The Voice of America has dismissed the former chief of its Mandarin-language service and suspended another manager following a more than yearlong investigation into the abrupt termination of a live interview with a high-profile critic of the Chinese government.
The agency also said independent investigators found no evidence to support allegations the U.S. government agency caved in to pressure from the Beijing government and may have been infiltrated by a Chinese spy.
VOA Director Amanda Bennett announced the action in an emailed message to staff Thursday, saying the agency "has today removed one Mandarin Service employee and given a period of suspension to another."
Two other Mandarin Service staffers represented by a government employees union are awaiting a decision on disciplinary action. A fifth employee returned to work shortly after the incident. The Mandarin Service reaches 40 million people weekly in China.
Bennett declined in an interview to identify the individuals involved, saying it is a personnel matter. However, the long-suspended service chief, Sasha Gong, confirmed that she has been dismissed and another manager, Huchen Zhang, confirmed he has been suspended.
Gong, who has publicly accused the agency of cutting off the interview with Chinese businessman Guo Wengui because of pressure from Beijing, referred questions to her lawyer, Paul Kiyonaga, who said he and Gong will challenge the dismissal "using all available means of legal redress."
"This decision to fire her from VOA is a travesty for anyone who believes in the First Amendment, journalistic integrity and the independence of our federal agencies," Kiyonaga said.
Zhang said that under the terms of his suspension, he is prohibited from speaking to anyone at VOA.
In her message to VOA staff, Bennett said the personnel action came only after four separate investigations "all concluded the interview's termination was a result of VOA leadership's attempt to enforce previously agreed-upon journalistic standards. The investigations found no evidence to support allegations that pressure from the Chinese government, purportedly driven by 'spies' within VOA, had caused the termination."
One of those investigations was handled by the State Department's Office of Inspector General upon a request from members of Congress, and another was conducted by an award-winning professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. An outside counsel also supported the management position after a three-month investigation, and the fourth was conducted by VOA's security department.
Guo, a U.S.-based businessman, had already raised Chinese hackles at the time of the April 2017 interview with a series of dramatic allegations about corruption among highly placed Chinese officials and their families.
Bennett confirmed that China had sought to block the interview — which had been widely promoted in advance by the Mandarin Service — by calling VOA journalists in Washington and Beijing and lobbying for them to cancel it. China also issued an Interpol Red Notice for Guo's arrest shortly before the interview.
The interview, which was streamed live on social media, went ahead in spite of the warnings. But about 1 hour and 20 minutes into what had been promoted as a three-hour webcast, viewers saw the camera cut to a host, who drew a finger across his throat, and then the screen went dark.
Sabotage assertion rejected
Guo later denounced the decision, writing on his Twitter feed that it was the result of "pressure from various parties" and telling the South China Morning Post in an interview that the broadcast was sabotaged by a "liaison person" for Chinese intelligence within VOA.
VOA managers rejected the charge, saying the live webcast was cut because Gong and her staff had been told to limit it to one hour to reduce the likelihood of Guo making accusations that could not be vetted for accuracy or rebutted by the other side.
Bennett explained the decision to let the interview run live for one hour, saying, "Since it was already arranged, we didn't want to cancel it, but we wanted to minimize the opportunity for unprofessional behavior." Managers said the Mandarin staff were told they could record the final two hours for future use after proper vetting.
However, Kiyonaga argued that Gong was never ordered to cut short the interview. "In fact, VOA itself termed the cutoff of the interview the product of 'miscommunication' — not insubordination — in its own press release, issued shortly after the interview."
Bennett insisted in an interview that the order had been given, and an independent analysis by Mark Feldstein, an award-winning broadcast journalist and Richard Eaton Chair of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland, supported VOA management's decision.
The email quoted Feldstein as saying the Mandarin Service's failure to comply with instructions "was a colossal and unprecedented violation of journalistic professionalism and broadcast industry standards." Reached by email, Feldstein confirmed he was accurately quoted but declined to comment further before consulting with a lawyer.
Kiyonaga still maintained Thursday that it was "only after [China] launched an aggressive campaign to silence Guo Wengui that VOA management caved and began its efforts to curtail the length and content of this critically important interview," a decision he described as "a blatant affront to VOA's core mission to provide robust, unflinching reporting and information to its audience worldwide.”
State Department IG's report
But Bennett's message to staff said the State Department inspector general's report concluded "that the decision to curtail the Guo interview was based solely on journalistic best practices rather than any pressure from the Chinese government."
The internal security review "found no evidence to support" allegations that elements of the Chinese government had infiltrated VOA and compelled the interview to be censored or cut short, Bennett added.
Asked about those claims in the interview, Bennett said, "Any time you have allegations that a foreign power has infiltrated a U.S. government agency and directed its actions, that is a very serious matter, and we took it very seriously. ... We found no evidence whatsoever" that it is true.
Going forward, she said she hopes the agency's actions "will show that we are a professional news organization that follows best journalism practices, that doesn't back down, that corrects its mistakes, but if it is correct, stands behind its reporting. And that we expect professional behavior from every member of our staff."