BBG Watch Commentary
During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty made every effort to publicize human rights appeals from Helsinki Committees in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, while communist governments made every effort to ignore them. A number of former Soviet block countries still have Helsinki Committees speaking out for human rights. For the last few years, the Helsinki Committee in the Czech Republic has been sending letters to the management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in Washington protesting against alleged discriminatory treatment of foreign journalists employed by RFE/RL in Prague. As in the Soviet times, the Czech Helsinki Committee has not received any answer from either RFE/RL or BBG.
There was some hope for a change in RFE/RL’s labor policies in the Czech Republic when the BBG had appointed Kevin Klose to become RFE/RL’s CEO in early 2013. He carried out a number of management reforms and re-hired some of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia who had been unjustly fired by the previous RFE/RL management. But he never got around to addressing the main labor-management issue in Prague of how foreign RFE/RL journalists are treated before resigning suddenly last month for apparently personal reasons.
The Czech Helsinki Committee has now sent a letter to Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka. The head of the Czech Helsinki Committee Tana Fischerova wrote that “it is difficult to understand American silence other than as a display of contempt for the Czech Republic as a partner and ally.”
Tana Fischerova wrote that Anna Sabatova, former Head of the Czech Helsinki Committee and a winner of the United Nations Human Rights Prize who is now the Ombudsman of the Czech Republic, also had written letters about this matter and never received an answer from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty management in Prague or from the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington. Czech Senator Jaromir Stetina also did not receive an answer to his letters in defense of RFE/RL foreign journalists.
Tana Fischerova asked the Czech Prime Minister to address the government of the United States with a “request to solve the problems stemming from immoral double-standard policies of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.” “In Munich, even when it was in American zone of occupation, German labor laws covered all RFE/RL employees including Americans, while in Prague BBG and RFE/RL assume that they can be above the laws,” Tana Fisherova wrote in her letter to Czech Prime Minister.
Tana Fischerova, a former member of the Czech Parliament, was a candidate in the 2013 Czech presidential elections. She is a writer, a TV personality and member of the board of the Vaclav and Dagmar Havel Foundation VIZE 97.
BBG Watch has learned that recently some BBG members have expressed their deep concern over this issue and are discussing it with the interim RFE/RL management team put in place after Kevin Klose’s departure. The BBG also has a new chairman, Jeff Shell, who has promised management reforms and better treatment of employees.
According to BBG Watch sources, Tana Fischerova had written a letter to Chairman Shell late last year, but it it not known whether the executive staff of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) has shown him the letter. IBB has been badly managed for years. Its executives ignored numerous problems that later caused great embarrassment to the BBG and the U.S. government. They also reportedly kept material information hidden from BBG members. There was a subsequent change in the IBB management team ordered by the new BBG Chairman and the renewed BBG board.
It remains to be seen what actions, if any, might be taken by BBG and RFE/RL to resolve this longstanding issue now that some BBG members have gotten involved.
Mr. Bohuslav Sobotka
Prime Minister of the Czech Republic
Nabrezi Edvarda Benese 4/128
Prague 1 – Mala Strana
Radio Free Europe Violates Human Rights and Hospitality of the Czech Republic
Prague, 28th March 2014
Dear Prime Minister,
We appeal to you concerning the matter, which Czech Helsinki Committee follows for several years, and in which former Head of CHC Anna Sabatova wrote to Washington. It is labor discrimination of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) foreign employees.
As you know, in 1995, at the invitation of Vaclav Havel, RFE/RL that operates on the basis of U.S. International Broadcasting Act was transferred from Munich to Prague and settled in the building of former Federal assembly of Czechoslovakia. The Radio is subordinate to Federal Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in Washington. Members of BBG are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by Senate. The Secretary of State (presently John Kerry) serves on BBG ex officio. Simultaneously, BBG, including the Secretary of State, acts as RFE/RL Board of Directors. RFE/RL broadcasts in 28 languages to 21 so called target countries and employs in Prague hundreds of foreign citizens. According to International Broadcasting Act, BBG controls and directs all American non-military broadcasters abroad and “makes all major policy determinations governing the operations of RFE/RL.” RFE/RL, the largest institution of American public diplomacy overseas, is financed by U.S. Congress. On January 26, 2010, Norman Eisen, then newly assigned American ambassador to Prague, visited RFE/RL president even before he handed his diplomatic credentials to the President of Czech Republic.
Czech Republic extended to RFE/RL an extraordinary hospitality corresponding to the glorious human-rights-oriented history and present official mission of that Radio: “to promote democratic values and institutions,” “strengthen civil societies by projecting democratic values,” “provide a model for local media…” The building at Wenceslas Square was leased to RFE/RL for symbolic rent of 1 Czech Crown per month. The Ministry of Finance relieved all RFE/RL American employees, as performing duties of governmental nature, of Czech income taxes. In April 2006, Cyril Svoboda, the then Czech Minister of Foreign Affaires, personally handed to BBG in Washington a check of 27 million Czech Crowns to co-finance the resettlement of RFE/RL into its own building in Prague. In June 2012, Dennis Mulhaupt who headed BBG’s delegation to Prague, stated with satisfaction after reception by former Czech President Vaclav Klaus: “We could not imagine more hospitable, dedicated and supportive host.”
American banner is hoisted at RFE/RL’s building. The problem is that hundreds of foreigners working in that building are intentionally deprived of any real — defendable by the Czech and/or American laws – labor rights, for they are hired on uniform employment agreements stating: “Conditions of employment are governed by the applicable laws of the United States, the laws of the District of Columbia or the policies of the Company.” In fact, however, to them as to foreigners working for American employer outside the United States, American labor laws are not applicable at all. (Czech personnel are employed on different agreements governed by Czech Labor Code).
Thus, American management is placing RFE/RL employees from countries other than Czech Republic and USA into legal vacuum without informing them at the time of hire of their actual legal status. In reality, they are subjected to the “policies of the Company “only. Those internal regulations contain a specific rule absent in their employment agreements (section 5.18.1, RFE/RL Policies&Procedures): “Employment at RFE/RL is considered to be “at will”, which means that either the employee or RFE/RL can terminate the employment agreement at any time and for any reason, with or without notice or cause.” It means also without any reason – as is the RFE/RL’s practice.
Legal claim against RFE/RL by Armenian citizen Anna Karapetian, mother of three minor children, is presently in the Czech Constitutional Court. The case of Croatian citizen Snjezana Pelivan vs. Czech Republic is in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Czech Republic, as the country hosting on its territory the American RFE/RL, is accused of failing to safeguard Mrs. Pelivan’s rights to non-discrimination and fair trial guarantied by European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. After years of impeccable service prized by regular performance reviews, both women were fired without any stated reason, without advance notices, without any disciplinary measures (if deserved), and even without severance compensations because they refused to give up in writing the right of appeal to court – an inalienable human and civil right in any democratic state including the Czech Republic.
In its Statement of June 4, 2012, Employment of Foreigners in Radio Free Europe, Czech Helsinki Committee criticized the RFE/RL’s practice as being “immoral.” In its further pronouncement of August 30, 2012, CHC defined that practice as “an act of fraud.” On October 8, 2012, CHC appealed to Representative Christopher H. Smith and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, leaders of U.S. Helsinki Commission, with an Open letter, Violations of Human Rights and Disregard of Moral Principles by American Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague Should Not Go On. March 5, 2013, CHC wrote to RFE/RL president Kevin Klose asking him for “changing of discriminatory labor policies” and “ending of the court cases with Mrs. Karapetian and Mrs. Pelivan with the amicable settlement.” On November 23, 2013, CHC published and forwarded to Mr. Jeffrey Shell, BBG Chairman, a letter, “Radio Free Europe: Labor Policies Shall be Changed, Lawsuits Peacefully Stopped.”
CHC did not get an answer to any of those letters.
Without any reaction and answer remained also the letters by Czech Senator Jaromir Stetina to the president of RFE/RL, U.S. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, leaders of U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. On July 15, 2013, Senator Stetina wrote to John Kerry:
“As a member of Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security, I dare to inquire if such a mode of operations – to ignore, disregard, not to react – is appropriate for American officials and institutions in relation to the friendly and allied Czech Republic.”
“Unnoticed” remained also three interpellations (inquiries) in Czech parliament addressed to the governments of PMs Mirek Topolanek and Petr Necas concerning the discrimination of RFE/RL’s employees by nationality principle — discrimination inadmissible at the territory of sovereign Czech Republic…
Equally, the American side never paid any attention to angry reaction by Czech mass media – TV, radio, print media.
Foreign media reaction to court cases of Anna Karapetian and Snjezana Pelivan, titles like “Radio Free Europe – Guantanamo in Prague” or “Free Europe with Its Own Law in Colonial Czech Republic” are not contributing to positive international image of the Czech Republic. Critical comments in English, Russian, Slovak, Armenian, Croatian and other languages regularly appear in print, electronic and voice media. The list of such publications is virtually endless.
To try to explain that silence in response to appeals and requests coming from the Czech Republic and concerning RFE/RL only by by bad manners of American officials, would be just as absurd as to call RFE/RL simply a private organization having private arguments with its employees in Czech Republic. However, exactly in that spirit sounded humiliating answers of PMs Mirek Topolanek and Petr Necas to parliamentary interpellations.
Czech Helsinki Committee finds that the silence of American institutions has nothing to do whatsoever with court disputes if it is permissible or not to apply American labor laws to foreigners at the territory of sovereign Czech Republic. In opinion of CHC, it is inadmissible. It is excluded itself by American laws. In Munich, even when it was in American zone of occupation, German labor laws covered all RFE/RL employees including Americans, while in Prague BBG and RFE/RL assume that they can be above the laws.
It is difficult to understand American silence other than as a display of contempt for the Czech Republic as a partner and ally. Last year, when Mrs. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, protested the violation of labor rights in RFE/RL Moscow bureau (Radio Svoboda), not only the RFE/RL president Kevin Klose, the chairman and members of BBG came to Moscow to talk to her, but also the Secretary of State John Kerry met her there. Moreover, she was invited and traveled to Washington. Anna Sabatova, former Head of Czech Helsinki Committee, winner of the United Nations Human Rights Prize presently elected to a position of Ombudsman of the Czech Republic, did not even get an answer.
On June 11, 2013 to PM Petr Necas appealed with written interpellation the Parliament deputy Vladimira Lesenska – member of your party (CSDP), which at that time was in opposition to the government of Petr Necas. On June 17, his government has resigned and the interpellation — reported already by Czech and foreign media — could not be considered. Deputy Lesenska inquired, in particular: “Snjezana Pelivan, referring to the Croatian Constitution, officially requested the government in Zagreb to support her claim against the Czech Republic submitted to Strasbourg. Czech and foreign media also quoted her words: ‘Americans spit on this country openly and smile nicely. And Prague wipes itself dry and keeps smiling, too. Our next complaint, mine and Anna’s, will be to Geneva, to the UN Human Rights Council.’ How the Czech government , Mr. Prime Minister, assesses such a consequence of its inactivity, how much longer it intends to stay silent, not addressing American institutions with relevant questions regarding RFE/RL’s labor policies and actions at the territory of sovereign Czech Republic?” As the head of CSDP, you are definitely familiar with that interpellation.
Therefore, we ask the new, headed by you government of the Czech Republic to address the government of the United States of America with request to solve the problems stemming from immoral double-standard policies of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Discrimination of hundreds of its foreign employees shall be stopped, protracted lawsuits ended by peaceful resolutions. Czech Republic is the state treating the defense of human rights seriously and that should be made clear. It is one of our main slogans.
We hope that the burning political and moral problem concerning the defense of human rights, which your government inherited from previous Czech governments, will be solved by diplomatic means at intergovernmental level Prague – Washington.
In conclusion, we quote Governmental Declaration: “The government will pursue the high standard in defense of human rights.”
Thank you and warm wishes,
Head of Czech Helsinki Committee