BBG Watch Commentary

After quitting in frustration her freelancer position with U.S. tax-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova (alternative spelling Khadija Ismayil), who while still working for RFE/RL was at one time a political prisoner in Azerbaijan because of her reporting, has published on Facebook a blistering criticism of RFE/RL management, accusing them of lack of courage, crisis of career stagnation and inability to communicate with their own journalists. In her post, Khadija Ismayilova was defending journalists working for RFE/RL Georgian Service who are in conflict with some of the senior managers after they pressured them to affiliate with a partisan television station in Georgia, a move which the service has so far successfully resisted but is afraid that it may lose the fight.

SEE: Management’s push threatens credibility of RFE/RL Georgian programs, BBG Watch, January 22, 2018.

Stand strong my dear Georgian colleagues, don’t compromise journalism,” Khadija Ismailova wrote in her Facebook post.

In 2015 while still in prison in Azerbaijan, Khadija Ismayilova was awarded PEN American Center’s 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award, given annually to “an imprisoned writer persecuted for exercising her right to free expression.”

She was also named the 2016 recipient of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize while being praised for her investigative journalism work and defended by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and numerous other famous journalists and human rights activists. RFE/RL management also had worked on getting her released from prison, as did officials of its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the U.S. State Department. She was released from prison in Azerbaijan in May 2016 and resumed her freelance work for RFE/RL before quitting recently.

In November 2016, Ismayilova was included as one of the inspirational and influential women of 2016 in the BBC’s 100 Women.

In her January 24, 2018 Facebook post in defense of RFE/RL Georgian Service journalists, Khadija Ismailova wrote that she had left RFE/RL recently, when I felt it is difficult for me and my colleagues to make senior management (most of whom are in a crisis of career stagnation) to listen to its journalists.

In her Facebook post, Khadija Ismailova recalled that she had experienced similar lapses of journalistic integrity on the part of management at the Voice of America, which is another U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet for foreign audiences. Both are managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Khadija Ismailova wrote:

“I remember the time when Voice of America was trying to keep its affiliation with AzTv – state Tv channel [in Azerbaijan]. I used to work in DC headquarter [BBG and VOA are in the same DC building] back then. The chief of service censored interview of assistant deputy secretary where he was talking about importance of freedom of assembly just because AzTV wouldn’t like that. Well, this ended up with me leaving the job.”

In her Facebook post, Khadija Ismailova defended not only RFE/RL Georgian Service journalists but all journalists working for the organization whose managers she accuses of failure of leadership. “Radio Azadliq [vernacular name for Radio Liberty] was the best thing America has been doing for Azerbaijani people and still is.”

Referring to RFE/RL’s management, Khadija Ismailova wrote: “They rarely chose fighting for right to tell truth if journalists in the spot do not insist. We insisted, they agreed.” In this case, she was describing the RFE/RL Azeri Service standing up to the management.

Telling RFE/RL Georgian Service journalists not to compromise their journalism, Khadija Ismailova wrote:

Unlike managers in Prague for you it is more than a workplace and paycheck – it is about the right to tell truth.”

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America, as well as Radio Farda broadcasting to Iran, which is part of RFE/RL, are also being strongly criticized by Iranian anti-regime protestors and independent Iranian journalists in Iran and abroad for inadequate coverage of recent Iranian protests and having what these critics say is a pro-Iranian regime bias in favor of so-called “reformists” among the mullahs. But Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Kenneth Weinstein denies that is the case and says that the BBG-managed programs help Iranian protesters.

Weinstein has defended the BBG and its beleaguered Obama-era appointee John Lansing in a letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal which published an editorial highly critical of the BBG.

BBG BOARD CHAIR KENNETH WEINSTEIN: “As board chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), I can proudly say that the agency is a recognized global pioneer in creating secure platforms for those suffering under repressive regimes around the world. … CEO John Lansing has dramatically grown our digital efforts and broadened the number of tools and vendors available to increase and improve BBG’s anticensorship efforts.”

The Wall Street Journal called the BBG slow and backward.”

Echoing sentiments expressed by Khadija Ismailova, two well-known Iranian human rights activists have published an op-ed in The Hill, in which they called for reforming the Voice of America Persian Service from its deplorable state.” Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri wrote in an op-ed in The Hill that “Voice of America Persian service needs to be “resuscitated.”

MARIAM MEMARSADEGHI & AKBAR ATRI – THE HILL OP-ED: Voice of America Persian service should be resuscitated from its deplorable state. During the Obama administration, the network lost the large and loyal audience it had because popular, politically sharp programming was canceled and replaced with watered-down messaging to accompany appeasement and rapprochement with the Iranian regime. The outlet is poorly managed, with low morale among staff. If the Iranian people are to make a transition to democracy, they will need daily news and analysis from VOA that is robust and encouraging.

In responding to private criticism from another veteran journalist, John Lansing said that the person who had spent more than three decades in journalism was not in fact a legitimate journalist. Under Lansing’s watch, both RFE/RL’s and VOA’s senior managers appear to be at war with some of their best journalists, including those who had been political prisoners. Award-winning RFE/RL Radio Liberty Russian Service investigative journalist Anastasia Kirilenko was pushed out by RFE/RL management in 2015. She wrote later that RFE/RL management gave no support to their investigative reporters.

VOA’s senior management led by VOA director Amanda Bennett is trying to fire three Mandarin Service broadcasters who resisted the management’s decision to shorten a live interview with Chinese whistleblower businessman Guo Wengui. When the interview was cut short on the orders of senior VOA executives despite protests by Mandarin Service broadcasters, it led to VOA losing much of its credibility in China. VOA Mandarin Service journalists are being defended by some of top U.S. scholars on China. They sent a letter to BBG chairman Ken Weinstein and BBG CEO John Lansing in defense of the VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters.

There has been no response yet from John Lansing or RFE/RL President Thomas Kent and his deputy Nenad Pejic to criticism in Khadija Ismailova’s Facebook post.

“I am not authorized to comment on internal staff matters at RFE/RL. Out of respect for our journalists, it is the company policy not to comment,” spokesperson Joanna Levison told Eurasianet in an emailed response.

Watch this 2016 VOA video in which BBG CEO John Lansing defends Khadija Ismailova and other BBG journalists who were then imprisoned or persecuted by foreign governments for their work.

John F. Lansing on World Press Freedom Day from Broadcasting Board of Governors on Vimeo.