(Corrects to show that VOA did cut short the interview and was pressed by China’s government)
BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. government-backed Voice of America (VOA) has suspended its Mandarin-language service chief and four other staff involved in interviewing Guo Wengui, a U.S.-based Chinese businessman wanted by the Chinese government, it said on Wednesday.
China’s foreign ministry said on April 20 that Interpol had issued a “red notice” for the controversial property tycoon, who has made repeated claims of high-level corruption within the ruling Communist Party.
China’s confirmation of the “red notice”, an international alert for someone wanted for extradition, came on the day VOA interviewed Guo in an hour-long live-stream in which he elaborated on his accusations of graft in the top echelons of the party.
The interview ended abruptly, leading to speculation it had been cut short.
Dong Fang, a reporter for VOA’s Mandarin-language service who was involved in the interview, said on Twitter on May 1 that he would be suspended for an undisclosed period from Tuesday while the news agency investigated.
Dong, who is based in Washington, according to the VOA website, called the investigation “unexpected” and said he would have to hand over his electronic equipment, his key to the office, and he would not be allowed to use his VOA email, though he would still be paid.
“VOA Mandarin Service Chief Sasha Gong and four other Mandarin service employees have been placed on administrative leave pending a full investigation,” a VOA spokeswoman said in an email to Reuters on Wednesday.
Gong, who is also U.S.-based, could not be reached for comment. The three other VOA Mandarin service employees who Dong identified as on administrative leave also appeared to be U.S-based.
VOA did not identify the other three employees and Reuters was unable to independently verify the accuracy of Dong’s list.
China has not said what crimes Guo is suspected of committing. Guo has denied wrongdoing and said he would not be deterred in his fight against corruption.
VOA did not give details of its investigation but said that “decisions regarding the interview with Guo Wengui were made by a group of senior VOA leaders led by director Amanda Bennett”.
VOA also said that there was never any discussion of not doing the interview with Guo.
The interview was cut short, but the decision to do that was made before it began not during the live-stream, VOA said.
“The decisions were based on the journalistic principles of verification, balance and fairness that are standard industry practice and apply universally to all VOA services,” VOA said.
“There are no special exemptions for individual services to follow different practices.”
VOA also said it had not been pressed in any way by the U.S. government. The Chinese government did put pressure on the company but this did not influence the decision to shorten the interview or place staff on leave, VOA said.
Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Robert Birsel