Management’s push threatens credibility of RFE/RL Georgian programs

BBG Watch EXCLUSIVE Commentary

BBG Watch has learned from multiple sources in Washington, DC and Tbilisi, Georgia that senior management of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is putting pressure on its Georgian Service to affiliate with a domestic private Georgian television channel Rustavi 2. They say that the Georgian Service is strongly resisting these attempts, arguing that it would destroy RFE/RL’s objectivity and lead to loss of credibility in Georgia. Rustavi 2 is perceived by many Georgians as being under the influence of the former ruling party, the United National Movement, and former President Mikheil Saakashvili who has left Georgia and is wanted by the new government on multiple criminal charges, which he dismisses as politically motivated.

Sources in Washington and Tbilisi have told BBG Watch that RFE/RL Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Programming Nenad Pejic is among the senior managers of U.S. taxpayer-funded station who is behind the push to affiliate RFE/RL Georgian Service with Rustavi 2 and another local Georgian channel.

Sources also told BBG Watch that the entire Georgian Service has united in support behind their director David Kakabadze in resisting these attempts from senior management. In an unusual display of desperation and discontent, Georgian Service journalists wrote a memo to Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing and his deputy Jeff Trimble, in which they complain of being exposed to growing intimidation, unfair treatment and attacks from RFE/RL management for over a year. Such solidarity is rare in the agency where managers are known for their vindictiveness.

Such firm solidarity of RFE/RL language service staff also appears to be another indication of poor leadership on the part of RFE/RL President Thomas Kent, who was selected by John Lansing but failed to establish a strong presence, just as John Lansing failed to become a leader at the BBG and relies instead on a group of ineffective and unpopular managers. The current crisis in Prague, Czech Republic, where RFE/RL has its headquarters, is reminiscent of the implosion in RFE/RL’s former leadership which preceded the mass firing of Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists in Russia in 2012. The earlier incident led to the eventual replacement of many senior RFE/RL executives, but not Nenad Pejic, and rehiring of most of the previously dismissed staffers after top Russian opposition figures, including former President Mikhail Gorbachev, politician Boris Nemtsov, human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva and others, came to Radio Liberty journalists’ defense. The same scenario appears to ready to replay itself again at RFE/RL.

The leadership vacuum now also extends to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the scandal-plagued parent agency of RFE/RL and the Voice of America (VOA). Two well-known Iranian human rights activists, Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri, said in a recent op-ed in The Hill that “Voice of America Persian Service should be resuscitated from its deplorable state,” echoing a similar call in The Wall Street Journal editorial to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors, still managed by John Lansing, a holdover official from the Obama administration. The Wall Street Journal called the BBG “slow and backward.”

There has also been strong criticism from anti-regime Iranians of Radio Farda broadcasts to Iran, which managed and operated by RFE/RL. Iranian critics accuse RFE/RL of repeating Iranian regime’s propaganda. Meanwhile, the Voice of America has lost much of its credibility in China as a result of decisions by VOA director Amanda Bennett and other senior VOA managers. All of this happened under the watch of BBG CEO John Lansing and his deputy Jeff Trimble.

In another indication of an institution in crisis, the BBG continues to have some of the lowest employee morale in the federal government. Jeff Trimble has been with the agency for many years with prior service at RFE/RL, while John Lansing, who came to the BBG in 2015, has had no prior experience in managing federal workforce, or prior experience in foreign policy, U.S. international broadcasting or U.S. public diplomacy. Before joining BBG, Lansing was a private cable company executive and managed commercial stations.

VOA and RFE/RL journalists who care about the agency’s mission say that some managers openly state that the number of social media likes now comes before the mission. They also say that the top management’s push for ratings over mission threatens the credibility of BBG-managed media outreach to countries such as Georgia, Iran, Russia, and China.

A highly-respected Eurasia expert consulted by BBG Watch said that “RFE/RL Georgian Service needs to maintain impartiality and that any affiliation with Rustavi 2 would be a serious blow.” Another top Eurasia expert said that such mistreatment of non-Russian services has become “standard fare” for RFE/RL management, which looks as if it is trying to destroy the service’s objectivity.

Evidence of poor leadership and poor management on the part of senior executives is reflected in the memo the RFE/RL Georgian Service wrote last week to John Lansing and Jeff Trimble. RFE/RL journalists complained that instead of open and collegial discussions, the Georgian Service is systematically being subjected to non-transparent criticism coming from certain “media experts” in Georgia, with whom their management says they are consulting but whose identities are not revealed to the service. This kind of style of management would be more typical of a state media outlet in former communist Yugoslavia or the former Soviet Union than at U.S. taxpayer-funded RFE/RL and at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

There is strong evidence that RFE/RL’s management is unhappy that the Georgian Service is opposed to affiliating with Rustavi 2. Our sources in Washington and Tbilisi told us that pressure is being put on the service director to step down. Under John Lansing’s and Jeff Trimble’s watch, VOA’s senior leaders have been trying to fire three VOA Mandarin Service journalists, including the service chief, for opposing their disastrous decision to shorten a live interview last April with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui.

None of this bodes well for RFE/RL journalists and their attempts to defend the mission and independence of RFE/RL journalism.

RFE/RL Georgian Service journalists understand perfectly well that partnerships, which they oppose, would have allowed them to benefit from increased audience share, our sources in Tbilisi said. But RFE/RL Georgian broadcasters insist that what is of paramount importance to them is to protect their reputation as a trusted and, most importantly, unbiased media outlet. RFE/RL Georgian Service journalists point out that in Georgia’s media environment, some domestic Georgian media channels play key roles in the constant reproduction of partisanship and polarization and U.S. taxpayer-funded media should not be linked with such partisan outlets.

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