Respected RFE/RL Tbilisi Bureau Chief Marina Vashakmadze resigns in protest against senior management

BBG Watch Commentary

Dr. Marina Vashakmadze, a well-known and highly respected journalist and media scholar in Georgia, has resigned as RFE/RL Bureau Chief in Tbilisi. She follows in the footsteps of other award-winning women journalists who also have resigned recently from RFE/RL in protest against the senior management, charging that executives use heavy-handed tactics and do not know how to communicate or motivate a staff of talented employees.

These now former RFE/RL women journalists (one still sells her reports to RFE/RL) were also protesting against the firing of highly respected and popular RFE/RL Georgian Service Chief Dr. David Kakabadze. He together with journalists in his service in Prague and in Tbilisi was opposing pressure from the senior management to affiliate with a partisan TV station in Georgia, fearing that such a move would destroy RFE/RL’s reputation and credibility.

Dr. Kakabadze and the Georgian Service are supported by some of the biggest names among Georgia’s academics, artists, writers and intellectuals who, to no avail, have sent letters to Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing and his senior advisors in Washington.

Other award-winning women journalists who have resigned from RFE/RL and are speaking out against the senior management include Khadija Ismaylova and Shahida Tulaganova, both widely known for their investigative reporting.

Dr. Marina Vashakmadze has PhD, Masters and BA degrees in journalism and until her resignation today was for several years RFE/RL’s Tbilisi Bureau Chief. Among her many roles, she moderated “Gender Stories,” a one-of-a kind radio program dedicated to the discussion of women’s issues in Georgia. Vashakmadze’s other professional positions have included director of the journalism department at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, visiting professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, and professor at the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA). Prior to joining RFE/RL, Vashakmadze served as director of the International Center for Journalists-Caucasus (CCFJ) and associate director of the Center’s ProMedia II project in support of investigative journalism, media law reform, and independent regional broadcasting. She has also founded, edited and consulted for several independent Georgian newspapers and magazines.

Award-winning women journalists who have resigned in protest in recent months are now speaking out publicly against RFE/RL’s senior leadership, accusing top managers of lack of vision, poor treatment of reporters, poor communication skills, behaving like “communist apparatchiks,” being in “career stagnation,” and generally “killing journalism” and any incentive to do good work.

The key critic of RFE/RL management is award-winning journalist Khadija Ismayilova. She is the recipient of the 2017 Magnitsky Award for her outstanding contribution to the promotion of human rights and the fight against corruption. She is also the recipient of the PEN American Center’s 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award, given annually to “an imprisoned writer persecuted for exercising her right to free expression” and the 2016 recipient of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. She was a political prisoner in Azerbaijan and recently quit RFE/RL in protest against the senior management..

“People do not leave good organizations,” Ismayilova wrote in a Facebook post.

KHADIJA ISMAYILOVA: “I resigned from this organization because they didn’t hesitate to fire the best journalists. Their moves were dictated by the same thirst to establish control, and accompanied with breaching privacy of people. I can’t understand why they are still naming me as their contributor in some stories, but I want to make it clear. I don’t work for RFE/RL anymore.”

A former RFE/RL young woman journalist and a media scholar Arzu Geybullayeva has written and posted on Facebook a powerful letter to the RFE/RL senior management and the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington D.C. Her Facebook page says she is now a Visiting Fellow at the George Washington University.

Arzu Geybullayeva
Facebook Photo

Dear RFERL Senior Management and the BBG,

It is hard to contain my frustration as I write this letter. But writing is all I can at this point.

I am writing to you as a former RFE employee. I was a Vaclav Havel Fellow and worked with Azerbaijani service. Being a big fan of the work produced by our service, joining the ranks of the RFE reporters was a great moment of pride for me.

But pride has faded, replaced by shame. Shame for seeing great journalists leave the radio; shame for not seeing more responsibility and ownership taken by the management for the people who put their life on the line and risk everything; shame for so many decisions that have had a negative impact on the radio and its journalists; shame for not speaking up earlier.

I witnessed first-hand the tough environment reigning through the RFE. The decision making process by the senior management often reminded me of some of the authoritarian countries where the Radio actually operates- the style of the leadership differed little. Perhaps my evaluation might be unjust, but perhaps the management should have made more effort in demonstrating this was not the case.

Because of this kind of leadership, I was frustrated with the way decisions were made and quickly realized that more often than not, it was about the people who managed the radio rather than the people who made this radio continue to deliver its services. Your recent decision to fire the head of Georgian Service David Kakabadze is not just outrageous but disrespectful to the person you have fired who have done just that- deliver, objectively, and independently- which is what we all do, as journalists.

Dear management and BBG, congratulations! You won in the battle for your thirst of total control and power vs. independent journalism. It took firing of Kakabadze, whose experience and commitment to independent journalism is paramount and it is mind-boggling to me to watch what you have done as it is journalists like Kakabadze who make RFE what it is. If you think it is your management style then you are in a deep denial.

I think this quote from The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis sums it up perfectly well, leaving me no other words to write:
“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern”.

Respectfully,

A. G.

Another critic of RFE/RL’s senior management is 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.

Shahida Tulaganova Facebook Photo

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.

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