BBG Watch Commentary
Dissident Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists want to tell House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) that U.S. tax-funded RFE/RL has failed to counter Russia’s and Iran’s propaganda under its current Obama-era management.
In a message to Speaker Ryan before his planned visit to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic, dissident journalists charge that RFE/RL often repeats and amplifies deceptive messages of Putin’s disinformation machine, presenting them at some length and without effective challenge as part of what RFE/RL management thinks is “balanced” news.
Critics argue that “balancing” news with propaganda and disinformation, as they see it in RFE/RL President Tom Kent’s presentation to the Broadcasting Board if Governors (BBG) in Washington, D.C. on March 14, 2018, is not objective journalism and instead helps authoritarian rulers like Putin.
Similar criticism against RFE/RL has been voiced by Iranians, including the son of the former shah. They argue that RFE/RL’s Radio Farda for Iran as well as the Persian Service of the Voice of America (VOA), both reporting to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, help keep the Iranian mullah-regime in power. Iranians have been posting criticism of RFE/RL and VOA under the #ReformBBG hashtag.
Here is the message from dissident RFE/RL journalists for Speaker Ryan followed by the video of RFE/RL President Tom Kent explaining his programming policy on presidential elections in Russia under Putin. We also include additional criticism of RFE/RL and BBG senior management from employees and observers of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ U.S.-funded international media outreach. One of the most striking is a devastating assessment of RFE/RL’s leaders by former participants in the highly prestigious Vaclav Havel Fellowship at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty who as outsiders had a chance to observe these managers first hand.
Message for House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan from Dissident RFE/RL Journalists
“House Speaker Paul Ryan goes to RFE/RL in Prague. The Obama-era holdouts are preparing a smoke-screen operation to keep Mr. Ryan as far apart from the dire realities of the company as possible. Insulated from the staff, Mr. Ryan will be fed exactly the same propaganda which the Obama-era holdouts keep throwing unsuccessfully at Putin. It would be extremely, extremely important that Mr. Ryan be informed in advance of the abysmal counter-performance of RFE/RL. Otherwise, he will miss a good opportunity to discuss directly with the staff and to save whatever could still be saved from the once-great Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, when it is most needed against a violently resurgent Russia and its Mafioso president.”
RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY (RFE/RL) PRESIDENT THOMAS KENT’S PRESENTATION TO THE BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS (BBG), WASHINGTON, DC, MARCH 14, 2018
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent at BBG Open Board Meeting, Washington, DC, March 14, 2018:
“To Russia. Presidential elections are Sunday. There is no doubt who will win. You see him there. [RFE/RL Video Clip of Putin’s Campaign Billboard] ‘Strong President.’ ‘Strong Russia.’
The other candidates have had trouble coming across as, well, head of state material. [RFE/RL Video Clip of Candidates Aggressively Debating; One Candidate Throwing a Glass of Water at Another]
But the side stories to this election make for compelling journalism. ‘Current Time’ [BBG’s joint RFE/RL and VOA Russian TV/Web Program] and the RFE/RL Russian Service have extensively covered the anti-corruption protests in dozens of cities during the campaign—protests largely ignored by official media. That’s would be candidate Alexei Navalny during a Moscow protest where he is arrested in January. [RFE/RL Still Photo of Navalny with an Aggressive Expression]
We also reported on a social media get-out-the-vote commercial that some found had racist and homophobic overtones. In it the man says there is no point in voting, then he has a terrifying dream that his failure to vote brought in a government that wants to draft him into the army and send gay people to live at his house. [RFE/RL Shows Pro-Putin Commercial]
Who’s behind this commercial isn’t clear, but turnout is perhaps the biggest challenge for Putin in these elections and Sunday all eyes will be on the numbers that go to the polls as a sign of how enthusiastic Russians are in giving him another six-year term.
‘Current Time’ will be offering 15 hours of live TV coverage on Election Day and heavy coverage on the web and social networks.
RFE/RL radio service will have a 24 hour video and audio stream and additional web and social content.
We have been very careful to cover all sides of the election.
If Putin wins—and that seems likely—our coverage will also have reflected why people support him and the strength he has brought to the campaign and to the country.”
[END OF RFE/RL PRESIDENT THOMAS KENT’S PRESENTATION TO BBG]
Iranians Criticize RFE/RL’s Radio Farda
Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah, was interviewed for Bayan Media Network by Bijan Farhoodi, a freelance journalist working in London who in 2013 retired from the Broadcasting Board of Governors after a long career with the Voice of America. As of February 16, 2018, the interview is showing over 50,000 views on YouTube.
Bijan Farhoodi: Do you think that the U.S. government makes the optimum use of Farsi-speaking media outlets it has at its disposal (specifically, Radio Farda and Voice of America) to advance the cause of democracy in Iran?
Prince Reza: The main issue with these outlets you named is the infiltration of reformists in their ranks and they try to perpetuate the reformist discourse, which helps the regime stay in power.
There needs to be a complete purge of these reformists elements in these outlets because the Iranian people have called the legitimacy of the entire theocratic system into question and are no longer interested in reforming it.
The programming of these outlets also needs to be in keeping with what the Iranian public have called for, which is to get rid of this theocratic regime.
Bijan Farhoodi: A viewer by the name of Hitchens has this question: Have you thought of discussing with American officials on ways to identify those who may be sympathetic to the Islamic Republic in these two outlets?
Prince Reza: Many US lawmakers we have talked to are fully aware of this challenge and they are thinking of carrying out serious changes in these outlets.
One of the most misleading statistics being put out by BBG and RFE/RL is 400,000,000 annual views to “Current Time.” No one in the industry, shows “annual” views because such a number is meaningless. Annual numbers cover a long time and many views may in fact be a mere glance at a social media post. When one compares “Current Time” web traffic ranking in Russia using such service as Amazon’s Alexa, it is immediately obvious that “Current Time” is far behind multiple times compared to even some of the poorly-funded independent and semi-independent Russian media outlets, as well as even websites and YouTube channels of individual bloggers in Russia. This is the opposite of the role Radio Liberty played in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Independent journalist Andrew Beaujon was absolutely right writing about “Current Time” in his article in the Washingtonian magazine after observing the RFE/RL-VOA TV show at the Broadcasting Board of Governors studios in Washington, DC:
More Criticism from RFE/RL Employees and Outside Observers
“Everybody’s waiting for a change at RFE/RL, where the morale has hit rock bottom.”
“They [RFE/RL Management] are not only anti-Israeli, they are anti everything that stay in their way. Truth is just collateral damage for these people, who have not had the least success in promoting freedom, free speech or democracy in their broadcast area, but have been exceedingly successful in promoting themselves and wiping out everyone who stood in their way. Hopefully, the new U.S. president’s emissaries will not have fallen for their wining-and-dining bait and, despite being insulated from meeting the staff, will relay the true and ugly image of what RFE/RL has become to the new administration.
The few good people still left at RFE/RL cling their hopes on this. Godspeed!”
“Nepotism, incompetence, harassment of employees without connections (and there are many, many well connected) makes it a depressing and unproductive workplace. The newsroom is in shambles, but the management keeps presenting a fantasy of success and happiness. It’s like the band playing on the Titanic.”
“Thinking, naively, that this is a U.S. taxpayer-funded outlet [RFE/RL] meant to promote freedom and democracy in unfree societies,one finds out that those in charge of this page are awe-struck by Putin’s mettle and manliness as he stands, heroically, in the warm summer rain without an umbrella! Wow! What an example to be promoted at the cost of the U.S. taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars! So fascinated with Putin are those in charge of this webpage, who draw their salaries and generous benefits from the U.S. Congress, that they decided to contact Putin’s photographer to ask him how the great picture of this great, great leader was taken. Visitors of the web page must have thought that they had been somehow redirected to RT’s or Sputnik’s sites. …
The rest is history, as they say, or maybe His Story. Putin’s. To whom RFE/RL does a generous favor, by unwittingly promoting his media stunts for free. Or, rather, at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer.
Could this colossal blunder have been caused by the fact that both the newsroom’s newly appointed managers chose to hurry on and take long vacations away from the worries of the workplace, with the blessing of the upper management? There may be other causes, such as a terrible lack of professional competence, indifference or even disdain for the company’s mission, lack of direction, and a general atmosphere of low morale, interrupted only by self-congratulatory outbursts at all managerial levels. Whatever the causes, one thing is clear: the free fall continues at RFE/RL.
‘June 22 dawned chilly and changeable in Moscow, but by the time photographer Aleksei Druzhinin was in place near central Moscow’s eternal flame, the sunshine was warming the Kremlin’s walls’ and ‘it looked like it would be sunny all day,’ he recalled.
The photographer, who works for Putin’s presidential administration, told RFE/RL in a Facebook message that as Russian officials approached the wreath, ‘the rain came down in buckets’ and continued to hammer down until the moment the Russian president left, around 15 minutes later.
The photographer downplays the part he played in the fame of the image. ‘The reaction was not to the photo itself, but to the fact Putin had refused an umbrella and stood in mourning in the rain.’ Later, when a student asked Putin about his decision to forego an umbrella, the Russian president added to his carefully crafted hard-man image, telling the young woman: ‘I’m not made of sugar.’”
“A bizarre association between Russian opposition leader Navalny and an evil character from a children’s book. Who’s the bad guy in this story? We thought it was Putin, but no, it looks like it is Navalny. Then who’s Putin? The good guy with a magic wand??? Besides, if Harry Potter is the intellectual level reached by RFE’s analysis… No further comment.
“After liberally using the term ‘revolution’ in describing the Bolshevik putsch of 1917, RFE/RL manages to again offend those who lived under communist regimes and who used to the very RFE during the Cold War to find hope. Bizzarrely behaving like an advertising agency, RFE is peddling the pitiful product of the long-dead East German Communist regime, the Trabant, in videos and photo-galleries, as if it were a much-missed wunderkind, not the hated stillborn whom those behind the Iron Curtain wanted to get rid of, together with the oppressive Communist regime it came to symbolize. This may have been an attempt at producing a poor man’s Top Gear (cui bono?), but it resulted in exposing once again the lack of steering – let alone power steering – of the U.S. taxpayer-funded RFE. Such media products show the lack of basic understanding on the side of the current management of the very mission of the of U.S. international broadcasting: those who grew up under the oppressive communist regimes of Eastern Europe do NOT joyfully mark the 60th birth of the Trabant, they joyfully celebrate almost three decades since its demise. Affectionately calling the communist cardboard coffin ‘iconic’, or the ‘Trabi’, strikes the wrong chord with those who couldn’t wait to get rid of it. This is not Radio Free Europe.
“This is how ‘Current Time’ [BBG’s RFE/RL-VOA Russian Program] is countering Russian propaganda… with bad-taste sexual allusions about cows in the introduction, and even more in the actual clip. Disgusting.
Working on a Russian dairy farm can be tough. It’s a dirty job, with low pay, and long hours. Yelena Garayeva describes life as a milkmaid in the Ural village of Shumikha as “hell.” But there’s one person in the barn who seems to enjoy her job, the cow inseminator. (Current Time TV)
“The race to the bottom between VOA and RFE/RL continues. While Moscow’s propaganda machine is fine-tuning itself, gaining ground to the detriment of the free world, the U.S. taxpayers’ dollars are being wasted at RFE/RL on aberrations such as videos of police arresting donkeys in Pakistan (in the time-honored tradition of the football playing goat)
Such outrages, far from being humbly acknowledged, are being touted as social media ‘successes’ in the absence of any relevance or impact. How could this happen, at a station with a once-glorious name whose simple mention used to make communist dictators tremble or go into fits of rage? Perhaps, by promoting mediocrities in positions of responsibility in the newsroom and above, such as the holder of an artificially-created position of ‘regional’ director, whose main responsibility seems to be sending out links to ‘relevant’ articles such as these, mocking US President Donald Trump…?
All these, on generous salaries and benefits paid by the US taxpayer, while one could almost see the satisfied smirk on Putin’s face.
No fits of rage in the Kremlin, just fits of laughter…”
More Criticism From Award-Winning Journalists Who Left RFE/RL
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. Dr. Marina Vashakmadze, a well-known and highly respected journalist and media scholar in Georgia, resigned as RFE/RL Bureau Chief in Tbilisi. She follows in the footsteps of other award-winning women journalists who also have resigned recently from RFE/RL in protest against the senior management.
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.