VOA staff employment terminated; months after livestreamed interview

Guo Wengui is currently in exile in the US. Since April, Guo's social media accounts have been blocked and suspended. Credit: Youtube

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) calls on Voice of America (VOA) to provide an explanation for the termination of the employment of three staff members, following the Guo Wengui live stream interview in April, 2017.On April 19, VOA livestreamed an interview with Chinese fugitive billionaire, Guo Wengui. The interview was originally scheduled to run for three hours, but the livestream was abruptly cut short, citing issues of ‘miscommunication’ for the disconnection. VOA strongly refused claims of self-censorship, however several media reports said that senior officials of the Foreign Ministry Affairs in China met with the Beijing Bureau Chief of VOA, and reportedly told VOA that the interview ‘interfered with China’s internal affairs’ and ‘interfered with the 19th National People’s Congress’. Following the interview, five VOA staff, Yang Chen, Bao Shen, Sasha Gong Xiaoxia, Dong Fang and Bao Shen were ordered to take administrative leave with pay until further notice.Last month, Yang Chen was the first staff members to be informed that his employment had been reinstated and he could resume duties. Earlier this month, senior editor, Bao Shen was allowed to resume his duties. However Sasha, Gong and Bao were advised that their employment would be terminated as they violated certain regulations including disobeying management orders and not following journalistic practices. Sasha and Dong were the interviewers and Bao was the technician during the interview.Sasha told the IFJ that she will fight the termination and she disagreed with the allegations. She said: “They could not tell me which order I had disobeyed. I don’t understand how I had not followed the journalistic practice.”Gong told the IFJ that: “The senior demanded me not to ask any corruption questions related to Guo and the Chinese leaderships, when they tried to stop the interview. I did not produce all of my materials of Guo Wengiu that he gave to me for the interview, even though management demanded them when I was suspended. I refused to give them , as I have a duty to protect all my materials. This is the basic principles of press freedom.”Gong went on to say: “I can tell you that the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC tried to suppress us at least twice. I have the evidence to prove it. They called my office directly on the day before the interview. I believe they did the same thing to the management.” However she claimed that she did not know whether there was any press from the US Government. Gong said that she asked VOA for help after she received a threatening letter three months ago, but VOA refused. The letter, which was written in Chinese said: “Let bullet passed”. According to several overseas media reports, Chinese officials ordered VOA to stop the interview, otherwise their working visas might have ‘problems’. Several US representatives have demanded an investigation into the case. The IFJ Asia Pacific office said: “VOA must provide clarification regarding the termination of Sasha, Dong and Bao. No journalist or media outlet should succumb to the pressure of external actors, particularly governments. Organisations, such as VOA, have an important role to play in supporting press freedom in China. As a watchdog, the media needs to stand firm to guarantee press freedom, serving the public not any authorities.” The Chinese Government took a number of steps to stop the interview from taking place. On April 19, Interpol issued a warrant for Wengui’s arrest. On April 20, the Communist Party issued several reports smearing Guo’s integrity. Several of Guo’s online and social media accounts have been suspended and closed down. We call on the US Government to investigate this case, particularly why the interview abruptly stopped.

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