Czech Senator, former journalist, appeals to Secretary Kerry to ensure equal rights for all RFE/RL employees

BBG Watch Commentary

Czech Senator Jaromír Štětina is known for his human rights campaigns. This photo shows him meeting with Roma women in the Czech Republic to support their action against racial violence.

Czech Senator Jaromír Štětina is known for his human rights campaigns. This photo shows him meeting with Roma women in the Czech Republic to support their action against racial violence.

In an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a member of the Czech Senate, Jaromír Štětina, a former journalist, appealed for ensuring equal rights for all Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) employees. RFE/RL has its headquarters in Prague. As the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry is an ex officio member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which provides U.S. public funding for RFE/RL and has the ultimate responsibility for its programs and administrative policies.

Senator Štětina points out in his letter to Secretary Kerry that unlike American and Czech employees, third country foreign employees of RFE/RL in the Czech Republic, the vast majority of whom are journalists, are denied by the American management equal rights to employment protections under the Czech labor law.

“Unlike their Czech colleagues, foreigners employed by RFE/RL in Prague, can be fired at any time without previous warning; for whatever reason or without any reason; with or without being informed of the reason for employment termination. Their contractual severance compensations earned by years of service, are withheld unless they accept the terminations in writing and, also in writing, give up the inalienable in Czech Republic right of appeal to courts of law.”

Senator Štětina wrote to Secretary Kerry that neither RFE/RL nor BBG has ever responded to negative media coverage which refers to these personnel policies as “betrayal of ideals”, “hypocrisy,” “Guantanamo in Prague,” “violation of human rights,” “lawlessness,” “double standards,” “moral disaster,” “fraud,” “cynicism,” “public idiocy instead of public diplomacy.”

“It is evident to me, a former journalist,” Senator Štětina wrote, “that public diplomacy, which ignores public opinion, is both an expensive public disaster and worthless public hypocrisy.”

Senator Štětina also points out in his letter to Secretary Kerry that RFE/RL and BBG also have not responded to appeals and letters sent by the Czech Helsinki Committee (CHC), a premier human rights organization in the Czech Republic which is headed by Anna Sabatova, the United Nations Human Rights Prize winner. She also personally appealed to RFE/RL management to resolve this issue as soon as possible.

Senator Štětina pointed out that discriminatory personnel policies at RFE/RL had been brought up for discussion in the Czech Parliament three times (June 11, 2009, February 4, 2010, June 7, 2012) without any reaction from the American side.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s management changed earlier this year as a result of intervention by three members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Secretary Kerry’s representative, then Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine. She has since left her post at the State Department. The new acting RFE/RL president Kevin Klose, whom the BBG board had selected, has addressed some of the personnel issues with regard to the firing by the previous American management of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia. Some of those journalists have been rehired.

It is not known how actively Klose and his new management team are working on resolving the employee rights issue in the Czech Republic, but BBG Watch has learned that it is being discussed in Prague and in Washington. Since RFE/RL is being sued for discrimination by two former employees, Snjezana Pelivan and Ana Karapetian, RFE/RL spokesperson said “It is our practice not to comment on ongoing litigation involving the company.” “This is a practice followed by acting president Kevin Klose personally and by RFE/RL in general,” the spokesman added.

Senator Štětina wrote to Secretary Kerry that “RFE/RL’s management as well as BBG systematically ignores Czech media inquires, requests for interviews and clarifications concerning RFE/RL’s labor practices and the ongoing lawsuits.”

Such media inquiries directed to the BBG are not normally handled directly by Broadcasting Board of Governors members but are forwarded to the staff of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) in Washington, DC. But IBB’s top managers and administrators have been also accused of using discriminatory personnel policy tactics against a large number of full-time contract employees at IBB and Voice of America (VOA). The agency’s contract employees in the United States often work for years without any benefits or protections against arbitrary treatment and termination of their contracts. Unlike foreign employees of RFE/RL in the Czech Republics, those employed in the United States can turn to American courts if they believe that their rights have been violated.

BBG Watch has reported that BBG members were often unaware of media inquiries addressed to various BBG entities and protested when they learned that officials had refused to answer questions from journalists. IBB has been rated in the Office of Personnel Management Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey as being one of the worst-managed units within the federal government. BBG Watch has reported that IBB executives frequently resist BBG members’ requests for quick action to address various management problems. They have been blamed by the BBG employee union, AFGE Local 1812, for causing and prolonging discriminatory treatment of employees and contractors and for ignoring wishes of BBG members and well being of the vast majority of the workforce. The BBG board currently lacks a quorum and cannot take binding votes.

It is not clear whether in this situation of open resistance by the IBB executive staff and the lack of quorum, the BBG board will be able to effectively address the issues raised in Senator Štětina’s letter to Secretary Kerry anytime soon. Three nominees to the BBG board are currently awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate, including Jeff Shell whom President Obama chose to be the BBG chairman. The other two nominees to the bipartisan oversight board are former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and former Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Matt Armstrong. Both are Republicans. Shell is a Democrat. They cannot take any action, however, until their nominations are confirmed by the Senate.

On an earlier visit to Prague, one of the current BBG members, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, had met with two former employees, Snjezana Pelivan and Anna Karapetian. The two women, both foreign nationals, are suing RFE/RL in the European Court of Human Rights and in the Czech Constitutional Court. Ashe is widely admired by BBG’s federal and non-federal employees, including RFE/RL journalists, for speaking out in defense of employee rights and for criticizing management abuses and urging reforms. But Ashe may soon be leaving his BBG post if Ambassador Crocker receives Senate confirmation. BBG Watch has learned that at least some of the nominees have been in contact with citizen groups in the United States that are critical of the current Washington management of U.S. international broadcasting.

In conclusion of his letter to Secretary Kerry, Senator Štětina wrote:

“As a member of Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security, I dare to inquire if such a mode of operations ‘to ignore, disregard, not to react’ is appropriate for American officials and institutions in relation to the friendly and allied Czech Republic.

In 2000, as a journalist reporting from Putin’s Russia, I was declared persona non grata for exposing human rights violations. To Lukashenka’s Belarus, were as a Czech senator I planed to meet representatives of political opposition, I was refused the entrée visa. On a private trip to Castro’s Cuba, I tried to be of help to the families of persecuted political dissidents.

Today, I am asking you to curtail violations of human rights in my own country — by American RFE/RL subordinate to BBG. They are entrusted to you politically. In 1995, when American RFE/RL famous for its support of human rights and for unmasking communist hypocrisy — moved from Munich to Prague, nobody could foresee that this legendary organization will violate human and labor rights of its own employees on the territory of Czech Republic.”

Senator Štětina has been active in numerous human rights campaigns in the Czech Republic, including actions to prevent violence against the country’s Roma citizens.

The full text of Czech Senator Jaromír Štětina’s letter can be read online on his official website.

U.S.-based independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) has also urged Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s new management and BBG members to address the employee discrimination issue in the Czech Republic as soon as possible. CUSIB’s co-founder and director Ted Lipien said that while the NGO founded to support U.S. international broadcasting can understand that Mr. Klose had inherited enormous management problems and applauds actions he had already taken with regard to some of the fired Radio Liberty employees, it would like to urge also a quick resolution to the problem of the double standard in RFE/RL employee personnel policies.

CUSIB has also urged action to restore employment to some of the other RFE/RL journalists fired by the previous management, including Kazakh reporters Saida Kalkulova and Nazira Darimbet whose dismissal appears to have been caused by their questioning of programming decisions which were later rescinded after widespread criticism by audiences in Kazakhstan.

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