Mario Corti Letter to BBG Watch: keep an eye on RFE/RL

BBG Watch

Mario Corti, an Italian journalist, author, Russia expert and former director of Radio Liberty Russian Service, has sent a letter to BBG Watch describing the history of unfair labor practices at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) headquarters in the Czech Republic and expressing regret that BBG Watch has not devoted enough attention to this problem in recent months.

Mr. Corti is right on both counts. He listed numerous international protests against RFE/RL’s labor policies, some of them from highly respected human rights advocates, politicians and human rights organizations. This is a longstanding problem. Most of these labor policies have been in place since RFE/RL’s move from Munich to Prague 20 years ago.

Mr. Corti notes that in the past BBG Watch was reporting more regularly on this story, but there has been less reporting in recent months. Indeed, more recently, we were focusing our limited resources (all of our editorial staff consists of volunteers), on what we thought were far more serious and more urgent management problems at the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America (VOA).

In fact, executives of the former IBB management team, some of whom are still with the agency, had introduced, vastly expanded and made much worse labor practices which at RFE/RL were generally not grossly abused except during the 2012 management crisis which affected largely Radio Liberty journalists in Russia and in Central Asia. As we noted recently, compared to IBB and VOA, RFE/RL may seem the paragon of good governance. Except for one language service, we have not heard of any suspicious unfair dismissals of RFE/RL journalists in recent years.

While from the beginning of 2013 RFE/RL recovered to a large degree under the leadership of Kevin Klose, and later under John Giambalvo and Nenad Pejic, IBB and VOA executives continued to work together to illegally hire and exploit hundreds of private contractors in Washington. Their treatment has been far worse that anything RFE/RL foreign journalists have experienced, except those who had been fired in Russia in 2012. (Many were later rehired after a management change at RFE/RL.) As RFE/RL’s news reporting and digital media outreach strongly improved after 2012, VOA’s performance declined or stagnated.

Illegal practices with regard to VOA contract employees, known as Purchase Order Vendors (POVs), and other management abuses also affecting permanent VOA and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) Radio and TV Marti employees were reported by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and confirmed in various administrative and court decisions that went against the BBG and its top IBB officials. During that time, BBG Watch was more focused on these problems at IBB and VOA and later on partial personnel changes in Washington.

The new BBG Board under the chairmanship of Jeff Shell put an end to some of the worst management abuses in Washington, installed a new IBB management team, hired a CEO who promptly resigned, and saw a recent management change at VOA.

But Mr. Corti is right that we should have paid more attention to the longstanding labor-managment problem at RFE/RL, especially since Russian human rights activists, including Lyudmila Alexeeva, have once again in recent weeks expressed their concern about the management of the Radio Liberty Russian Service. They sent a letter to the BBG Board.

It is also worth noting that a few of IBB officials who had initiated and perpetuated disastrous management policies at IBB and VOA and failed to respond to the 2012 management crisis at RFE/RL still appear to wield considerable influence within the agency. They may be behind some of the latest agency missteps and bureaucratic intrigues which further damaged BBG’s already low reputation on the Hill.

We want to thank Mr. Corti for his letter and will do our best to keep a closer eye on this story.

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Dear BBG Watch Editors,

I recall several reports by BBG Watch about appeals to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in Washington by international human rights organizations, as well as by individuals, to end the longstanding discrimination of foreign journalists working at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic.

According to the RFE/RL Policy Manual, EEO regulations do not apply to non-Czech and non-American citizens working at RFE/RL in Prague. In other words, these foreign, non-Czech and non-American employees, can be fired at any time without any explanation. Their labor rights are protected neither by Czech nor American legislation. Incidentally, there is another anomaly in this unfortunate mistreatment of foreign journalists at RFE/RL. By signing the standard employment contract, a non-Czech foreigner hired by RFE/RL commits himself or herself to abide by the Policy Manual. However, the Policy Manual can be unilaterally changed by the company at any time in the future. Consequently, the employee does not know in advance to what employment terms he or she is agreeing, thus giving the company essentially a carte blanche to treat him or her as the company pleases.

In fairness to BBG Watch, it had reported frequently about the discrimination cases of a Croatian citizen, Snjezana Pelivan, and an Armenian citizen, Anna Karapetian, who were fired by RFE/RL without any prior warning and without providing them any reasons or cause for their dismissals.

The organizations and individuals protesting against the discrimination of non-American and non-Czech employees at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague included:

The Czech Helsinki Committee;

Former Czech Senator Jaromir Stetina (presently a member of the European Parliament);

The Bosnia and Herzegovina Helsinki Committee;

Sergei Kovalev, in his capacity as board member of the International Society “Memorial”;

Lyudmila Alexeeva, Head of the Moscow Helsinki Group;

Brian Campbell, Director of Policy and Legal Programs of the International Labor Rights Forum in Washington.

Shamelessly, the RFE/RL official web site on its page “Current Openings” continues to carry the following misleading announcement:

“RFE/RL is proud to be an equal opportunity employer.”

This deceptive statement alone more than justifies Anna Sabatova’s description of RFE/RL’s labor policies as an “act of fraud.”

Anna Sabatova is a former Head of the Czech Helsinki Committee and winner of the UN Human Rights Prize. She is currently the Human Rights Ombudswoman of the Czech Republic. In the past, she had protested on several occasions against discriminatory labor practices at RFE/RL.

Recently, the Czech Radio Russian Service’s interview with Lev Roitman [Snjezana Pelivan’s husband], a retired RFE/RL senior commentator, was brought to my attention. The interview was republished, among others, by InoSmi, a Russian online media outlet, on March 3, 2015. I also read an article by Alsou Taheri, pseudonym of a journalist working at RFE/RL in Prague, published on March 9, 2015 by the European Armenian magazine Orer.

Unfortunately, BBG Watch did not have any reports on the interview and the article that I could find.

Written right after the resignation of Andy Lack from his position of BBG’s CEO and Director, with only about six weeks on the job, Alsou Taheri’s article under the title “Moral Self-Destrucion of American International Broadcasting: the Case of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,” noted:

“While the ‘Lack’s story,’ … was reported in the United States by NYT, CNN, WP, LAT, USA Today … the mass-media in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan … have covered quite a different issue – national discrimination of the very same multinational editorial personnel which in Russian and other RFE/RL languages heralds daily about human rights, the rule of law and other democratic values…”

I learned that at the end of January 2015, Anna Karapetian and Snjezana Pelivan had sent a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington stressing their uneasiness to appear to be against the United States and the Czech Republic, which tolerates RFE/RL’s illegal labor practices on its territory, while Russia is pursuing its propaganda campaign. Snjezana and Anna suggested to the BBG Board that it try to resolve their cases amicably. Their appeal, however, appeared to have been ignored. They did not get an answer from the BBG to their letter and their plea for a compromise solution that could not only resolve their cases but end international criticism of RFE/RL’s labor policies.

Eventually, the two women appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. I understand that their official complaint against discriminatory labor policies of the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was submitted last month to the UN body.

Because RFE/RL is subordinate to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a Federal government agency of the United States, and because, as required by the “United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994,” the BBG makes “all major policy determinations governing the operations of RFE/RL,” the Complaint to the UN Human Rights Council reportedly names the BBG as the “Public authority responsible for human rights violations” and the United States as the “State concerned.”

I wonder why BBG Watch did not report about this development.

I must admit that I have a personal interest in this case. As an Italian citizen I belong to the same category of former RFE/RL employees to whom EEO protections did not apply. Nonetheless, it would be extremely useful for BBG Watch readers if BBG Watch could report more regularly and more extensively about any future developments of this endless and sad story as they occur. I also wish BBG Watch would more consistently advocate for fair labor-management relations at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and at other media entities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Sincerely,

Mario Corti
Former Director of Radio Liberty Russian Service

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