September 29, 2020 at 8:54 am EDT | by Kaela Roeder
U.S. broadcasting agency executive director ignores House subpoena
Internet freedom advocates have launched an online petition that urges Congress to continue supporting the Open Technology Fund and global internet freedom.

In a bipartisan agreement, House members on Sept. 24 held an oversight hearing focused on the actions of the newly-appointed executive director of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee subpoenaed Michael Pack to explain his actions since June that include withholding congressionally-approved funds, mass firings and other questionable activities.

Pack ignored this subpoena, and didn’t show. The agency also did not respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment.

In July, the Blade reported LGBTQ internet freedoms may be at risk on a global scale due to the new leadership. Two weeks after his appointment, Pack fired the heads of Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

“We have always tried to be a safe harbor for people,” said Open Technology Fund President Laura Cunningham in an interview. “To feel like we are not able to be there for those communities who we have served and have been honored to do so for the last decade is devastating.”

In early June, Pack attempted to remove Cunningham as the fund’s president and dismiss its board of directors, including Karen Kornbluh, a witness at the hearing. The fund immediately filed suit challenging the agency, Cunningham said. 

In a unanimous ruling on Aug. 20, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the fund’s motion of a preliminary injunction restricting the agency from removing or replacing employees at the fund, Cunningham said. In addition, the members of the fund who held roles in June will remain on staff.

The agency, which operates independently from the U.S. government, oversees five different entities that include Voice of America, broadcasting platforms and the Open Technology Fund. This fund is an independent non-profit organization that focuses on advancing global internet freedom by providing internet access, digital privacy tutorials, apps like Signal and Tor, privacy enhancement and security tools like encryption.

Witnesses called to the hearing include Amanda Bennett, the former director of the Voice of America; Jamie Fly, the former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Ryan Crocker, an Open Technology Fund board member.

In the past, the fund has led projects that mitigate the targeting of queer people and assist with teaching technology safety around the world. For example, Grindr has implemented discrete icons and other tools in countries where being LGBTQ is dangerous.

“Despite a track record of success and providing internet access and other vital support to those in China, Iran, Russia and other authoritarian states, Pack has ignored the will of Congress and withheld millions of dollars in funding from OTF,” said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member and the committee’s top Republican.

Kornbluh said about $20 million in funding has been withheld from the Open Technology Fund. 

“Many marginalized communities and LGBT communities rely on our technologies, especially our secure communication technologies, to stay safe online,” Cunningham said. “And frankly, just to live their lives in an in a normal way, like any one of us would expect.”

Grant Turner, the former chief financial officer with the agency, said “within days of Mr. Pack’s arrival, he declared war on OTF” by firing the leadership and halting funding. 

McCaul also said this withholding has “damaged support during the height of unrest in Hong Kong. And they were continuing to do so today in Belarus.”

An LGBTQ activist in Belarus, Vika Biran, was arrested over the weekend. The arrest was for “violation of the procedure for organizing or holding mass events,” according to Unit, a group that describes itself as “a network of journalists telling the stories of marginalized people in the post-Soviet states.”

Kornbluh said stop-work orders have been filed for every project under the fund in Belarus. Because of the disruptions, 80 percent of the projects by the Open Technology Fund in China, Venezuela and other countries have been canceled, as well. Employees at the fund have also taken a pay cut to offset the money lost, she said.

“OTF is a bipartisan American success story,” said Kornbluh. “It is absolutely critical to U.S. efforts to combat the rise of digital authoritarianism. But unfortunately, the agency has defunded and is now disparaging this small but crucial organization.”

The committee’s chair, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said he asked Pack to appear before the committee to answer questions and explain the “alarming first few weeks on the job,” he said.

On Aug. 3, the agency and Pack made a commitment to appear in front of the committee, Engel said. Last week, shortly after the committee announced the hearing, the agency informed Engel he would not attend. Pack did not state specific reasons, saying there were “administrative proceedings” that required his attention on the day of the hearing.

The committee learned Pack personally scheduled an administrative hearing for the people he suspended. A subpoena was issued when Pack said he would no longer attend the hearing, Engel said.

“It’s my view that Mr. Pack manufactured this conflict to get out of being here today,” Engel said.

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2020. All rights reserved.