BBG Watch Commentary
A documentary essay, Anna Karapetian: a woman against the System, was posted recently in Russian (Аннa Карапетян : женщина против Системы) and English on the personal blog of a young Russian writer Veronica Sulla. The essay was also highlighted on the writer’s Facebook page.
Veronica Sulla–a prose writer, poet, radio and TV journalist–lives between Prague and Rome. Poems from Sulla’s Ragazza per l’Amore collection were translated into English and published in the United States. Her first book, Brilliant and Other Stories, was published in August 2011. Ten short stories were reprinted by the oldest Russian literary magazine, Сибирские огни (Siberian Lights). The book was nominated for a prestigious Русская премия (Russian Prize) Award.
From 2002 until 2006, Veronica Sulla (Ostrinskaya) had worked at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague.
In her essay, Veronica Sulla tells the story of a former RFE/RL journalist Anna Karapetian. Anna is one of many former and current RFE/RL foreign journalists who are denied the protection of the Czech labor law and can be fired by the American management at any time for any reason or no reason at all. Anna is one of two former RFE/RL employees who are suing the American public media institution for engaging in discrimination. Anna’s lawsuit is now before the Czech Constitutional Court. A lawsuit by another former RFE/RL employee, Snjezana Pelivan, is before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty has a new chief executive Kevin Klose who was president of National Public Radio (NPR) from 1998 to 2008. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the RFE/RL Corporate Board which consists of BBG members have just confirmed that Klose will stay on at RFE/RL as its President and CEO.
Since Klose was first recruited by the BBG and came on board in January 2013 as acting president and CEO, he has undertaken major management reforms and rehired some of illegally fired Radio Liberty journalists in Russia. But the whole issue of how foreign employees are treated in Prague still awaits his action.
In her essay, Veronica Sulla mentions by name former Radio Liberty’s Russian Service director Mario Corti and former Broadcasting Board of Governors member Ambassador Victor Ashe, both of whom she praises for their courage to stand up to the bureaucracy. She also mentions former RFE/RL acting president and now BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Deputy Director Jeff Trimble.
Kevin Klose is not mentioned. But it is our hope that this powerful essay will move him to act now, in his upgraded capacity, to resolve this longstanding issue–an international disaster for U.S. public diplomacy–and to put a stop to injustice and discrimination at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.
I knew Anna’s face. Even if you work in the same building with five hundred people, you get to know almost all of them from sight, even the guards. But even afterwards, when I’ve moved from the corporate world to private life for good, I learned things about many of them that the System tends to hide: who was plotting against whom, who betrayed whom, who remained silent when they could have stood up for a colleague, who the System simply just got rid of because the System doesn’t need individuals – it needs faceless performers.
The ”System” is Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Amazingly, first of all the System tramples women. Saliha K., Olga G., Naz N., Snjezana P., Saida K., Darimbet N., Adolat N., seriously ill Baian J… They no longer work in the System; they’ve been laid off. Who else and how many? I don’t know, but in Prague, all female foreigners who serve the ideals and ambitions proclaimed by the System – democracy, civil society, human rights, rule of law, being an example for media in other countries – are subject to brazen discrimination. For example, their maternity leave is almost three months shorter than what their Czech colleagues working in the same room receive. I don’t know this from hearsay.
Why women first of all? Because they’re weaker? Unable to protect themselves? Karapetian’s case tells a different story. And she is not alone. But the System carries on. It doesn’t learn. That’s what makes it unique. It’s far from America. For now, the American media hasn’t taken notice of the System. The Czech Republic? Where’s that?
It’s hard to believe, but the System is a tool of U.S. public diplomacy. Twenty-odd countries in twenty-eight languages – countries where there is no democracy – such is the spread of its broadcasts. The U.S. Congress funds the organization, which is directed by the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington. The U.S. Secretary of State is on the Board ex officio. Board members are appointed by the U.S. President and approved by the Senate. This Board of Governors serves collectively as the Board of Directors for RFE/RL — the System.
I entered the System like other journalists have – to serve the high ideals and ambitions it proclaims. Just twenty-two years old and with the ink on my diploma still drying, I became one of the youngest program moderators at the Prague headquarters of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty. The Director of the Russian Service at the time, Mario Corti, was the one who gave me such a generous professional boost. He was the last Director who dared to speak on equal terms with the System.
When the System corresponds to its declared ideals, the presence of individuals is a benefit to it and the common good. When it stops corresponding to its goals, it becomes a System of Mercenaries with no rights. This is what happened with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Its symbol, the Liberty Bell, first became the show pennant in the hands of a succession of bureaucrats. And then they completely abandoned it. The bureaucrats decided that this American symbol just might offend someone. Here they were right. Perhaps autocrats, dictators, jihadists…
I would not have bothered with the System now if it had not been for Anna. We met by chance, after eight years of knowing each other from sight, and immediately recognized each other. Anna extends an invitation and promises to explain what happened to her.
We’re drinking coffee in a cramped apartment. Charming dark-eyed children come home and sit down with us at the table. Their Russian is poor.
“I am the same Anna Karapetian who is well-acquainted with Czech courts and journalists. Seven hearings, seven years of fighting. After I was fired for no reason or explanation, I sued the Radio. Till now there have been four negative and two positive rulings. I’m waiting for a ruling from the Constitutional Court,” Anna says calmly and confidently. She is one of those journalists who “bought into” the ideals. Twelve years of blameless work at the Armenian Service, her own program. When Hillary Clinton, who was then the First Lady and later the U.S. Secretary of State and member of theSystem’s Board of Directors, gave a speech in Prague in 1996, Anna Karapetian was live on the air translating her words about the “alliance of democratic values” in our globalized world into Armenian.
…The old house next to the school attended by two of her three minor children. A Czech school. After Anna was sacked, she had to take the children out of the American school paid for by the System. She ended up having to also leave her old apartment – too expensive. The children started to attend a new school, a Czech one, without knowing the language. But the older one didn’t give up; last year he received the right to free education at an American school. Where American ideals are taught. He believes in them. As does Anna.
”The bottom line is this. When it moved from Munich to Prague, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has put a ticking bomb underneath itself – it withdrew legal protections for employees who are citizens of third countries, who are not Czechs and not Americans. In Munich, employees were protected by German labor laws without exception. In the Czech Republic, the same workers from third countries get to enjoy zero protection. Even if their work contracts are governed on paper by American law, there is nowhere to go to register a complaint, there’s nothing for foreigners in the U.S. courts except expenses,” says Anna.
“People like me: Armenians, Azeris, Ukrainians, Russians, Iranians, Afghans, and so on can be fired at any time with no reason given. To make sure the issue doesn’t go to court in the Czech Republic or anywhere else, they give the laid-off employees a paper of “non-disclosure” to sign, of course in exchange for a decent severance payment. I didn’t sign the paper, refused the money and went to court.”
Anna has a good, understanding husband. He’s also a journalist. They’ve been together since they were at the university. They went to university in Moscow, to the Faculty of Journalism. They got married in Prague. He left his job in Armenia. Children were born. In Prague, Anna became the main breadwinner of the family. The husband is supportive of Anna and is archiving her “case” against the System. He’s going to write a book. Anna even appealed to President Obama: “If not you, then who?” The president hasn’t answered.
“I don’t judge the people who fired me,” says Anna Karapetian. “That’s probably up to the judgment of God. I’m in litigation against a System that I once trusted with my life and the lives of my children. I believed and I still believe in what I was doing. When the children were infants, I expressed milk and went on the air. Night shifts. I was the only female voice in the service. People listened to me. Wrote to me. Radio was my life. I left Armenia because of the station. The radio station invited me to Munich and I came, leaving a good job with the UPI. And then the System cut me off. I don’t know why. But I’ll never go back to Armenia. Not me, after I worked at the radio station, nor my children, who were born and raised in the Czech Republic and don’t have a future there.”
How did the family live after the layoff?
“The station no longer paid for either the school or our home. I applied to receive Czech unemployment insurance benefits,” says Anna. “I paid taxes. However, it turned out that the Radio withheld Czech taxes from me and the rest of the foreigners, but never made contributions to the Czech Social Security system. So that’s how it was. I was not entitled to receive unemployment insurance benefits. I’m grateful to the British, who agreed teach the children for two years at an enormous discount.”
“All the money I had saved up for retirement was spent long ago, we needed to live somehow. So I won’t have any pension at all. The Radio also didn’t pay into the Czech pension fund. So that’s being an ‘example for others’, as the organization proclaims…”
”And now?” I ask, looking around the kitchenette and office in the hallway. Instead of furniture there are piles of papers and books. “We’re publishing a magazine to keep in touch with our homeland and continue to work in our profession,” says Anna Karapetian. “The Armenian European magazine ‘Days’. The magazine and website are in high demand. We get some publicity. And scrape along from day to day.”
Anna doesn’t know if the Czech Constitutional Court will rule in her favor. This is because a communist law dating from 1963 remains in place in the Czech Republic. The law was passed so that Soviet companies would not have to obey local labor laws in colonial Czechoslovakia. But what possible relationship could this law have to a traditionally anti-communist American radio station which embodies in Prague the United States of America? In the Czech courts, the System’s attorneys, paid for by American (!) taxpayers, contend: the most immediate. The System, as lawyers explained to me, is relying on this communist law in order to circumvent the laws of the U.S., which categorically do not allow American labor laws to apply to foreigners working in U.S. establishments abroad. Out of respect of other countries’ sovereignty. That is the will of Congress. But that is a value from American systems, but the System in Prague has its own values. In the home of Kafka, the System wants to live by Kafka. Against the will of the American Congress. It’s absurd, but convenient for bureaucrats. As long as it works. Congress is far away.
“I believe in what I’ve always believed: in justice through transparency,” Anna continues.
“Do you think that’s pathetic? But I believe that people who care will hear me. There are many such people in America. In my opinion, only in America can you still seriously talk about ideals and you will be heard. Try to talk about it in Russia, Uzbekistan or somewhere else and you will be sent to a psychiatrist. For me, the System is not America. It’s an example of the perversion of America.”
Anna believes that the Word by which she has always lived and still lives is stronger than any narrow-minded calculation and legal gamesmanship. She is confident in herself and her case. Not without reason. The Czech press, radio, television – and not only Czech – are singularly on her side. Czech Parliament is also on her side – three inquiries to the Government concerning the labor policy of the System (sorry, they called the System by its correct name – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) have been heard. But they have not been heard at the right authorities in America.
”Anna, would you like to go back to the System?” I ask as one last question. She ponders.
“To the System as it is now – no.For a long time now the radio station has not been the sole source of objective information in today’s world. I’ll never forget the radio station back as it was in Munich almost twenty years ago when I first started working there. That was the taste of real freedom. The feeling of being in a team. An organization that is true to its ideals and protects you. It no longer exists. Now I only want one thing – that the bureaucrats bear responsibility for escorting me under guard outside the walls of the radio station while I was still officially on a sick leave, without giving me a notice and the chance to say goodbye to the listeners. Don’t let them think that the law can’t touch them, neither in the Czech Republic nor in America. When they acted similarly with journalists in Moscow last September and it came up to the American press, they rushed to fix things. But Czech Republic is not seen yet from the United States. If I don’t get justice in the Czech courts, I’ll go on to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – there’s already one discrimination case against the radio station waiting for review – and to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. I have nothing to lose. Unfortunately, it’s the same for them. They’ve lost their reputation long ago. I will not be there alone. It will be a collective complaint, from a group of women.”
Night is falling. We say goodbye. Anna’s husband gives me a folder with documents – letters, articles, statements by Czech politicians, by the Czech Helsinki Committee, the parliamentary inquiries, press releases, court papers… There will be plenty to read.
I’m at home leafing through a folder. I am looking for the System’s reaction. I don’t find it, the System is blind, deaf and dumb. As the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once said, “We live without feeling the country underneath.” There are no answers to letters, parliamentary hearings, appeals and statements from politicians, media inquiries.
Here’s a letter Anna wrote to Jeff Trimble, then Acting President of the System, asking to meet to discuss her dismissal. He didn’t meet her. Anna Karapetian found herself on the streets of Prague, and Jeff Trimble is among the leading bureaucrats on the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington.
BBG member Victor Ashe happened to by the only one to meet Anna and Snjezana P. last year in Prague. He promised to investigate. It seems he didn’t make it in time, the Washington bureaucrats used behind-the-scenes intrigues to squeeze him out of the BBG. For them, personalities are personae non grata. During our conversation, Anna spoke very warmly of him.
In the court papers there isn’t a word about the reasons for her dismissal, only that they have a right to do so in the Czech Republic. I read the following in one of the articles on the issue: “According to a German proverb, we insist upon our right to be pigs!”
©2012 Veronica Sulla All rights reserved. When copying materials from www.veronicasullablog.com direct link is required.