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Voice of America reassigns White House reporter after she sought to question Mike Pompeo

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5 days ago Paul Farhi
a man wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a building: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House in December. © Jonathan Ernst/Reuters U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House in December.

The director of Voice of America ordered the reassignment of a reporter for the international news organization after she sought to ask questions of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a VOA-sponsored appearance on Monday, according to several people who attended the event.

Patsy Widakuswara, who covers the White House for VOA, was ordered off the beat by Director Robert Reilly after firing questions at Pompeo after his speech and a brief Q&A session conducted by Reilly.

Pompeo, who had spoken about “American exceptionalism” and criticized oppressive regimes in China, Iran and elsewhere during his appearance, ignored Widakuswara’s questions as he left VOA’s headquarters in Washington.

Reilly, a former VOA director and conservative writer, was appointed to head the government-funded agency last month by Michael Pack, who since June has headed VOA’s parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The White House Correspondents’ Association called the decision to reassign Widakuswara “an assault on the First Amendment” in a statement Tuesday morning. VOA’s action “is an affront to the very ideals Secretary of State Pompeo discussed in his speech Monday,” wrote Zeke Miller, the organization’s president. It “harms the interests of all Americans who depend on the free press to learn about the actions of their government and gives comfort to efforts to restrict press freedom around the world.”

Widakuswara had been scheduled to fly on Air Force One with the president Tuesday as a member of the press travel pool. She told the correspondents group Monday night that she would be unable to fulfill the assignment as a result of her reassignment.

Pack has ignited several controversies, lawsuits and whistleblower complaints during his short tenure, during which he has attempted to reshape VOA and four other international networks. He has replaced experienced managers with loyalists and has asserted his right to influence editorial judgments, despite regulations prohibiting political influence over news produced by the agencies.

[How Trump’s obsessions with media and loyalty coalesced in a battle for Voice of America]

Widakuswara, who declined to comment, has been a VOA employee since 2003 and has covered the White House since mid-2018.

A VOA spokesperson declined to comment. Reilly did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Widakuswara’s reassignment — which appears to be punishment for seeking information from a prominent newsmaker — carries several layers of irony, given the themes of Pompeo’s talk and the issues surrounding his appearance.

A small group of VOA employees filed an anonymous whistleblower complaint last week asserting that Pompeo’s appearance in VOA’s auditorium would pose a coronavirus health risk and that orders to carry the speech on VOA’s TV channels and live streams amounted to the promotion of government “propaganda.”

During his speech Monday, Pompeo told a small group of VOA employees, “It is not fake news for you to broadcast that this is the greatest nation in the history of the world and the greatest nation that civilization has ever known.”

[Pompeo calls on VOA to trumpet American exceptionalism as journalists at the service warn of propaganda]

He also decried censorship abroad, comparing it to efforts by social media giants to limit inflammatory commentary in the wake of a mob assault on the U.S. Capitol.

“This kind of censorial instinct is dangerous,” he said. “It’s morally wrong. And it’s against your mandate. Censorship, wokeness, political correctness, it all points in one direction — authoritarianism, cloaked as moral righteousness. . . . It’s time that we simply put woke-ism to sleep.”

He also said it was wrong to ignore America’s faults. “But this isn’t the vice of America, focusing on everything that’s wrong with our great nation. . . . It certainly isn’t the place to give authoritarian regimes in Beijing or Tehran a platform.”

Reilly conducted a brief question session afterward but didn’t touch on recent events, such as the Capitol attack and the State Department’s re-designation of Cuba on Monday as a terrorist state.

No outside journalists were permitted to attend the event, and VOA journalists weren’t permitted to ask questions. When several in attendance began to shout questions after the program finished, a live stream of the event went dark within seconds.

Widakuswara trailed Pompeo as he left the building, shouting after him, “Mr. Secretary, what are you doing to repair the U.S. reputation around the world? Mr. Secretary, do you regret saying there will be a second Trump administration?” (Days after Democrat Joe Biden won the election in November, Pompeo echoed President Trump’s false claims of victory and said he was expecting a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”)

She received no response from Pompeo.

VOA deputy director Elizabeth Robbins, who organized Pompeo’s visit to VOA, later told Widakuswara she was being reassigned. Reilly hired Robbins as his deputy last month from the State Department, where she had been a deputy assistant secretary for public affairs.

11:45 a.m. This story has been updated with a statement from the White House Correspondents’ Association and more details about Widakuswara’s reassignment.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this story.

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