The Voice of America, the official U.S. government broadcaster, has notified three employees of its Chinese language division that it plans to fire them for conducting a controversial interview with a Chinese dissident.
The three workers, Sasha Gong, Fred Wang, and Robert Li, were notified in letters Nov. 3 that the radio planned to seek their dismissal, allegedly for insubordination and violating the radio's reporting rules.
Four VOA employees were suspended in April amid Chinese government pressure on VOA and the State Department to cancel a live interview with Guo Wengui, an exiled billionaire living in New York who has been targeted by China in a bid to silence his disclosures of high-level corruption and intelligence activities.
The fourth employee, Huchen Zhang, has resumed work at VOA but in a lesser position.
The three-hour live interview with Guo was cut short after one hour and twenty minutes on orders from senior VOA leaders.
The Free Beacon first reported the incident May 23.
Gong, who was chief of VOA's China division, said those facing dismissal will appeal the decision.
"VOA cited ‘insubordination' as the reason to fire me," she told the Free Beacon. "There are two facts they never mention. One, my interview plan was approved by the management. It was the management who wanted to change the plan under the pressure of the Chinese government."
Also, Gong said there were differences between senior VOA management in Washington and VOA reporters in New York over the Guo interview. But senior managers failed to send any emails or notices to change the plan for the three-hour live format that began broadcasting on April 19.
Senior managers then ordered the broadcast cut short and in a statement later said the cutoff was the result of an internal miscommunication.
"I firmly believe that the VOA management caved into the pressure of the Chinese government," Gong said. "It is absurd that Voice of America, a federal agency, would listen to Beijing, and join forces with the Chinese communists to persecute journalists."
Gong also said the Chinese government is determined to prevent Guo from speaking out.
"For years, China has launched a war against our press freedom by blocking dissidents' voices from America, and by threatening whoever spoke out against the regime," she said. "I, together with my excellent colleagues, have become a casualty of that war. It is unfortunate but to me our First Amendment is worth fighting for."
VOA director Amanda Bennett said in a statement that the radio would not comment on personnel matters on privacy grounds.
Bennett said the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, hired the law firm Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani, LLP, to investigate the handling of the Guo interview.
The firm then hired Mark Feldstein, a former journalist now with the University of Maryland who has no Chinese language expertise, to conduct an independent probe of the matter.
"The investigations found that VOA management’s actions were not in any way driven by pressure from the Chinese government, but instead were intended to enforce best industry-wide journalistic practices," Bennett said.
"While we cannot release the investigations, as is the usual practice in these cases, copies of the documents relied upon have been provided to the people in question."
Bennett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is married to former Washington Post publisher Donald E. Graham, currently chairman of Graham Holdings, which owns an international educational subsidiary with business ties to China.
In August, the four suspended VOA employees wrote to the board to complain that their hiring of another former journalist, James McGregor, with business ties in China, was linked to senior Chinese leader Wang Qishan, a member of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee who until his recent retirement was accused by Guo of extensive financial corruption.
The employees' letter said there is "information that McGregor has colleagues who work with the Chinese intelligence."
"For example, a man named Wang Weijia, who is in charge of government relationship in APCO-China, where the chairman of the company McGregor hired him, used to work in the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, collecting economic information of the United States," the letter said.
A VOA spokeswoman declined to say when the board dropped McGregor from its investigation of the Guo interview and turned to Gordon Rees.
Congress in June asked the State Department inspector general to investigate whether VOA caved to pressure from China to curtail the Guo interview.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) questioned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing June 13, noting that "the Chinese government got very upset about this interview."
"The concern is basically that we cannot allow geopolitical pressures from China to influence our ability to broadcast truth, and particularly in that language, in Mandarin," Rubio said. "And so, obviously we want to understand whether that's what happened or not."
Rubio also questioned if the State Department was seeking to smooth relations with China by curtailing the Guo interview and also supporting a $4.5 million cut in funding for Mandarin language broadcasts by Radio Free Asia, a semi-official broadcaster.
"I can confirm that to my knowledge, it had nothing to do with our relations with China," Tillerson said.
Official U.S. radio broadcast outlets have come under fire from critics in recent years for being poorly led and unfocused.