White House accused VOA of spreading Chinese propaganda last week.
The international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government on Wednesday asserted its independence and apolitical approach to covering the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The White House had accused Voice of America of using taxpayers' dollars to promote Chinese propaganda. “The coronavirus is just one example of this pattern,” the Trump administration asserted in its daily email update, on April 9.
However, in an interview with Government Executive on Wednesday, VOA Director Amanda Bennett pushed back against claims her organization has any type of bias in its coverage of the pandemic or anything else.
“We are intended to be and try our very hardest to be a non-political organization,” she said. Bennett also referred to a statement she issued on April 10:
“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. 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 included several recent articles that counter the White House’s claims. Although a “firewall" to prevent government interference in coverage was formally established in 1994, VOA has been subject to scrutiny over its 78-year history.
VOA also asserts it is not partial to the Trump administration, despite being a federal agency. “Top VOA executives are concerned that alarmist reporting, some from progressive outlets, may have prematurely undermined the credibility of the agency,” Axios reported on March 3. “Sources inside the VOA say the agency has been operating as business as usual, without interference from the Trump administration,” however.
For example, "I don't feel any different at all whether it's a Democratic or a Republican administration," Dong Hyuk Lee, chief of VOA's Korean Service and a 14-year VOA veteran, told Axios.
So far VOA has had three positive coronavirus cases within its own staff; two of the employees are now recovering. As for agency operations during the pandemic, VOA said about 95% of staff are teleworking, but some must come in periodically to work on live shows. This total does not include its parent agency, U.S. Agency for Global Media (formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors), an independent agency that oversees all non-military U.S. international broadcasting.
Bennett said she’s proud VOA started preparing for “an orderly shutdown” in late January, which included intensive clearing, quarantine plans for those infected and telework test runs. As someone who came to work at VOA from outside the federal government, she said she was pleasantly surprised how quickly her team was able to amend policies and procedures.