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Helsinki Commission Demands Answers on Failure of USAGM to Renew J-1 Visas for Voice of America Journalists

Thursday, September 03, 2020

WASHINGTON—In a letter to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that the organization provide a detailed explanation for its failure to renew J-1 visas for many foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists.

The letter reads in part:

“Many of these individuals and their families will be forced to return to countries, including China and Russia, where journalists are regularly targeted and silenced for their reporting. For journalists who have carried out the VOA mission of ‘producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media,’ the personal risk may be even greater…

“Congress still has not been informed about the specifics of USAGM’s new policy and for what reason the routine J-1 visa renewal process for these individuals has been stalled. We request a briefing on this policy within the next 30 days. Additionally, we ask that you put into place a policy outlining USAGM’s steps to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under its auspices."

The full text of the letter can be found below:

Dear Mr. Pack,

We write to express our deep concern regarding J-1 visa renewals for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists. Failure to renew their visas has resulted in urgent departures from the United States for these journalists back to their countries of origin. As a result, many of these individuals and their families will be forced to return to countries, including China and Russia, where journalists are regularly targeted and silenced for their reporting. For journalists who have carried out the VOA mission of “producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media,” the personal risk may be even greater.

It further is concerning that these VOA reporters were not informed directly of this change to USAGM policy or given any notice on the renewal status of their J-1 visas. These journalists have worked tirelessly to serve freedom-loving people worldwide—even in some cases risking the distrust of their own governments—and should be treated with basic decency and dignity by USAGM leadership. Instead, they face fear and uncertainty regarding their own livelihoods and the future of their families.

The journalists in question do the important work of providing unbiased news and information to the most closed-off corners of the world. They play a pivotal role at Voice of America because of their critical language skills and connections within the countries they cover.

We urge you to answer questions from the Congress on this matter immediately. The Congress still has not been informed about the specifics of USAGM’s new policy and for what reason the routine J-1 visa renewal process for these individuals has been stalled. We request a briefing on this policy within the next 30 days. Additionally, we ask that you put into place a policy outlining USAGM’s steps to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under its auspices.

Sincerely,

 

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
Relevant issues: 
Relevant countries: 
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    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-02), today introduced the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” (H.R. 624). The bill prohibits foreign human rights offenders and corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and blocks their U.S. assets. It effectively globalizes and strengthens the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012,” which was directed at individuals and entities from Russia. “The ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’ is a game-changer, and demonstrates America’s commitment to protecting human rights worldwide,” said Chairman Smith. “We are sending a message to the world’s worst human rights violators:  we will shine a spotlight on your crimes. We will deny your visas. We will freeze your assets. No matter who you are or how much money you have, you won’t be enjoying the fruits of your misdeeds by visiting the United States or taking advantage of our financial institutions.” “We have made important progress in the last few years,” Rep. McGovern said.  “But since the introduction of the original Magnitsky Act, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists worldwide have urged us to pass a law that covers similar violations in countries other than Russia.  Through the Global Magnitsky Act, we can better standardize our approach to human rights violators and provide clear guidance to the executive branch on how we expect these perpetrators to be held accountable.” “Conscripting child soldiers, kidnapping political opponents, and brutalizing people based on their religion are horrifying acts for which people must be held accountable – and this bill will do it,” said Chairman Smith. “The earlier Magnitsky Act enjoyed overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I expect the Global Magnitsky Act to move forward with the same level of commitment in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.” Earlier this week, Senators Ben Cardin (MD) and John McCain (AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which also applies worldwide and employs visa bans and property freezes. Unique aspects of the House bill include the requirement that the President impose sanctions if he or she determines that a foreign person has committed gross human rights offenses. The bill also permits the President to sanction perpetrators regardless of whether the victims were exercising or defending basic human rights; requires that the annual Global Magnitsky List be released each year on Human Rights Day; and directs the Comptroller General to assess and report on implementation. Both the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and the earlier “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” were inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian officials. He was beaten to death by prison guards in 2009 after being held in torturous conditions for 11 months without trial. Summary: The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” This act requires the President to publish and update a list of foreign persons or entities that the President determines are responsible, and who the President has sanctioned, for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights – including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and prolonged, arbitrary detention – or significant corruption. Known as the Global Magnitsky List, the list will be due annually on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Although the bill directs the President to prioritize cases where the victims were seeking to exercise or defend internationally recognized human and rights and freedoms, like freedom of religious, assembly, and expression, or expose illegal government activity, the President can act regardless of the victim. Sanctions on these individuals and entities will include: Prohibiting or revoking U.S. visas or other entry documentation for foreign individuals. Freezing and prohibiting U.S. property transactions of a foreign individual or entity if such property and property interests are in the United States; come within the United States; or are in, or come within, the control of a U.S. person or entity. This act also requires the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the implementation of the law and report to Congress, so that Congress can ensure it is being executed fully.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Slams Verdicts in Navalny Trial

    WASHINGTON—Following Tuesday’s guilty verdicts and subsequent sentencing of Alexei and Oleg Navalny in Moscow, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I am deeply troubled by the guilty verdicts handed down in the latest manipulation of Russia’s so-called justice system against brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny. The decision further demonstrates how the Russian government has warped what should be an independent voice and check on executive power into a tool to retaliate against its political opponents, continuing its ongoing crackdown on civil society in general.   “By punishing those who dare to voice their dissent, the Russian government undermines only itself. The Russian people deserve better than leaders who attempt to strangle their freedoms under the guise of deterring criminal activity.  As I noted in my statement Tuesday regarding the addition of names to the U.S. government’s visa ban and asset freeze lists, accountability and transparency are sadly lacking in President Putin’s Russia. “I remind Russia, as an OSCE participating State, that the Helsinki Final Act establishes principles and commitments including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states which it has pledged to uphold. I urge the government of Russia to uphold its obligations and commitments to respect the freedoms of expression, assembly and of the media.  The Russian people must be allowed the right to voice their opinions openly, without fear of retaliation by their own government.” Alexei and Oleg Navalny were accused by the Russian authorities of fraud, charges which are viewed as politically motivated; Alexei Navalny is Russia’s leading anti-corruption crusader and a key member of the political opposition. In 2010, Alexei Navalny appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing on fraud schemes in the Russian market.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Additions to Magnitsky List

    WASHINGTON—Following Monday’s addition of four Russian individuals to the Magnitsky List by the Obama Administration, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I welcome the announcement made by the Obama Administration that it has added four additional individuals to the visa ban and asset freeze lists mandated under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.  I applaud the work of the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury to continue to focus attention on Russian government officials implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky and to demonstrate America's willingness to penalize human right violators when their own country refuses to act. "These sanctions are not sanctions against Russia, but against individuals who have committed serious human rights violations against Russians. The American people will continue to support Russians like Sergei Magnitsky who speak out about injustice and seek redress. “While I am pleased that additional names have been added to the Magnitsky List, there remain a significant number of Russians – both government officials and private individuals – against whom evidence exists of their involvement in the conspiracy and cover-up of Magnitsky’s death in 2009, but who have yet to be added to the visa ban and asset freeze lists.  I strongly encourage the Administration to continue its examination of the information available with regard to these individuals and add them to the List. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Raid on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Bureau in Baku

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s raid by authorities in Azerbaijan on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Baku bureau, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “The free and independent press in Azerbaijan remains under attack by the very authorities who should be most committed to its protection. Yesterday’s raid on RFE/RL’s Baku bureau continues the recent and deeply disturbing trend of the government of Azerbaijan to silence dissenting voices within the country, and comes hard on the heels of the recent arrest and pre-trial detention of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. “Once again, we call on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately end their harassment of journalists and to respect the commitments they have made in the past, as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

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