WASHINGTON -- A federal judge issued a series of preliminary injunctions against a President Donald Trump appointee who has enacted sweeping and contentious changes at Voice of America and other government-funded news networks, effectively stopping the appointee's efforts to reshape the international broadcasters.
The ruling late Friday by Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington was a setback for Michael Pack, who in June took over VOA's parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and immediately set about firing senior leaders and disbanding oversight boards.
Pack had asserted the right to direct how journalists at VOA and sister networks such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia covered the news, a violation of the traditional "firewall" that ensures the networks aren't government mouthpieces.
Pack's declaration was viewed by journalists at the networks as both alarming and ironic, given that their broadcasts -- which are intended to counter foreign government's official censorship and propaganda -- would themselves be subjected to potential censorship by a political appointee of the U.S. government.
Pack's actions and statements, including evidence-free suggestions that VOA was a nest of foreign spies, raised concerns that he was seeking to create news favorable to Trump, his political patron.
Howell's ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed last month by five senior executives at the media agency whom Pack had fired or suspended in August in what was seen as a purge of those opposed to his plans. The former employees sought to stop Pack from interfering in the editorial affairs of the broadcasters his agency oversees.
In Friday's ruling, Howell imposed preliminary injunctions that effectively bar Pack from direct involvement in the networks' editorial operations.
The ruling prevents Pack from making personnel decisions involving journalists at the networks; from directly communicating with editors and journalists employed by them; and from investigating any editors or news stories produced by them.
The judge also said an investigation ordered by Pack early last month of VOA's chief White House reporter, Steve Herman, "imposes an unconstitutional prior restraint not just on Herman's speech, but on the speech of [Herman's editors] and journalists at VOA."
Pack ordered the investigation of Herman because of unspecified concerns about bias in his coverage of Trump. But no finding or disciplinary measures resulted from it.