Summary of Review
At the request of the U.S. Congress,1 the Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted a targeted inspection to assess how the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and its five broadcasting entities2 (networks) complied with 22 Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) Part 531, Statutory Firewall and Highest Standards of Professional Journalism. OIG also assessed whether USAGM and network staff followed internal policies and procedures intended to ensure adherence to the highest standards of professional journalism. OIG conducted an earlier targeted inspection, published in December 2020,3 that reviewed USAGM’s and the networks’ compliance with journalistic standards up to June 2020. This targeted inspection covers the period from June 2020 to November 2021.
For this report, OIG reviewed editorial independence and firewall language in USAGM governing legislation, regulations, and internal policies and procedures, as well as staff and stakeholder views of editorial independence and the adoption, repeal, and planned reissuance of 22 C.F.R. Part 531. OIG interviewed staff from USAGM and all five networks.
OIG also reviewed an October 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that focused on USAGM’s governance structure and oversight processes for its broadcasting entities4 and reviewed selected documents from firewall-related legal action that occurred during the former USAGM leadership’s tenure. Further, OIG noted that in June 2021, USAGM leadership hired independent experts to conduct a review of allegations referred to USAGM by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC)5 and other events at USAGM during the period from June 2020 to January 2021. Because these completed and ongoing reviews address the specific alleged violations of editorial independence by previous USAGM leadership, OIG did not attempt to reach conclusions on those specific allegations in this targeted inspection. Instead, OIG assessed the overall effectiveness of USAGM and network policies, procedures, leadership actions, and training in establishing organization-wide clarity and compliance with editorial independence and the firewall during the period covered by this inspection, including while 22 C.F.R. Part 531 was in effect.
GAO recommended in its report that Congress consider legislation to define the parameters of USAGM’s firewall, such as describing what is and is not permissible regarding network editorial independence.6 Moreover, in this review, OIG found that 22 C.F.R. Part 531 did not add sufficient clarity for USAGM and network staff to consistently define violations or ensure compliance during the short period of time the regulation was in effect. USAGM and network staff told OIG several actions by USAGM leadership during the period 22 C.F.R. Part 531 was in effect7 negatively impacted editorial independence and did not align with USAGM firewall principles. However, USAGM and network staff also said that unclear and inconsistent definitions of editorial independence and the firewall contributed to uncertainty about what constituted a firewall violation and to an uneven understanding at the working level about firewall protections, both in general and, in particular, when 22 C.F.R. Part 531 was in effect. OIG also found that USAGM’s internal procedures to address firewall issues and violations were outdated.
With respect to USAGM and the networks’ current adherence to the “highest standards of professional journalism,” OIG found that USAGM and network leadership communicated and modeled support for editorial independence and journalistic standards, although the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) could have more consistently communicated its priorities and objectives. Since February 2021, USAGM leadership had taken steps to improve oversight of internal controls governing journalistic standards, including issuing updated guidance in May 2021. Furthermore, OIG found the networks generally had appropriate oversight of editorial controls, program reviews, and procedures to respond to violations of journalistic standards and principles, with exceptions at OCB and the Voice of America (VOA). Finally, regarding training on journalistic standards, OIG found that although all networks delivered training on standards, the quality and frequency varied. In August 2021, USAGM initiated a project to coordinate with the networks to develop an overall training policy, as recommended by OIG in its December 2020 report.8
This report includes nine additional recommendations to improve USAGM and network compliance with editorial independence and journalistic standards and principles. In its comments on the draft report, the USAGM concurred with all nine recommendations. OIG considers all nine recommendations resolved. USAGM’s response to each recommendation, and OIG’s reply, can be found in the Recommendations section of this report. USAGM’s formal written response is reprinted in its entirety in Appendix E.
1 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2021, H.R. Rep. No. 116-444, page 36.
2 The five entities are Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. For the purposes of this report, the term “broadcasting” is understood to encompass all media content produced and transmitted by the networks, including on digital platforms.
3 OIG, Targeted Inspection of the U.S. Agency for Global Media: Journalistic Standards and Principles (ISP-IB-21-06, December 2020).
4 GAO, U.S. Agency for Global Media: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Oversight of Broadcasting Networks (GAO-22-104017, October 2021).
5 The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency whose primary mission is to safeguard the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing. Its basic authorities come from four federal statutes: the Civil Service Reform Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Hatch Act, and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.6 GAO-22-104017, October 2021, pages 27-28.
7 22 C.F.R. Part 531 (June 15, 2020), repealed by 85 Fed. Reg. 79427 (December 10, 2020), was in effect from June 11, 2020, to October 26, 2020. Michael Pack was USAGM CEO from June 9, 2020, to January 20, 2021.
8 ISP-IB-21-06, December 2020, page 17.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media should update its firewall guidance and procedures and disseminate the updates to agency and network staff.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting should implement a strategic communication plan that conveys journalistic standards objectives and priorities to staff.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting should create written policies or procedures that define the editorial review process to ensure that all content is reviewed before broadcast.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting should develop and disseminate to staff written procedures governing how journalistic standards lapses will be addressed, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the various personnel and offices involved.
Voice of America should require all language services to complete the annual program reviews according to network and U.S. Agency for Global Media policies.
Voice of America should develop and distribute to staff a written action plan for each annual program review, to include how action items will be implemented and enforced.
Voice of America should develop and disseminate to staff, including through training, written procedures governing how journalistic standards lapses will be addressed, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the various personnel and offices involved.
Voice of America should clarify the roles and authorities of the Standards Editor in implementing standards-related guidance for all staff.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media should offer the Office of Cuba Broadcasting a Spanish-language option for training on journalistic standards and principles.