WASHINGTON — Five officials suspended from the government’s global media agency sued its chief executive and top aides on Thursday, claiming they broke the law in repeatedly seeking to turn a news service under its purview into a mouthpiece for pro-Trump propaganda.
The 84-page lawsuit asserts that Michael Pack, the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or his aides have interrogated journalists at the Voice of America who have censured Mr. Pack or written articles top officials believed were critical of President Trump, instilling fear across the agency.
Mr. Pack’s aide, Samuel E. Dewey, for example, began a retaliatory investigation against the Voice of America’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, after he signed a letter in August saying Mr. Pack risked “crippling” the news outlet.
As part of that investigation, Mr. Dewey and another aide scrutinized Mr. Herman’s “private social media activity for any hint of bias” against Mr. Trump, compiling a 30-page dossier that they sent to Voice of America’s top executive “in a clear effort to pressure the acting director to take action.”
In another episode, Mr. Dewey pressed the chief of Voice of America’s Urdu service over whether it had published enough content about civil unrest over the summer that highlighted the effect of what he described as “mass rioting.”
Mr. Dewey demanded to know if the news service had covered statements by Attorney General William P. Barr about “those who lived in underserved communities and had their property damaged.” Mr. Trump and his supporters have repeatedly tried to cast protests against police brutality and racial inequality as riots and looting.
The lawsuit, reported earlier by NPR, claims those instances violated a firewall provision that prevents Mr. Pack or his aides at the U.S. Agency for Global Media from meddling in the editorial affairs of Voice of America, or the other news outlets it oversees. The plaintiffs also said those interventions highlighted a core truth about working at the Voice of America under Mr. Pack’s leadership.
“Journalists are safe where they favor the administration but not where they don’t,” the lawsuit states.
Representatives from the U.S. Agency for Global Media did not immediately return a request for comment.
Since taking office in June, Mr. Pack thrust his relatively unknown agency into the spotlight. In one of his first moves, he swiftly fired the heads of the four news outlets and an internet technology nonprofit under his oversight. He also replaced the bipartisan board that supervises the organizations with allies of the Trump administration.
Since then, Mr. Pack has purged staff critical of his leadership; starved organizations he oversees from basic funding; and threatened to withhold visa approvals for at least 76 foreign journalists at the Voice of America who now may be deported because he has deemed them a “security risk.”
Critics of Mr. Pack assert he has run the agency in an authoritarian manner: finding any issue that confirms his perception of liberal bias at the organization and doling out punishment in ways that intimidate employees who have been critical of the Trump administration.
“This is very Stalinist,” said Bricio Segovia, a former White House correspondent for V.O.A.’s Spanish language TV service, who left the agency last month. “When you have people acting out of fear, that’s actually how most companies work in countries like Russia.”
One of the most glaring examples, plaintiffs said, occurred in late July, when a two-minute video posted on the news outlet’s Urdu-language website featured former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. urging Muslim Americans to vote and criticizing Mr. Trump for his “Muslim ban.”
The video was a clear breach of the outlet’s editorial standards, but it also presented Mr. Pack the ability to send a message, plaintiffs said. Mr. Pack’s top advisers participated in an investigation into the clip — once again circumventing the agency’s firewall provisions. Shortly after the investigation concluded, the four journalists involved were fired.
Aside from violating editorial guidelines, others have said Mr. Pack has also threatened his agency’s ability to combat disinformation across the globe.
Mr. Pack has withheld nearly $20 million in funding to the Open Technology Fund, an internet freedom group that his agency oversees. The fund helped create encryption products — like Signal and Tor — used by over two billion people in 60 countries. Now, it has been forced to suspend 80 percent of its projects, many of which allow citizens in China, Iran, Venezuela and Belarus to circumvent stringent government firewalls and read uncensored news, according to internet freedom groups.
As the critiques of Mr. Pack have grown, Democrats and even some Republicans are becoming increasingly furious by Mr. Pack’s leadership.
“He’s the wrong person for the job,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “He should resign. And if he doesn’t, the president should fire him.”