BBG Watch Commentary

65 Years Reporting FreedomRadio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) “multimedia expansion and rapid growth” was the focus of Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) meeting held July 1, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic, a BBG press release said.

In the absence of BBG Chairman Jeff Shell, who reportedly had a personal emergency and could not make it to Prague, the open BBG Board meeting was led by Governor Michael Kempner.

Governors Dr. Leon Aron, Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, and U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel who represents ex officio BBG member Secretary of State John Kerry participated in the open board meeting by phone.

Chairman Shell reportedly took part in confidential BBG board discussions in Prague by calling-in.

Rumors circulating at BBG offices in Washington reported to BBG Watch suggest that Governors may have discussed recent allegations against RFE/RL, its building management company and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA). Allegations, which were unsubstantiated but reported in a Washington media article, may have been based on leaks by higher-level IBB staffers, though not its current management team. The leaks, which may have been hinted to earlier by a departing agency official, seemed designed to smear the reputation of RFE/RL’s management and Chairman Royce and to derail the bipartisan bill, H.R. 2323, which calls for reform of BBG management and reducing the power of IBB bureaucracy. It appears to be a typical Washington intrigue by a government bureaucracy afraid of losing its empire to reforms imposed by Congress.

IBB officials launched a similar smear campaign a few years ago against a former BBG Governor who exposed waste and mismanagement by IBB officials and their mishandling of a crisis at RFE/RL.

According to one inside source, BBG Governors also discussed and made a decision in Prague on a high-level personnel change at RFE/RL, but no decisions have been publicly announced. One senior language service manager expressed concern that yet another leadership change would be disruptive as the company was finally on a stable and positive path forward.

RFE/RL has not had a permanent president and CEO since the departure of Kevin Klose in March 2014.

Public announcements by BBG members indicate that their visit at RFE/RL was a success and their impressions highly positive. In his introduction to the presentation by RFE/RL management, Governor Kempner said that the visit “was an extraordinary few days for myself and all Governors, meeting with terrific team of motivated, excited, focused, modern, technologically-savvy group here at RFE/RL.”

“I speak on behalf of the entire Board by saying we were incredibly impressed by what we’ve seen. The work that you are doing is absolutely critical to promoting the democratic values of free and open press, and the intelligence and drive with which you do it is also incredibly impressive.”

BBG Governors heard what Governor Weinstein described as an extraordinary presentation on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s operations and effectiveness.

Governor Matthew Armstrong, who heads the Special Committee on the Voice of America, expressed his approval of VOA and RFE/RL Persian services directors consulting with one another. “I find it very good and indicative of the collaboration that is necessary and is ongoing between our networks,” Governor Armstrong said. He also said that he found during his trips to Myanmar and Cambodia that the demand for Voice of America (VOA) content is extremely high. He seemed to be referring primarily to his contacts with government officials. Governor Armstrong said that he tried to push Radio Free Asia content, but he noted that officials were hesitant about RFA.

Governor Armstrong’s observations seem to correspond to what others saw during the Cold War in Eastern Europe. While government officials and other representatives of communist institutions in the region would eventually tolerate and express preference for VOA programs, especially its non-political content, they feared Radio Free Europe and its much more locally relevant political news broadcasts and opinion programs. Radio Free Europe was considerably more popular among ordinary radio listeners and had a much greater audience reach in most East European countries than VOA. Governor Armstrong noted that Radio Free Asia, which provides programming to countries where local media are still not free, is quite different from VOA programming. “VOA and RFA occupy extremely different areas,” Governor Armstrong said.

There was also a comment during the open board meeting from a member of the public, a Czech expert on Russian propaganda. She described this type of government-sponsored propaganda and disinformation not as a media operation but as part of the Russian military strategy of promoting information chaos since the Russian attack on Georgia in 2008.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s acting co-CEOs John Giambalvo and Nenad Pejic moderated what the BBG press release described as “RFE/RL Deep Dive.” It included a response from director of RFE/RL’s Afghanistan Service Hashem Mohmand to BBG’s Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s question how RFE/RL reporters function in countries which may already have some free local press. Hashem Mohmand explained how his service provides resources, expertise and credibility which supplement developing local media. Ambassador Crocker thanked the staff for “a great presentation.” Echoing Governor Kempner’s words, Ambassador Crocker said that the BBG Board’s visit to Prague was “a fantastic couple of days here to see what all of you do in the places where you do it.”

In addition to his regular report, BBG’s interim CEO Andre Mendes responded to Governor Michael Kempner’s question whether satellite television programming to Russia can be justified if most Russians rely on cable TV. Cable television systems in Russia are inaccessible to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty or the Voice of America for uncensored direct program placement even though Russia’s RT Television is able to place its programs on cable systems in the West. Andre Mendes explained that the agency has leased a whole transponder on a popular satellite which covers European Russia and other parts of Europe. Adding a program for those in Russia who have inexpensive individual satellite dishes does not represent any large extra cost for the agency, Mendes said.

RFE/RL’s co-CEO Nenad Pejic pointed out briefly that the 30 minute program Current Time, which is produced jointly by RFE/RL and VOA, targets mostly Russian speakers outside of Russia. “Our top priority was launching new Russian-language programming providing fair and balanced independent reporting on Russia and the region; We did this,” a BBG press release quoted Nenad Pejic.

He was correct in saying that the newly launched television program targets only the periphery of Russia. The BBG does not have a separate Russian-language RFE/RL or VOA television broadcast specifically targeting audiences in Russia. A regular VOA direct satellite television news broadcast to Russia were discontinued by the BBG on advice of IBB staff in 2008 along with direct VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts. It happened shortly before the Russian invasion of the part of Georgia’s territory.

This and similar strategic decisions are no longer made by managers in charge of RFE/RL or VOA. They are made by International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials in Washington who work for and advise the BBG Board. They have been blamed by the agency’s critics on the Hill and others for numerous missteps and blunders over the years, including allowing a major management crisis to develop at RFE/RL in 2012 with the firing of dozens of Radio Liberty human rights reporters and broadcasters in President Putin’s Russia. Critics observe that some of these officials have kept their IBB executive positions although the BBG now has an interim management team led by Andre Mendes. The new team is considered to be an improvement over IBB operations of previous years although there are rumors of continuing management turmoil. In a blow for BBG Chairman Jeff Shell, former BBG CEO Andy Lack, who was recruited by Shell, unexpectedly left only after a few weeks on the job to take a position at NBC News. After the recent departure of the Voice of America director, VOA also has an interim head.

Members of Congress who in 2014 and again this year have introduced a bipartisan bill to reform the agency do not think that U.S. international media outreach, and specifically grantee surrogate broadcasters such as RFE/RL, can function effectively without significant structural reforms at the Broadcasting Board of Governors level in Washington and drastic cuts in the vast IBB federal bureaucracy which, in their view, stifles good governance, initiative and creativity. Members of Congress want RFE/RL and other surrogate broadcasters to be more independent of the government bureaucracy.

While RFE/RL still struggles with long-term labor management problems going back many years, it has experienced a significant transformation under the second tenure in 2013 of former president and CEO Kevin Klose. He quickly rehired some of the laid off Radio Liberty journalists in Russia and improved management, but he left for personal reasons. These improvements have continued under the interim leadership of John Giambalvo and Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL broadcasters and outside observers, including Congressional staffers, told BBG Watch.

Unlike BBG, IBB, VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), BBG’s grantee broadcasters are considered to be better managed and enjoy a much better employee morale. Even if they experience some management or labor relations problems, BBG’s non-federal grantee organizations can’t be compared to the chaos and mismanagement at IBB and VOA in recent years. At least some of the problems seen at BBG’s surrogate media outlets have been blamed by critics on interference from IBB bureaucracy in Washington.

According to the BBG press release, BBG Governor Ken Weinstein noted the pace of change at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, adding that the “energy level is impressive.”

Presiding Governor Michael Kempner was quoted in a BBG press release as saying: “It’s been an honor to be able to meet with the motivated and dedicated team here at RFE/RL.” “We’ve been incredibly impressed with the work we’ve seen. Your work is critical to democratic success.”

The Kenneth Weinstein quote transcribed by BBG Watch was:

BBG GOVERNOR KENNETH WEINSTEIN: “That was an extraordinary presentation. It was a remarkable and inspiring trip for all of us here. First time I was in the building was about five years ago, and the level of energy and dedication–there is no comparison. It felt like a legacy operation that was starting to fade and it had played its major role in history. That is clearly not going to be the case.”

At a meeting BBG Governors had with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty employees in Prague, Kenan Aliyev who is now in charge of Current Time Russian-language television programming and was formerly Azerbaijani Service Director said that under Giambalvo and Pejic the organization has bounced back from its previous management troubles. He expressed concern that the RFE/RL Board was considering another leadership change despite the fact that the company was finally on a stable and positive path forward.

BBG PRESS RELEASE: “Governor Michael Kempner opened the meeting by reporting on the numerous threats journalists in the BBG networks have faced. He echoed the State Department’s urging for the release of Radio Free Asia Uyghur Service reporter Shohret Hoshur’s brothers who have been arrested by Chinese authorities in retaliation for Hoshur’s reporting. Additionally, Kempner called for the release of imprisoned RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, who has been detained since December 2014. Kempner also noted the dangerous situation for VOA stringers in Burundi, one of whom had a grenade thrown at her house, and for independent Cuban journalists who contribute to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, three of whom were arrested on World Press Freedom Day.”

In response to Governor Kenneth Weistein’s question whether RFE/RL programming has had any impact on Russian state media, Radio Liberty’s Russian Service director Irina Lagunina went into a detailed description of how the Russian authorities and media are calling Radio Liberty Russian journalists “traitors.”

“Traitors are us,” Irina Lagunina said for emphasis. BBG Governors present in Prague, however, did not appear frazzled by the Kremlin’s accusations and threats. They also did not seem ready to order softening of Radio Liberty’s Russian programs.

There have been complaints of recent management turmoil in Radio Liberty’s Russian Service. Highly-respected Russian opposition leader Lyudmila Alexeeva wrote a letter to the BBG Board expressing her concern about the dismissal of Radio Liberty’s human rights reporter in Moscow, while a few remaining independent media outlets in Russia took a risk of reporting on corruption allegations against President Putin developed by an investigative journalist who used to report for Radio Liberty but may have been also pushed aside. The Russian Service initially reported on these allegations, but the service management quickly removed the report. Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, however, still has many highly talented and courageous journalists both in Russia and in Prague.

RFE/RL also marked its 20th anniversary in the Czech Republic in an event convened under the auspices of Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and attended by dignitaries from over 22 countries.

In his keynote remarks, Prime Minister Sobotka recalled listening to RFE/RL as a student in Czechoslovakia.

BBG PRESS RELEASE: Sobotka announced the award of two Karel Kramar medals for national service to former RFE/RL Czechoslovak Service Director Pavel Pechacek and former RFE/RL President Kevin Klose. Pechacek was the only independent journalist to report to audiences in their native Czech language directly from Wenceslas Square during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Klose led RFE/RL during the move to Prague in 1995. The medals will be presented to the recipients during the Prime Minister’s visit to the U.S. this fall.

U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic Andrew Schapiro expressed the United States’ deep appreciation for the U.S.-Czech bilateral relationship and their partnership in supporting RFE/RL, a BBG press release noted.

BBG Watch Video: July 2, 2014 BBG at RFE/RL Highlights

Open Board Meeting Full BBG Video July 1, 2015 BBG Board Meeting Part 1

Full BBG Video July 1, 2015 BBG Board Meeting Part 2 RFE RL Deep Dive