The Voice of America building on June 15, 2020, in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Agency for Global Media has frozen J-1 visa processing for Voice of America journalists working in the U.S. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Voice of America visa review could put journalists at risk

New York, July 13, 2020—The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern that the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s review of visas at Voice of America could endanger journalists who have worked for the international, U.S.-Congress funded news outlet.

“Voice of America has brought independent news to tightly censored countries and offered journalists working in those environments an opportunity to report freely and safely,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “If they lose their visas, many of these reporters would be forced to return to their home countries, where they could face retribution for their critical reporting. Effectively expelling these journalists from the United States potentially puts them and their families at grave risk.”

The visa review, which follows the confirmation in June of Michael Pack as head of the agency, could affect 62 contractors and 14 full-time employees at Voice of America, according to reports by Voice of America and NPR

Repatriated journalists could face retribution for their critical reporting; CPJ research shows that VOA journalists have been harassed and detained in Chinacharged with treason in Ethiopia, imprisoned in Eritrea and Vietnam, and killed on assignment in Somalia.

A spokesperson for USAGM, which oversees the broadcaster, told CPJ in an emailed statement that the agency will conduct a case-by-case assessment of J-1 renewal applications. The spokesperson said the review was implemented to “improve agency management and protect U.S. national security.” 

The deadline for J-1 visa renewal has already passed for several journalists, which would compel them to return to their home countries, VOA reported.

Additionally, USAGM has frozen all VOA contracts, which employ about 40% of the staff, according to The Washington Post.

It is not clear how many journalists at other USAGM-supervised news organizations, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks, might be affected, according to VOA.

On June 22, the Trump administration suspended the issuance of new H-1B, H-2B, J and L visas, though did not specify if existing visas may be renewed, according to a presidential proclamation published on the White House website.

Trump’s White House in April released a statement blasting VOA for “promoting propaganda” in response to the outlet’s reporting on COVID-19, CPJ reported at the time.