BBG Watch Commentary
Having published a letter to the New York Times editor in defense of his stewardship at the helm of a U.S. tax-funded media outlet serving international audiences—“Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Defends Itself”—RFE/RL President Thomas Kent announced that he will be leaving the semi-independent but U.S. government-managed organization as of the end of September 2018.
A July 19 New York Times article, “U.S.-Funded Broadcaster Directed Ads to Americas,” by Kevin Roose, said that “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which typically broadcasts to audiences in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, bought several ads on Facebook in recent days that were targeted at users in the United States.”
The ads were uncovered by a Syracuse University researcher, Jennifer M. Grygiel, The New York Times reported.
They were also independently detected at the same time by BBG Watch, a watch-dog website run by volunteer journalists.
After being contacted by The New York Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty pulled down the ads, the Times report said.
The New York Times article also reported that Nasserie Carew, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the U.S federal agency that oversees U.S. state-funded media organizations, said in a statement that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had “ceased the practice” of targeting ads at people in the United States after the BBG management in Washington had discussions with the broadcaster based in Prague, the Czech Republic.
Thomas Kent’s letter to the New York Times appeared to dispute some of the charges in the article. Kent said in his letter that RFE/RL was not targeting Americans but foreign users who have American Facebook accounts to circumvent censorship. However, RFE/RL ads for a post that appear to strengthen the Kremlin’s propaganda showed up in an American Facebook user’s feed. The targeted U.S. Facebook user had no foreign affiliations and was not exposed to any threat of foreign censorship.
SEE: RFE/RL targeted Americans with a pro-Kremlin Facebook ad EXCLUSIVE NEW EVIDENCE SUPPORTING NYT REPORT, BBG Watch, July 19, 2018
THOMAS KENT, RFE/RL: “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty rejects any suggestion that our journalists are engaged in propaganda. Despite our congressional funding, we are editorially independent; federal law bars any American official from dictating or interfering with our content.
We use Facebook’s technology to promote our news stories and graphics to readers’ feeds. The material in question is our original news content, not ads. Some of our audience abroad use circumvention software to get around government web blocks, and therefore are identified on Facebook as American users.
But our intent is not to target a United States domestic audience. To ensure compliance with our governing legislation, we are reviewing our promotion policy in cooperation with the Broadcasting Board of Governors.”
In announcing to staff his upcoming departure as RFE/RL President, Thomas Kent implied that the organization got better under his leadership:
THOMAS KENT, RFE/RL: “When I arrived at RFE/RL, this was already a strong, innovative news company, pursuing a sophisticated digital strategy alongside our vital radio and text platforms. Since then, we have further reinforced our journalistic standards. We have strengthened our leadership ranks. We have laid the groundwork for even more innovation – editorial, technological, administrative and organizational.”
Thomas Kent said in March that RFE/RL’s coverage of the Russian presidential election won by Vladimir Putin in what critics described as a campaign and voting process conducted in an undemocratic manner and without truly free and independent media “will also have reflected why people support him [Vladimir Putin] and the strength that he has brought to the campaign and to the country.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 2013 as “practically defunct.”
Some readers of the New York Times report may think that the RFE/RL Facebook ads directed at Americans represent a change of policy imposed on the BBG by the Trump administration. This would be a wrong assumption. Nearly the same BBG board is still in place in 2018 as before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Under new legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, the agency is still headed by John F. Lansing, an Obama administration holdover official. The BBG board and its then Democratic chairman Jeff Shell, a Hollywood executive and contributor to Obama campaigns, had selected John Lansing in 2015. Lansing hired Tom Kent with the board’s approval. The Trump administration has not replaced any of the top BBG executives, but President Trump has nominated award-winning documentary film maker Michael Pack to be the new BBG CEO after confirmation by the U.S. Senate which is still pending.
Poor employee morale and charges of being mislead by Russian and Iranian propaganda have been reported at RFE/RL and at the Voice of America (VOA), which is also managed by the BBG under John Lansing’s leadership. Some Iranians in Iran and abroad have described RFE/RL’s Radio Farda broadcasting to Iran and VOA’s Persian Service broadcasts as “Voice of the Mullahs.”
An independent study carried out under the auspices of the American Foreign Policy Council also reached highly negative conclusions about the management of Voice of America and Radio Farda programs to Iran:
“More broadly, however, coverage of the JCPOA on both the Voice of America and Radio Farda was found to consistently lack broader context. Little to no effort was made, either by hosts or journalists, to explain the limitations of the agreement itself, or the detrimental side effects generated by it, or the implications of the deal for U.S. policy in the broader region. Similarly, in the media reports reviewed, only minimal effort was made to explain the reasoning and rationale behind the Trump administration’s different, and far more negative, view of the agreement. Simply put, Iranians were told in detail that the Obama White House supported the agreement, and why. They have not been afforded the same explanations of current administration policy.”
There have also been charges that the Voice of America run by John Lansing’s team of top executives, VOA director Amanda Bennett and VOA deputy director Sandy Sugawara, has censored in April 2017 a VOA program to China under pressure from the Communist government in Beijing. Bennett rejected these charges as completely false and put five VOA Mandarin Service journalists who objected to the management’s decisions on forced administrative leave with pay. Some of the past and current presidentially-appointed BBG members have been reported to do business in China and Russia. Bennett’s husband is reported to have business interests in China.
One of the indications of management problems at RFE/RL have been departures of talented young journalists, most of whom have been women who have criticized senior executives.
After quitting in frustration her freelancer position with RFE/RL, award-winning internationally recognized investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova (alternative spelling Khadija Ismayil), who while still working for RFE/RL was at one time a political prisoner in Azerbaijan because of her reporting, has published on Facebook a blistering criticism of RFE/RL’s senior management, accusing top managers of lack of courage, “crisis of career stagnation“ and inability to communicate with their own 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.
In his message to employees, Thomas Kent said that he and the organization have not failed the employees.
Co-producer of award-winning HBO documentary on Syria and former anchor of RFE/RL Russian-language TV program “Current Time,” Shahida Tulaganova, wrote in her January 25, 2018 Facebook post, RFE/RL management “kills journalism, incentive and values we do this job for.”
Again, Thomas Kent had a different view of his management than some of the award-winning women journalists who have recently quit or were pushed out from jobs at RFE/RL.
THOMAS KENT: “Professionalism remains at the core of our journalism – guarded by law and our own integrity. Our technical and administrative colleagues understand our mission as deeply as our journalists. They make an irreplaceable contribution to its success.”
In recent meetings with European politicians in Strasbourg and Berlin, as well as in speeches, articles and social media posts, another former RFE/RL journalist and media freedom activist Assem Tokayeva said that the RFE/RL management has lost control over program content to Kazakhstan, some of which — she said — included a lengthy interview with a Hitler fan.
Tokayeva had lost her Kazakh Service editor job with RFE/RL as a result of a recent internal reorganization which she says was designed to get rid of the management’s critics like herself who have raised concerns about RFE/RL programs to various countries in Eurasia. She says that RFE/RL Kazakh website promotes intolerant and dangerous nationalism.
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 at one time 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 prestigious 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 reported to be widely shared among RFE/RL employees.
ARZU GEBULLAYEVA, FORMER VACLAV HAVEL FELLOW AT RFE/RL: “…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.”
Thomas Kent told RFE/RL staff that he will be in Prague until the end of September and “will set up opportunities to talk with as many of you as possible about our mission, our company and the evolving world of journalism.”
He also said that there should be more information shortly about the transition in RFE/RL’s leadership.