The Trump administration has stopped vital technical assistance to pro-democracy groups in Belarus, Hong Kong and Iran, which had helped activists evade state surveillance and sidestep internet censorship.
The Open Technology Fund (OTF) has had to stop all its operations in Belarus, and many of its activities supporting civil society in Hong Kong and Iran, because a congressionally-mandated grant of nearly $20m has been withheld by a new Trump appointee, Michael Pack.
The OTF is a small non-profit organisation that develops technologies for evading cyber-surveillance and for circumventing internet and radio blackouts imposed by authoritarian regimes. It provides daily help to pro-democracy movements in installing and maintaining them, with the aim of staying at least one step ahead of the state.
The chair of the OTF board, Karen Kornbluh, said the end of funding from the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which Pack has been running since June, would mean that activists living under repressive regimes were at increased risk.
“They are more vulnerable,” Kornbluh told the Guardian. “It means from a US perspective, it’s really undermining this core tool that we have for protecting democratic values and protecting those who are seeking their freedoms overseas.”
She added the freeze also meant that the populations in those countries will find it harder to listen to the Voice of America, the USAGM’s flagship broadcaster, and USAGM-funded stations like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, because it would be more difficult to overcome state jamming methods.
“We have these agencies and we’re kneecapping them,” said Kornbluh, a former US ambassador and now director of the digital innovation and democracy initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Pack had agreed over a month ago to appear before the House foreign affairs committee on Thursday, but cancelled with a few days notice and then ignored a committee subpoena to attend.
Since taking over USAGM in June, Pack – an ally of the rightwing ideologue and former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon – purged all the top management and boards of the broadcasters under its control, froze spending, and elevated the profile of pro-administration comment in relation to news.
Kornbluh and former USAGM officials testifying before the foreign affairs committee described a climate of chaos and creeping authoritarianism at the agency that was sapping the credibility of VOA, RFE/RL and other US broadcasters, with consequences for US national security.
They also said Pack was endangering journalists by refusing to renew the visas for foreign journalists working for VOA, leading to their deportation, potentially to countries where they could be at risk.
In some cases, the management has intervened with US immigration and citizenship services to prevent the journalists from securing other visas, and even bought unsolicited tickets home for VOA reporters.
“They want to demonstrate that as many people as possible are returning back to their countries,” one of the affected VOA journalists said. “I feel like we serve his purpose of America First, foreigners out, media are bad. I would never expect that from a democracy.”
Pack claimed to have an administrative meeting on Thursday which meant he could not attend the congressional hearing, but the committee chair, Eliot Engel, noted that the USAGM meeting appeared to have been called long after Pack first agreed to appear in Congress.
Pack’s office has suggested that visas and funds were frozen over security concerns, but Kornbluh denied allegations that OTF staff used Zoom and were careless with computer drives. The Fund staff do not use Zoom and uses for the cloud rather than physical drives for storage, she said.
Last month, OTF took USAGM to court, resulting in the reinstatement of Kornbluh and its president Laura Cunningham, who Pack had sought to purge, but the congressionally-approved funds have still not been unblocked.
Witnesses at Thursday’s hearing said Pack’s motives for hollowing out the agency were unclear. The USAGM did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview with the rightwing Federalist blog last month, Pack claimed that a dispute over vetting procedures meant that the VOA could be infiltrated by foreign intelligence agencies, suggesting that being a journalist was “a great cover for a spy”.
At Thursday’s committee hearing, Pack was lambasted for echoing the language authoritarian regimes use to justify imprisoning journalists.
“To assert that spies from foreign intelligence agencies have infiltrated the establishment,” Ryan Crocker, a former USAGM board member. “Not only does it discredit our reputation for honesty, it puts everyone out there in the field at danger.”
Grant Turner, the former chief financial officer and acting USAGM CEO said that Pack’s funding freeze had created chaos. At one point, he said there was no money in the agency headquarters to buy toilet roll.
“Nothing in my 17 years [of government experience] comes even close to the gross mismanagement, the abuse of authority, the violations of law, that have occurred since Michael Pack assumed the role of CEO at USAGM,” Turner told the committee.