Lawsuit Argues Dismissal of Government Media Employees Was Unlawful

WASHINGTON — An internet freedom nonprofit under the umbrella of the U.S. government’s global media agency filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the agency’s new chief executive, Michael Pack, calling his move last week to replace their top staff and governing board unlawful.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Open Technology Fund, is the first legal action taken against Mr. Pack after he dismissed the heads of the technology organization and four news outlets under his purview, along with their bipartisan governing boards. The firings drew fierce criticism from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who suggested Mr. Pack’s ties to the Trump administration would turn independently operated organizations into mouthpieces for the White House.

According to the court filing, Mr. Pack, the chief of the United States Agency for Global Media, does not have the legal authority to fire any staff or governing board member of the Open Technology Fund.

The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, also states that in firing the chiefs of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Mr. Pack violated a “firewall” clause in a federal broadcasting law and agency regulations that shield the government-funded news outlets from political interference and manipulation.

“The law protects the independence of these organizations,” said Ben Scott, a defendant in the lawsuit who had served on the board of the Open Technology Fund. “We will not stand aside while these principles are trampled.”

The suit asks a federal judge to nullify the firings, claiming that the board members and staff Mr. Pack removed still legally hold their positions.

Aside from the Open Technology Fund and Mr. Scott, defendants in the lawsuit include Michael W. Kempner, Ryan C. Crocker and Karen Kornbluh, all of whom were dismissed as board members of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the Open Technology Fund.

Representatives for the U.S. Agency for Global Media could not be immediately reached for comment.

Mr. Pack has yet to name successors of top employees at the news organizations he now oversees. He replaced the bipartisan boards that govern and advise those entities with political appointees of the Trump administration, including himself as chairman. One board member works for a conservative advocacy organization, Liberty Counsel Action.

The actions by Mr. Pack, a conservative filmmaker, raised questions about the editorial independence of the groups given that Mr. Pack is a close ally of Stephen K. Bannon, the former campaign strategist and White House adviser to President Trump who has pressed Mr. Trump to take charge of the news organizations and reshape them to his purposes.

“What he has done is a great gift to China, Russia and repressive regimes across the world,” Mr. Kempner said. “There are not many gifts bigger than destroying one of the few mechanisms for people to send and receive information within closed press, closed information societies.”

On Tuesday, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, requested the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General to review whether Mr. Pack violated the law in dismissing the heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

The chief of the Open Technology Fund, Libby Liu, offered her resignation in mid-June. It was accepted by the group’s board that day, and was to go into effect a month later, but Mr. Pack asked for her immediate dismissal last Wednesday.

The group started as a pilot program within Radio Free Asia in 2012. In 2019, Congress allowed it to become an independent nonprofit grantee of the Agency for Global Media. Lawmakers appropriated $20 million in funding to the group in the 2020 fiscal year.

The organization finances and supports secure internet and encrypted communication technology — like Signal and Tor — in countries with censorship. Since 2012, such tools have allowed over two billion people in 60 countries to gain access to the internet free from censorship and surveillance.

Advocates of internet freedom have pointed to Mr. Pack’s actions as reason to be wary of the Open Technology Fund should it become a partisan arm of the Trump administration. Over 480 human rights groups, news media watchdogs and dissident organizations have signed a letter urging Congress to protect the fund’s work.

But even if the lawsuit is successful, former employees of the fund are worried that the Agency for Global Media might withhold about $11 million of the organization’s 2020 budget, according to Laura Cunningham, who was removed as president of the Open Technology Fund.

“That money is in limbo right now,” she said, noting that without the remaining money, the fund would not “be able to support any new projects going forward.”

The lawsuit also asks a federal judge to deny Mr. Pack or his aides the ability to freeze grant funds already allocated to the technology nonprofit and news outlets.

The Republican-led Senate confirmed Mr. Pack’s nomination this month along party lines. It had been delayed for years by Senate Democrats.

Last month, the attorney general for the District of Columbia said his office was investigating whether Mr. Pack illegally enriched himself by sending $1.6 million from the Public Media Lab, a nonprofit group he oversees, to his for-profit film production company.

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