Commentary

RADIO FREE EUROPE / RADIO LIBERTY IS STILL NOT AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER


by Mario Corti

It has been almost ten months since the former American management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFER/RL) fired dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow. The brutality with which the terminations were carried out and, to say the least, unconvincing and insincere explanations provided by the then management of RFE/RL,  provoked waves of protests both in Russia and the US. In Russia, prominent politicians like Mikhail Gorbachev, and human rights leaders and intellectuals like Lyudmila Alekseyeva, expressed concern and many authored or signed petitions in defense of fired Radio Liberty journalists. In the United States, independent and nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) and its co-founders, human rights activist Ann Noonan and journalist and writer Ted Lipien, initiated a campaign urging the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of RFE/RL, to force the then management to undo  their ill-advised decision.  All of this has been documented in great detail by a watchdog blog, BBG Watch.

In Prague, where RFE/RL had its headquarters, colleagues of fired Moscow journalists reacted in different ways as one would expect from a group that felt intimidated by the former management. While the majority passively accepted management decision, some tried to promote their former co-workers’ cause as  best they could without putting their jobs at risk.  A few actively collaborated with the old management. One journalist reportedly tried to discourage American supporters of fired Russian journalists with arguments that nothing can help them or the remaining Russian Service staff in Moscow and Prague. But this is another story which one day will unfold in many of its facets so far unknown to a wider public.

Now the saga is apparently over. The old RFE/RL President is gone, a new President stepped in, a couple of other managers who were responsible for the crisis have also left, some of those who had tried to stop the campaign to restore Radio Liberty’s credibility and effectiveness have stayed and even made surprising career advancements under the new leadership. Such things had happened before.

But the important thing is that many of the fired journalists have received offers to return to their previous jobs, and many did. Others have found jobs elsewhere and, on the whole, one can agree with BBG Governor Victor Ashe that, under the new RFE/RL president Kevin Klose, the situation within RFE/RL’s Russian Service “has been righted.”

Ambassador Ashe, of course, was from the very beginning a powerful voice of decency. He apologized to the fired journalists for the humiliation and hardships they suffered, and with his Board colleagues, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, he worked to get them rehired. He and the other two BBG Governors, as well as Secretary of State John Kerry’s representative, Tara Sonenshine, deserve most credit for saving Radio Liberty. It was an example of strong citizen activism and American political system working in synergy to achieve successfully a good result.

[aside]

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was asked to comment on this article. Their Public Affairs Office responded that “It is our practice not to comment on ongoing litigation involving the company. This is a practice followed by acting president Kevin Klose personally and by RFE/RL in general.” It is a common response one would get from any private or even public institution, but we hope that RFE/RL and Kevin Klose are working on resolving this issue.

[/aside]

But is everything all right now? Certainly not. There are still older conflicts and fraudulent labor practices waiting for a solution. I recently came across an RFE/RL  job  announcement, posted on July 14,  for a position in the Turkmen Service in Prague. At the bottom of this post one can read that “RFE/RL is an Equal Opportunity Employer.” This is not accurate. In fact, it is an open lie. Only American and Czech citizens are protected by the labor laws of their respective countries. Non-Czech and non-American employees of RFE/RL in Prague are in a legal vacuum.

A member of the Czech Parliament, Vladimira Lesenska, reported recently  in a written interpellation submitted to the Czech Prime Minister that this category of employees “can be fired at any time without previous warning; for any reason or without any reason; with or without being informed of the reason for the termination of the contract; without compensation for the years of service if one refuses to accept the termination in writing and must agree not to question the decision in court. Such method of employment termination is used by RFE/RL on a regular basis.”

What does it mean that a RFE/RL employee can be fired “without compensation for the years of service if one refuses to accept the termination in writing and must agree not to question the decision in court?” Indeed, the RFE/RL Policy Manual, Section 5.20.10, states that “to be eligible for severance payment, employees will be required to execute a waiver and release agreement in a form prepared by RFE/RL at the time of termination.” It means that an employee entering into a labor contract with RFE/RL is in no position to know in advance what kind of secrecy agreement he or she will be asked to sign in order to get his or her contractual severance payment.

In addition, the RFE/RL Policy Manual is subject to modifications from time to time. These changes are not agreed upon in advance with RFE/RL employees or their representatives. So, if an employee agrees to abide by the Policy Manual,  at the same time he or she endorses yet non-existent policies since RFE/RL claims for itself the right to unilaterally change the rules at any given moment.

But the main point a member of the Czech Parliament Vladimira Lesenska makes in her interpellation to the Prime Minister deals with the  situation of foreign employees at RFE/RL. There are currently two ongoing lawsuits concerning RFE/RL labor practices towards non-Czech and non-American employees, that of a Croatian national Snjezana Pelivan, daughter of the first Prime Minister of independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is pending in the European Court of Human Rights, and that of an Armenian national Anna Karapetian, mother of three minor children. Ms Karapetian’s suit is now before the Czech Constitutional Court. Both women were fired exactly in the fashion described by Czech MP Vladimira Lesenska in her  interpellation.

Clearly, the extensive media publicity around both cases is harmful to the reputation of RFE/RL, especially in the Czech Republic, its host country, in Croatia, in Armenia and all other countries of the RFE/RL broadcasting area, as well as in the United States.  A wise move by the  new RFE/RL management would be to settle these lawsuits and to prevent others by appropriate reforms of its labor practices, rather than to wait for the courts to issue their final decisions—which may take months if not years. RFE/RL should grant actual equal opportunities to all employees. But while that decision is being considered and implemented, RFE/RL should remove a misleading statement from its job postings.

RFE/RL is still not an Equal Opportunity Employer.

Mario Corti, an Italian journalist and writer published in Italy and Russia, is a former director of Radio Liberty Russian Service.

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