Wed, 30 Sep 2020

WASHINGTON - A U.S.-funded global internet freedom group says it has had to sharply curtail its work in a new funding dispute with the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).

Laura Cunningham, the acting chief executive of the Washington-based Open Technology Fund, in a letter first reported by the Washington Post last week accused the agency and its leader, Michael Pack, of withholding $20 million in congressionally approved funds intended to promote internet access throughout the world, especially in such authoritarian countries as China and Iran.

She said that as a result the Open Technology Fund is being forced to halt 49 of its 60 internet freedom projects that assist human rights and pro-democracy advocates in about 200 countries.

The Open Technology Fund is one of several government-funded global media entities, including Voice of America, overseen by Pack as chief executive of USAGM. He assumed control of USAGM in June after a protracted fight in Congress over his appointment by President Donald Trump.

Pack offered no immediate comment to VOA about Cunningham's letter.

When he took over USAGM, Pack fired several heads of the government-funded media entities. But a federal appellate court in Washington recently blocked him from dismissing the board and officials at the Open Technology Fund, saying it believed the officials would eventually win their case contesting Pack's ability to oust them.

In her letter, Cunningham said, "This arbitrary and unnecessary delay in funding has now compromised the work of our projects and jeopardized the lives of millions of users who rely on our technologies worldwide.

"This funding delay is needlessly undermining USAGM's reach and impact abroad," she said. "According to USAGM's own analytics, 85% of USAGM's audience in Iran and 40% of USAGM's audience in China rely on OTF-supported technologies to access USAGM content.

"Most troubling is that these actions will directly strengthen the hands of internet freedom adversaries, like the Chinese and Iranian governments, who are actively working to undermine freedom and democracy around the world," Cunningham said.

She asked Pack to release the funding "so that we can resume the truly critical work of countering repressive censorship and surveillance abroad."

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