Senior managers at RFE/RL failed to earn respect, alienated staff, journalists say

BBG Watch Commentary

Respect must be earned by managers and that’s something that senior executives in charge of taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have failed to do with disastrous consequences for the mission and journalists, as seen in public Facebook posts from former employees and comments made by those who still remain with the organization but are deeply frustrated.

Bosses who do not know how to lead, do not know how to communicate and how to earn and show respect drive away talented employees and kill creativity, several former and current RFE/RL journalists told BBG Watch.

Criticism of RFE/RL’s senior management has intensified in recent weeks among both young reporters and their more experienced colleagues, some of them award-winning TV producers, investigative journalists, TV anchors and web editors and reporters. But no management changes or reforms at RFE/RL, at its federal managing agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) or at the Voice of America, another ailing BBG-run media outlet, are expected until President Trump nominates a new BBG CEO to replace Obama era holdover appointee John F. Lansing under whose watch problems have deepened at both RFE/RL and VOA, while the BBG bureaucracy became even more dysfunctional than it was when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it in 2013 as “practically defunct.”

Those showing the greatest courage in publicly expressing their frustration with RFE/RL’s management and actually quitting their relatively well-paid jobs with the media organization have been mostly women. More and more of RFE/RL’s women journalists have been rising up in protest against the management, which they perceive as both seriously disengaged from employees and “authoritarian” at the same time. The accuse RFE/RL senior management of deepening stagnation and making creative work by talented staff extremely difficult.

Two women who had quit the organization told BBG Watch that according to their observations, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent usually stayed in his office, while day-to-day operations were being left largely in the hands of RFE/RL Vice President and longtime manager Nenad Pejic.

Khadija Ismayilova, a former political prisoner in Azerbaijan, an investigative reporter and winner of many international journalistic awards who recently quit RFE/RL, wrote in a public Facebook post that senior executives in charge of the organization suffer from “a crisis of career stagnation“ and don’t know how to communicate with journalists.

“People do not leave good organizations,” Ismayilova wrote in another public Facebook post. “I resigned from this organization because they didn’t hesitate to fire the best journalists,” she added.

Co-producer of award-winning HBO documentary on Syria and former anchor of RFE/RL-VOA Russian-language TV program “Current Time,” Shahida Tulaganova, who also quit RFE/RL, wrote in her January 25, 2018 Facebook post, RFE/RL management “kills journalism, incentive and values we do this job for.”

“Time to shake up this organization,” Shahida Tulaganova shared her views on Facebook about RFE/RL’s senior management.

Khadija Ismayilova, the recipient of the 2017 Magnitsky Award, the 2016 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize and the PEN American Center’s 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award, posted on Facebook: “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.”

After RFE/RL’s senior executives, Thomas Kent and Nenad Pejic, acting with apparent consent from Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John F. Lansing, fired one of the organization’s most respected journalists Dr. David Kakabadze who until January 30 was director of RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, a group of six former RFE/RL Vaclav Havel Fellows — some of the best young journalists from East Central Europe and Eurasia who had worked at RFE/RL — wrote: “Many of us fighting censorship in our home countries felt like we had found respite and refuge at RFE/RL. This is why it is all the more painful to watch the management style to replicate yet another authoritarian regime many of us are familiar with.” Dr. Kabakadze was offered another position but declined the offer and chose to leave the organization, sources told BBG Watch.

One of the former young Vaclav Havel Fellows at RFE/RL, Arzu Geybullayeva, wrote in a public Facebook post: “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.” She expressed her disappointment and frustration widely shared among RFE/RL employees.

“…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.”

Many journalists and other employees who still work for RFE/RL are for obvious reasons afraid to express their frustrations with the management in public, but they share their criticism with outside contacts.

One RFE/RL employee made this comment:

I did follow Khadija Ismayil and BBG Watch as I do find both providing interesting content. I assume as well that it is not popular with senior RFE/RL management as it does point to the issues which are happening in the broadcasting departments. Unfortunately, the issues happening in the other departments didn’t manage to get proper airing anywhere outside RFE/RL and at RFE/RL they’re being suppressed. Also, without BBG Watch, all the things happening at RFE/RL wouldn’t be known to most of the other employees.

On January 31, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent and his chief of staff spoke by phone with the Georgian Service staff in Tbilisi. The meeting at the RFE/RL Bureau in Tbilisi lasted for about an hour, but we were told that Thomas Kent disconnected after about 30 minutes. He apparently did not hear the Tbilisi Bureau Chief Marina Vashakmadze’s statement about her resignation from RFE/RL. Dr. Marina Vashakmadze, a well-known and highly respected journalist and media scholar in Georgia, has PhD, Masters and BA degrees in journalism. 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. Dr. 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.

A woman journalist who knows and worked with Dr. Kakabadze and Dr. Vashakmadze wrote to BBG Watch:

“David and Marina are real professionals who believe in journalism. They are also lovely people, so I hope RFE/RL management’s actions backfire. Marina is a well-know and respected figure in Georgia, so her forced resignation is making a lot of noise there. She is also respected by her colleagues at RFE/RL: in 2016, a story praising her achievements as bureau chief was published on RFE/RL’s intranet on the 10th anniversary of her employment. David is widely respected at RFE/RL and beyond for his excellent work and his gentle manners. Everyone I have spoken to about this at RFE/RL (not management) is deeply outraged.”

Another highly successful woman journalist who had quit RFE/RL in frustration also shared her thoughts with BBG Watch:

“It’s very encouraging that people like you support the Georgian Service and in general support the idea of the need of change at both VOA and RFE/RL. At the moment it looks that RFE/RL has lost its sense of purpose and turned into a hub of communist-type apparatchiks who are there for the sake of being there. Those are my impressions after working at RFE/RL in Prague.”

The following email/letter authored by numerous RFE/RL staffers and shared with BBG Watch shows to what extent trust and respect within the organization have been destroyed by the senior management. It cannot be rebuilt without a change of leadership. The email/letter apparently addressed to RFE/RL President Thomas Kent is said to reflect the views of the RFE/RL Georgian Service staff both in Prague and in Georgia.

We understood you were busy, but we did not expect you to leave today’s meeting in the middle of it. Let us share our views with you now.
 
We have been subjected to absolutely unacceptable and humiliating accusations and we believe that they are driven by the management’s motivation to somehow explain and justify its decision post factum. However, we think the management is not the most important part of the RFE/RL. What is most important now is to save the Georgian Service and the reputation of the company.
 
The recent discussions between us further strained the environment in the Georgian Service and brought it to a critically high temperature. The management does not show the will and ability to solve the situation in a proper manner, with respect of: RFE/RL integrity, objectivity, professional standards and the respect of the staff members. If the situation continues unchanged, the reputation of the RFE/RL will be damaged more and it will be solely your responsibility. Because the decision-making power lies with you and you only.
 
We have not heard any reasonable answers to our questions. The answers we are given are based on a very suspicious, nonprofessional, anonymous information. That is humiliating. It creates more questions and makes us feel unprotected from unfair decisions of the management.
 
Towards the end of the meeting, the head of the bureau, Marina Vashakhmadze, stated that she is protesting the disregard for the RFE/RL journalistic standards as well as the belittlement of the work of Radio Tavisupleba’s team.
 
One of the arguments used against us was that the US Embassy in Georgia does not perceive us as a serious media (should be checked one day with the Embassy though) and did not include us in a coverage pool during the visit of the Vice President Mike Pence. Today’s visit of Jeremy to the Embassy was a very incorrect step from the side of the media-manager, especially in a situation when there is a wild interest towards the processes concerning the Georgian Service. A journalist, or a media manager is not obliged to pay “courtesy visits” to the Embassy of its country. The evaluations of the US Embassy, delivered to us by Jeremy, sounded irrelevant and unfair towards the Georgian Service.
 
During today’s meeting you mentioned that David can still change his decision. We think that you can and should change your decision and bring David back to his position – as a director of the Georgian Service and let us continue our work in a normal situation.
 
Please do not put pressure on us. You are the managers and you bear the entire responsibility. You confronted the whole service only to justify your decision of David’s removal and bringing the new person to the post.
 
In the situation we all are now, please, think well who will win and what could be sacrificed because of your improper decisions! Tom, you told us that there are many who do not love us. But we all know who they are and what their interests are, both in Georgia and on an international arena. Partisan and politically affiliated groups will of course dislike us – but we are loved and trusted by our audiences, by many and various groups in our society, for our decades-long reputation of professionalism, integrity and impartiality.
 
We still hope that the issue will be solved inside the corporation, in a collegial manner, and you will not continue looking for evidence against us outside the organization.
 
It is impossible to stop the interest and queries of the media towards us with just keeping our mouths shut. You know that very well. Please, let them learn good news. Our company deserves this.

 
 
 

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