Trump Officials Accused of Intimidating Advocacy Group for Internet Freedom

July 27, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
In this June 15, 2020, file photo, the Voice of America building stands in Washington. The new chief of U.S. global media is plowing ahead with changes to the Voice of America and other international broadcasters that are heightening concerns about their future as independent news organizations. Although Agency for Global Media chief executive Michael Pack has assured Congress that VOA and its sister networks will remain independent and pledged he would consult lawmakers on significant developments, last week he initiated personnel changes and began a review of visas for foreign employees. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is accused in a new lawsuit in Washington, D.C., of trying to squelch media rights of a nonprofit organization that receives grants from the U.S. government.

The Washington-based Open Technology Fund says the Trump administration is trying to intimidate it, perhaps to gain greater influence over its work with Internet organizations. The intimidation allegedly includes a threat to cut off its grant money.

The Open Technology Fund is an advocacy organization for an open forum on the Internet with no encryption, particularly in developing countries. Many of the Internet-based organizations that Open Technology Fund assists are part of the news media.

It also is a grantee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and other government media enterprises.

The Agency for Global Media has been trying to get its own appointees onto the Open Technology Fund’s board of directors but the nonprofit organization has refused to recognize their authority, thereby rendering the  nonprofit nearly unable to operate.

The lawsuit is part of a larger dispute with the Trump administration and Agency for Global Media over how much the government can control the media.

The Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Trump appointee Michael Pack late last month to head the Agency for Global Media after a long and divisive struggle among lawmakers. Pack is known as a conservative filmmaker.

Within a week after taking his new job, Pack fired the heads of four federally funded agencies that produce news and information for international audiences. They included Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

Voice of America delivers television and radio programs to 236.6 million people worldwide.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement after the firings that Pack “needs to understand that [the Agency for Global Media] is not the Ministry of Information.”

Washington’s attorney general accused Pack and the Agency for Global Media of similar heavy-handed tactics with the Open Technology Fund when he filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court July 20.

It asks for a declaratory judgment saying the original board is valid but the board appointed by Pack has no authority. It also asks the court to declare any actions by the new board to be void.

The D.C. attorney general is authorized under local law to take action to protect  nonprofit organizations. His lawsuit says the court’s decision should be guided by D.C. law on nonprofit organizations rather than Trump administration policy.

The lawsuit says that although the Agency for Global Media provides grant funding for the Open Technology Fund, the nonprofit remains independent. The board of directors can be determined only by the bylaws, not the Agency for Global Media, the lawsuit says.

“Without clarity as to which Board is properly in place, [the Open Technology Fund] is effectively left leaderless and incapable of authorizing decisions on behalf of the nonprofit corporation that allow it to carry out its functions, including an inability to authorize funding for partner organizations or provide support for potential partner organizations,” the lawsuit says. “This sudden upheaval in leadership also leaves employees of the organization at risk of losing their jobs.”

In court filings after the lawsuit was filed, the Open Technology Fund accuses the Agency for Global Media of bad faith actions.

In one example, the filing says Mora Namdar, acting vice president for legal matters of the Agency for Global Media, appeared to record an Open Technology Fund executive during an unplanned inspection of its offices. She also asked about the citizenship of the Fund’s workers and contractors, the filing says.

Citizenship could be an important issue because after Pack took over the Agency for Global Media, Voice of America refused to extend the visas of international journalists who worked for it.

The issue drew words of concern from Nathaniel Kretchun, Open Technology Fund’s vice president of programs, in a declaration for the court.

He said some of the Fund’s employees and partners in 60 countries promote “free expression of repressive regimes.” As a result, threats to their immigration status could place their personal safety at risk.

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