting,” Trump’s former deputy assistant, Sebastian Gorka, wrote on Twitter shortly after the dismissals became public.

Michael Doran, a former National Security Council and State Department official during President George W. Bush’s administration, called Fernandez’s ouster “asinine” and said that without him, “Pack will be as effective as a drugged bug in a bottle.”

David Reaboi, a noted conservative national security analyst, was even more critical, calling Fernandez’s removal a “shameful” move. 

“It was unusual for the pro-American side to get represented, and Alberto always made sure it did,” he told the AP. 

“It was a model for recapturing territory from the far left and righting the ship.”

Fernandez wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night: “I will miss the great digital and creative work of our talented team, the investigative news unit, the great op-ed page @AlhurraOpEd, the excellent digital platforms like @IrfaaSawtak. I accomplished ALMOST everything I wanted and you can’t say that too often in life.

“Wish the incoming people at @USAGMgov well. I hope they know what they are doing. They have an immediate opportunity to make a difference. Yesterday the Iraqi government shut down Radio Sawa transmitters in Baghdad, Basra and Karbala and threatened to seize USG property.”

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Eliot L. Engel, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, issued a joint statement which said: “We were outraged to learn that Michael Pack, the new head of the US Agency for Global Media, fired top officials of broadcast networks for foreign audiences in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and replaced their advisory boards with new boards comprising himself, his chief of staff, Trump administration appointees.”

Responding to an AFP query, the agency said Pack intended to “steer the agency back toward its mission: ‘to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.’” In an email to employees, Pack said he was “fully committed to honoring VOA’s charter,” as well as the missions of the other news outlets.

“Every action I carried out was — and every action I will carry out will be — geared toward rebuilding the USAGM’s reputation, boosting morale, and improving content,” Pack said in a statement released by the agency.

 The statement called the moves “significant and long-overdue” and said Pack and his team were “committed to eradicating the known mismanagement and scandals that have plagued the agency for decades.”

Egypt grapples with women’s freedoms online as #MeToo re-emerges

Updated 02 August 2020

Egypt grapples with women’s freedoms online as #MeToo re-emerges

  • Egypt has in recent years enforced strict Internet controls
  • Stringent laws were approved in 2018 allowing authorities to block websites seen as a threat to national security

CAIRO: Social media has become a new and dangerous battleground for women’s rights in Egypt after young TikTok influencers were jailed while a resurgent #MeToo movement decried male sexual violence.
Last Monday, a court sentenced five female social media influencers, Haneen Hossam, Mowada Al-Adham and three others, to two years in jail each on charges of violating public morals over content posted to video-sharing app TikTok.
International digital rights group Access Now described them as “all women, all young, all exercising their right to freedom of expression online.”
Just two days later, a court sentenced another young social media influencer, Manar Samy, to three years in prison over TikTok videos, deeming the clips in which she dances and lip-syncs to popular songs to be “inciting debauchery.”
Many in the deeply conservative country have cheered on the arrests, as traditional social values clash with online content seen as racy and sexually suggestive.
“The Egyptian government is on a campaign to arrest and prosecute women influencers on... TikTok for violating ‘the values of the Egyptian family’ and ‘inciting debauchery and immorality,’” Access Now said in a statement.
The Egyptian authorities “not only want to control what citizens say, but also how they should dress, talk, and behave online,” said Marwa Fatafta, the group’s Middle East and North Africa policy manager.

Egypt has in recent years enforced strict Internet controls as it walks a tight line between balancing the Islamic law that shapes its governance and adapting to a rapidly shifting society with a penchant for social media content.
Stringent laws were approved in 2018 allowing authorities to block websites seen as a threat to national security and to monitor personal social media accounts with over 5,000 followers.
“In the past, the Egyptian regime tightened its stronghold on the Internet... Now, the online repression extends to non-political activity too,” said Fatafta.
The six jailed women combined have millions of followers.
Hossam was arrested after posting a clip saying that girls could make money by working with her, a message that was interpreted as a call for prostitution, while Adham had posted satirical videos on TikTok and Instagram.
Aside from being a virtual battleground of competing interpretations of morality, social media has also empowered young Egyptian women to speak up about sexual assault, sometimes with negative consequences.
In May, a shocking video came to light of a young woman sobbing, her face battered and bruised.
Menna Abdel-Aziz, 17, posted an Instagram video in which she said she had been gang raped by a group of young men.
The authorities’ response was swift: the six alleged attackers were arrested — but so was Abdel-Aziz. All were charged with “promoting debauchery.”
“She committed crimes, she admitted to some of them,” the prosecutor-general said in a statement. “She deserves to be punished.”

Since Abdel-Aziz’s case surfaced, a revived #MeToo movement among Egyptian women, mostly from affluent backgrounds, has sprung into action.
A gang rape allegation made in late July stemming from a prominent social media account has been one trigger.
Another was young women posting testimonials about sexual misconduct that led to the arrest earlier in the month of Ahmed Bassam Zaki, 22, a former student of some of Egypt’s most elite schools and universities.
But the movement faces an uphill battle.
Rights groups say the government of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has been curtailing freedoms since he took office in 2014.
Comedians, academics, bloggers, journalists, political dissidents, lawyers and activists are among those who have been jailed in recent years, and a music video director has died in custody.
Imprisoning social media influencers, the latest group to be targeted, “has nothing to do with protecting social values. It’s about Internet policing and control,” Access Now’s Fatafta said.
“With the massive increase in content creators and influencers on TikTok in Egypt, there is a high risk that more prosecutions targeting this community are yet to come,” the organization added.