BBG Watch Commentary
In response to the recent developments around რადიო თავისუფლება, the Georgian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a group of six former RFE/RL Vaclav Havel Fellows wrote a highly critical letter to the senior management and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) led by BBG CEO John Lansing condemning management practices at the U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet. With Lansing’s approval, RFE/RL’s senior executives, president Thomas Kent and vice president Nenad Pejic, have fired one of the organization’s most respected journalists Dr. David Kakabadze who until January 30 was director of RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, triggering protests from employees and experts. The BBG is RFE/RL’s managing U.S. federal agency. Both are funded by U.S. taxpayers.
“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,” six Vaclav Fellows wrote to the BBG.
The six Havel Fellows are young journalists and scholars who were selected for the prestigious fellowship. They had spent time working alongside RFE/RL journalists and could observe management practices at the organization. According to RFE/RL’ “The goal of the program is to strengthen the capacity of aspiring journalists to pursue their profession in support of democracy and human rights. Selected Fellows are placed with a language service in the company’s Prague headquarters. The program helps position them to be both standard-bearers of their profession and leaders in their communities, on-line, on air, and in the world. Fellows are selected from the Russian Federation, and countries participating in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.” Fellows are selected in a competitive process based on their ability to demonstrate a commitment to journalism and support for RFE/RL’s mission to promote media freedom, democracy, and human rights. English-language proficiency is required.
RFE/RL’s top leadership appears to be in conflict with many of the organization’s journalists, with women being particularly critical of management style at RFE/RL and the BBG. They were the first ones to go public with their criticism.
In addition to the six Havel Fellows, two of the award-winning women journalists who have recently resigned in protest from RFE/RL, Khadija Ismayilova and Shahida Tulaganova, have posted highly critical comments on Facebook about RFE/RL’s senior management. In another protest action, a highly-respected journalist, scholar and broadcaster, RFE/RL Bureau Chief in Tbilisi Dr. Marina Vashakmadze who moderated a popular program on the rights and problems of women in Georgia, resigned last week from RFE/RL. Highly complimentary press releases about some of these women who are criticizing RFE/RL management, including the Havel Fellows, are still posted on RFE/RL and BBG websites.
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.”
Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter and winner of many international journalistic awards who recently also had quit RFE/RL in frustration, wrote that senior RFE/RL executives suffer from “a crisis of career stagnation“ and don’t know how to communicate with journalists.
Prior to Dr. Kakabadze’s firing and the resignation of Dr. Vashakmadze, over a hundred top Georgian academics, writers, artists and other well-known individuals sent a letter to John Lansing. He is an Obama administration era holdover appointee. Georgian intellectuals and artists expressed their support of the Georgian Service and the service’s resistance to the pressure from the management to affiliate with a partisan television station in Georgia. Kakabadze, Vashakmadze and journalists working for the Georgian Service in Prague and in Georgia strongly opposed the management’s proposal, stating that it would destroy RFE/RL’s credibility in Georgia. The service also sent a letter to John Lansing and his deputy Jeff Trimble. In their letter, they voiced their support for the service director and blamed the RFE/RL management for inability to have a collegial dialogue with journalists.
Open Society Georgia Foundation also sent a letter addressed to RFE/RL president Thomas Kent and Vice President Nenad Pejic. In the letter, various journalistic and other professional organizations in Georgia request more transparency from RFE/RL. Their letter was also posted online.
Open Letter of RFE/RL Havel Fellows to the BBG Senior Management
Dear RFE/RL senior management and the BBG,
We are writing this letter as a group of former Vaclav Havel Fellows, who are extremely disappointed by the reports about the management’s recent actions towards the Georgian Service. We are afraid that they have grave implications that go beyond this very incident.
The purpose of this letter is not simply to defend a single individual – in fact, not all of us have worked closely with David Kakabadze himself. Although, those of us who have worked with him know about his invaluable expertise, strong commitment to quality journalism and incredible generosity towards a younger generation of journalists (as well as his great admiration for Havel, whose work he has translated into Georgian).
This letter is not even aimed at defending a single service. Although, those of us who have followed the Georgian Service long before we had the chance to work for it, know that, to this date, it is one of the most reliable and uncompromising media outlets in the largely polarized and politically biased media landscape.
This letter is rather fueled by a sense of betrayal.
During our time at the radio as fellows, we have enormously valued the opportunity to spend time with and learn from RFE/RL colleagues as well as each other. 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 replicate yet another authoritarian regime many of us are familiar with.
We believe it is more important than ever to voice our concerns at this time in history – when we are constantly bombarded by a mishmash of fake news, commercials and soundbites, all in the context of profound global challenges and increasing crackdown on independent media.
At a time when journalists with expertise and integrity are most needed, you seem to be pushing them away out of fixations about the number of “likes” and “shares”. Or worse – for disagreements about their own local contexts.
Holding on to our “certificates of hope”, the diplomas which we received at the end of our fellowships, we would very much like to end this letter with some hope. But instead we are left with this thought:
“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out” – Vaclav Havel.
In earlier Facebook posts, Arzu Geybullayeva, one of the signatories of the Havel Fellows appeal to the BBG gave a devastating assessment of RFE/RL’s senior management based on her own observations during her fellowship with the organization.
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”.
The Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship (VHJF) is a joint initiative of RFE/RL and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, generously supported by the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation Vize97. Launched in 2011, it is inspired by the late Czech leader’s belief in the transformational power of free speech and builds on RFE/RL’s legacy of promoting more open societies through journalism. More information about the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship is available here.
ALSO SEE: Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)
ALSO SEE: RFE/RL, Czech Republic Announce Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship, RFE/RL Press Release, March 15, 2012.
ALSO SEE: Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship, Broadcasting Board of Governors