BBG Watch Commentary
UK-based award-winning investigative reporter Shahida Tulaganova joined another award-winning journalist Khadija Ismayilova, a former political prisoner in Azerbaijan, in criticizing the management of their former employer, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for killing journalism, creativity and employee motivation.
Tulaganova wrote in her January 25, 2018 Facebook post, RFE/RL management “kills journalism, incentive and values we do this job for.” Khadija Ismayilova, who recently also had quit RFE/RL in frustration, wrote a day earlier that senior RFE/RL executives suffer from “a crisis of career stagnation“ and don’t know how to communicate with journalists.
The two women were both defending their former RFE/RL colleagues in the Georgian Service who have complained about heavy-handed management style and pressure from senior executives to make decisions that these frontline journalists and service managers say could undermine their service’s credibility in Georgia.
Uzbek-born Shahida Tulaganova has had a distinguished journalistic career since she left Uzbekistan and received a Master’s degree in diplomatic studies from University of Westminster. She was a co-producer of award-winning HBO USA/Czech Republic documentary film “Cries from Syria” which showed ISIS brutality. She interviewed all the individuals featured in the film and wrote the narration voiced by Helen Mirren.
Before accepting the job as producer of RFE/RL’s Russian language news program “Current Time” in 2014, which she said she left in “frustration” after two-and-a-half years during which time she was also managing editor and anchor, Shahida Tulaganova had worked for BBC’s Uzbek Service as a popular presenter from 1996 to 2002 before moving to BBC Television. According to RFE/RL’s own website article, Tulaganova won the 2006 Prix Europa for her film “How to Plan a Revolution” about young opposition activists in Azerbaijan. The RFE/RL article states that Tulaganova’s “film about passport forgery in the EU called ‘My Fake Passports and Me’ produced for BBC Panorama has become a case study in investigative journalism.” Her film, “Airport Donetsk,” was awarded first prize in Russia’s largest documentary film festival ArtDocFest.
Tulaganova reposted on Facebook BBG Watch report on blistering criticism of RFE/RL management by renowned investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova who in a separate Facebook post expressed her solidarity with RFE/RL Georgian Service for standing up to programming and affiliation demands from senior management.
SEE: Renowned newswoman Khadija Ismayilova blasts RFE/RL bosses after quitting, BBG Watch, January 25, 2018.
The RFE/RL Georgian Service has complained to Washington of being exposed to “growing intimidation, unfair treatment and attacks from RFE/RL management for over a year.”
SEE: Management’s push threatens credibility of RFE/RL Georgian programs, BBG Watch, January 22, 2018.
In expressing her agreement with Khadija Ismayilova and support for RFE/RL Georgian Service in their dispute with senior managers, Shahida Tulaganova wrote that it is “Time to shake up this organization.”
She was referring to RFE/RL management and perhaps BBG management as well since BBG senior executives in Washington now have a powerful influence over RFE/RL and set the management style for the entire agency and its individual media outlets, including RFE/RL and the Voice of America (VOA). Of the two, RFE/RL operates as a non-federal grantee with headquarters in the Czech Republic and VOA is a federal entity in Washington as part of the BBG.
SHAHIDA TULAGANOVA FACEBOOK: “I support with every word written in this article. Time to shake up this organization. I’ve been there for 2.5 years and I left because of my frustration with management which kills journalism, incentive and values we do this job for. Well done, Georgian colleagues for standing up against this. And thank you, Khadija for speaking up about this.”
Khadija Ismayilova accused RFE/RL management of lack of courage, “crisis of career stagnation“ and inability to communicate with their own journalists. The current management is led by RFE/RL President Thomas Kent who was appointed in June 2016 by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing. The BBG is the parent federal agency which provides overall guidance and management for RFE/RL. Thomas Kent’s top assistant is RFE/RL’s Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Programming Nenad Pejic. He is a longtime associate of Lansing’s top assistant, BBG Deputy Director Jeffrey N. Trimble who had held previously key management position at RFE/RL before moving to the BBG in Washington and setting the tone there for management style while being praised in public by former Democratic BBG board chairman and current board member Jeff Shell and his choice for BBG CEO John Lansing.
BBG, VOA and RFE/RL deny that there is anything wrong with their leaders or their management style, but prominent critics, including 2016 Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), and The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board have described the BBG over the years as “practically defunct,” having “lost their edge“ and being rudderless, and “slow and backward.”
Many other Americans are criticizing poor leadership at the BBG, VOA and RFE/RL, including Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org). CUSIB co-director, former VOA acting associate director and co-founder of BBG Watch, published last week an op-ed in Washington Examiner titled “Voice of America’s failure in Iran and China.”
These outside critics cite examples of mismanagement at the BBG similar to those mentioned by Shahida Tulaganova and Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayil is an alternative spelling of Ismayilova.
KHADIJA ISMAYIL FACEBOOK: “I remember the time when Voice of America was trying to keep its affiliation with AzTv – state Tv channel. I used to work in DC headquarter back then. The chief of service censored interview of assistant deputy secretary where he was talking about importance of freedom of assembly just because AzTV wouldn’t like that. Well, this ended up with me leaving the job.
Then in 2008, when Radio Azadliq uncovered election fraud and started publishing highest level corruption investigations we were threatened with consequences if we don’t stop and later lost our license. We chose journalism. Those local TVs who didn’t chose journalism lost credibility and later lost their licenses as well. They never stop demanding more ‘loyalty’ which is in fact – obedience. I remember the hard time of arguing with senior managers of RFE/RL regarding the stance of radio Azadliq. They rarely chose fighting for right to tell truth if journalists in the spot do not insist. We insisted, they agreed.
We made radio Azadliq #1 online source of news, re-trained journalists and engineers from audio only to multi-functional team. We had personal and corporate losses, but we didn’t compromise credibility and journalism. We took a lead in our own defense because bureaucracy wouldn’t allow senior management to make quick decisions. And we did the right. Radio Azadliq was the best thing America has been doing for Azerbaijani people and still is.
I left RFE/RL recently, when I felt it is difficult for me and my colleagues to make senior management (most of whom are in a crisis of career stagnation) to listen to its journalists.
Stand strong my dear Georgian colleagues, don’t compromise journalism. Unlike managers in Prague for you it is more than a workplace and paycheck – it is about the right to tell truth.”
There has been no response yet from John Lansing or RFE/RL President Thomas Kent and his deputy Nenad Pejic to criticism in Khadija Ismayilova’s and Shahida Tulaganova’s Facebook posts.
“I am not authorized to comment on internal staff matters at RFE/RL. Out of respect for our journalists, it is the company policy not to comment,” spokesperson Joanna Levison told Eurasianet in an emailed response to questions about the management’s dispute with the Georgian Service.
Under John Lansing’s and Jeffrey Trimble’s watch, the Voice of America management headed by Lansing’s choices for top leadership positions, director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara, also appears to be at war with some of its best journalists while overall employee morale at the BBG remains the lowest in the federal government according to Office of Personnel Management (OPM) annual surveys of employee satisfaction and assessment of leadership.
VOA’s top managers want to fire three VOA Mandarin Service journalists who in April 2017 had opposed their decision to shorten an interview with Chinese businessman whistleblower Guo Wengui. When the interview was cut short on the orders of Amanda Bennett and other senior VOA executives despite protests by Mandarin Service broadcasters, it led to VOA losing much of its credibility in China. While critics claim that she caved in to pressure from the Chinese government, VOA director insists that she was only trying to protect good journalistic practice. Mandarin Service journalists are now being defended by some of the best known U.S. scholars on China. They sent a letter to BBG chairman Ken Weinstein and BBG CEO John Lansing in defense of the VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters. Former VOA director Robert R. Reilly wrote a letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal in defense of VOA Mandarin Service journalists being threatened with firing.
Echoing sentiments similar to those expressed by Khadija Ismayilova and Shahida Tulaganova about RFE/RL’s management, two well-known Iranian human rights activists have published an op-ed in The Hill, in which they called for reforming the Voice of America Persian Service from what they said was its “deplorable state.” Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri wrote in an op-ed in The Hill that “Voice of America Persian service needs to be “resuscitated from its deplorable state.”
The problem of management dysfunction seems to have infected the entire BBG and most of its media entities.
But the Republican chairman of the BBG Board Kenneth Weinstein, who had agreed with former Democratic BBG chairman Jeff Shell’s recommendation to hire John Lansing despite his lack of prior experience in U.S. international broadcasting, foreign policy, U.S. public diplomacy or managing a government entity, disagrees that there is anything wrong with VOA’s and RFE/RL’s coverage of recent protests in Iran or the management style of Lansing and his deputies. Weinstein has defended the BBG and John Lansing in a letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal which published an editorial highly critical of the BBG.
RFE/RL and BBG management can hardly claim now, as they often do in cases of multiple complaints from other former station’s broadcasters, that either Khadija Ismayilova or Shahida Tulaganova are second-rate journalists and disgruntled former employees who are not capable of assessing the state of the organization they had worked for for several years.
Watch Shahida Tulaganova in January 2016 RFE/RL live video discussion “Moving The Story Forward: The Role Of Women In Media.”
If they did try to discredit their criticism, the RFE/RL and BBG management would have to take back what they wrote about these outstanding women journalists who have become outspoken critics of the station’s poor leadership. Here is the text of RFE/RL press release about Shahida Tulaganova, dated December 10, 2014.
RFE/RL PRESS RELEASE
Radio Free Europe
December 10, 2014
Shahida Tulaganova, producer of RFE/RL’s Russian language news program “Current Time.”
Journalist Shahida Tulaganova was never big on compromises.
Not when she moved to the UK from her native Uzbekistan, one of the most repressive societies in the world, ruled by a regime with which Tulaganova describes her relationship flatly:
“I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me, so it was time to go.”
Neither was compromise an option when she began working as an investigative reporter for the BBC’s Uzbek Service. In addition to presenting news and current affairs for the radio, she produced hard-hitting documentaries that took her from the mountainous Afghan-Tajik border to investigate opium smuggling, to the dodgy backstreets of European capitals to secretly film the underground trade in fake passports.
Her latest assignment is as executive producer and anchor for “Current Time,” or “Nastoyashchee Vremya,” a daily Russian-language TV news program produced by RFE/RL to provide audiences in countries bordering Russia with a balanced alternative to the disinformation that is flooding the airwaves.
Russia’s state media’s propaganda campaign, critics charge, has been instrumental in advancing its objectives in Ukraine and driving instability in the region.
Produced in cooperation with Voice of America (VOA), “Current Time” is broadcast every day to partner television stations in Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The program draws on a network of regional and international reporters to present a 30-minute mix of live news coverage, interviews, original features, and political satire that is not otherwise available to most Russian speakers in these countries.
END OF RFE/RL DECEMBER 10, 2014 PRESS RELEASE