US cuts aid to pro-democracy groups in Iran, Belarus
The United States has cut key technical assistance to groups that help activists in Iran, Belarus and Hong Kong avoid stringent internet censorship laws and evade state surveillance.
US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) chief Michael Pack has withheld nearly $20 million in congressionally-mandated grant funds from the Open Technology Fund (OTF), forcing it to stop operations in the three countries.
The OTF describes itself as a non-profit "focused on counteracting repressive censorship and surveillance, enabling citizens worldwide to exercise their fundamental human rights online."
Karn Kornbluh, chair of the OTF board, said the cut in funding will put activists at risk.
“They are more vulnerable,” Kornbluh told The Guardian. “It means from a US perspective, it’s really undermining this core tool that we have for protecting democratic values and protecting those who are seeking their freedoms overseas.”
Kornbluh added that the move will hinder activists' access to the USAGM’s flagship broadcaster, The Voice of America, and USAGM-funded stations like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia.
Concerns have been increased about the independence of the the US' state-funded news outlets since US President Donald Trump appointed Pack to head USAGM in June. Under Pack, an ally of the president, top management positions have been purged and pro-Trump content has been elevated.
Pack has also been accused of endangering foreign VOA journalists by refusing to renew their visas. Without right to remain in the US, these reporters face deportation to countries where their lives could be at risk.