BBG Watch has seen evidence that Voice of America (VOA) Director Amanda Bennett, who is one of several Obama administration holdovers in the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), interrupted her two-week official tour of Africa to send a word to Washington ordering VOA Mandarin Service to cut short their planned three-hour live interview with Guo Wengui, a Chinese businessman turned whistleblower on government corruption in China. One of the justifications given by the VOA director for cutting the live interview short was to limit the risk of Mr. Guo making allegations of corruption against Communist Party government officials in China which later might turn out to be unfounded.
When Ms. Bennett’s order was carried out despite multiple and vigorous protests from VOA Mandarin Service journalists, VOA suffered a major blow to its reputation among its Chinese audience. Many saw it as caving in to pressure from the Chinese government which earlier had expressed its strong opposition to the planned VOA interview and quickly issued a warrant for Mr. Guo’s arrest before the scheduled interview. It was a clear proof that the Chinese government greatly feared what Mr. Guo might tell VOA. Ms. Bennett categorically denies that she was motivated by fear of how the Chinese government might react if VOA presented the live interview as it was initially promised in TV and online promos.
Ms. Bennett reportedly justified her order to shorten the live interview by arguing that Chinese Communist Party officials must be given an opportunity to respond “in advance” to any accusations of corruption. She was supported in her view by her deputy, Sandy Sugawara, also an Obama administration holdover, who was at the time in Washington. Ms. Sugawara put pressure on resisting Mandarin Service journalists to carry out Ms. Bennett’s order.
Both Ms. Bennett and Ms. Sugawara insisted that getting Chinese Communist officials to respond to any allegations first before they would be expressed on the record by Mr. Guo in an interview was good journalistic practice. They vehemently denied to incredulous VOA Mandarin Service journalists that their decision represented in any way caving in to pressure from Beijing.
VOA Mandarin Service reporters argued that the Chinese government had already responded to Mr. Guo’s accusations and that the official Chinese response would be presented during the interview while any unsupported allegations from Mr. Guo, if there were any, would be vigorously challenged. Ms. Bennett reportedly said that this is not enough and that she herself as an experienced journalist would never conduct an interview with someone making serious allegations of corruption even against government officials the way VOA Mandarin Service journalists were planning to conduct the interview with Mr. Guo. Chances of Chinese government officials agreeing to respond to specific accusations of corruption in advance are believed, however, to be practically nonexistent. VOA Mandarin Service reporters were insulted by her doubts in their ability to conduct a fair and balanced interview, inside sources told BBG Watch.
Evidence seen by BBG Watch shows that Ms. Bennett ordered VOA Mandarin Service journalists to reduce the length of the interview both on live one-hour TV program and in a live two-hour Facebook broadcast in order to reduce the possibility of Mr. Guo making reckless or impulsive charges. VOA Mandarin Service originally had promised one hour of live TV and two hours of live Facebook interview with Mr. Guo. Ms. Bennett ordered VOA Mandarin Service not to allow Mr. Guo to make allegations about Chinese communist officials even in the course of a shortened interview. She did not explain how this should be accomplished.
Reaction to VOA director’s order among Chinese viewers was swift and almost uniformly negative. Here are three typical comments and a meme created by outside critics of VOA management’s actions:
When I heard Sasha Gong and Fred Wang say: “because of special reasons we must stop our interview…”, my feeling was exactly as same as when I heard the announcement of the Chinese communist government on the eve of 04.06.1989 [the Tienamen Square Massacre]. Tears were in my eyes. I just don’t know if it was for Mr. Guo’s fate, the deaths of 04.06.89, or for the death of VOA –because VOA was my beacon through all the dark nights when I was in China.
When I saw the sudden cutting short of the 3 hour direct broadcasting which VOA announced for several days in advance and promised before and during the program , I said VOA is done for! They are scared to death by the Chinese government !
What made me more scornful of the decision makers was their next day’s explanation read by the lady wearing a white flower . The explanation is a typical lie ! It’s wording is very similar to the speeches of those disgraceful spokesmen/spokeswomen of Chinese Foreign ministry!
Shame on VOA!
[…]It is very sad to see this event happened. When I watched the live VOA Guo Wengui interview program, the program was suddenly cut off. I felt Democracy died in America. Voice of America was the symbol of freedom and democracy. It represented the values of United States: freedom of press and freedom of speech. The cut-short program stopped the Voice of Freedom and Democracy. Today’s VOA is not the VOA I listened to during my youth years in China. It has become the Shame of America: Voice of Silence.
A group of Chinese Americans, former Chinese dissidents and protested last week against censorship in a demonstration staged in front of the Voice of America building in Washington, DC.
Ms. Bennett and her boss, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing have argued that an hour long live interview with Mr. Guo was enough and that the next two hours would have been recorded and any further allegations of corruption made by him against Chinese officials would be checked and presented by VOA to the Chinese government for a response.
The cutting short of the interview, however, meant that it could not continue because Mr. Guo would only agree to being interviewed live.
What Mr. Lansing, Ms. Bennett and Ms. Sugawara also apparently failed to understand was that the act of cutting short the interview alone would raise widespread suspicions and accusations in China that Mr. Guo was being censored by VOA in response to pressure from the Chinese government. VOA and BBG executives apparently did not anticipate that the decision to cut short the interview after promises of a three hour live conversation had already been made to the audience would have a major negative impact on VOA’s credibility and reputation in China. Mr. Guo has a widespread following in China on social media. His tweet about the interview being cut short produced a storm of online criticism directed against VOA.
Neither Ms. Bennett, Ms. Sugawara nor Mr. Lansing has any prior experience in U.S. international broadcasting, managing of government employees and government organizations or in managing U.S. public diplomacy.
Ms. Bennett’s order to cut short an important interview had a negative impact not only on the Voice of America but also on Radio Free Asia (RFA) which had no role in the controversy. Judging from comments on social media, after the VOA incident some Chinese also suspect RFA of caving in to pressure from the Chinese government and suspect the Trump administration of the same thing even though Ms. Bennett, Ms. Sugawara, and Mr. Lansing were appointed to their positions during the Obama administration.
There is no indication that any Trump administration official had a role in the Guo Wengui VOA interview scandal.
Speaking Monday, May 1, 2017, at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the George Washington University (GWU) School of Media & Public Affairs panel in connection with the World Press Freedom Day, BBG CEO John F. Lansing said in answering a question from former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno that neither he nor anyone at the Voice of America was responding to pressure from the Chinese communist government when the live VOA interview with Guo Wengui was suddenly shortened on April 19. Mr. Lansing stressed that VOA would never be pressured by Beijing.
It appears, however, that VOA director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara took action to shorten the live interview with Guo Wengui only after the Chinese government issued its protest. Before that VOA was moving full speed with the interview as it was originally planned by the Mandarin Service in agreement with Mr. Guo. VOA and BBG top executives all deny that they were responding to any pressure and justified their decision by their concern about protecting high journalistic standards.
Mr. Lansing told Mr. Sesno and the audience that he is “still gathering facts on this situation,” but added that in his view a one hour-long live TV interview was more than enough. Many in China disagree, but Mr. Lansing did not seem to understand why.
Neither Mr. Lansing nor Ms. Bennett realized that the shortening of the interview, whether in response to pressure or not, would still be a major blow to VOA’s reputation among its audience in China because it would create an appearance of submitting to pressure. If nothing else, this unfortunate incident shows that both of them, as well as managers advising them, do not understand the impact of VOA’s journalism abroad and have limited understanding of U.S. international broadcasting and U.S. public diplomacy.