BBG Watch Commentary
How can the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) proclaim with a straight face that its Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts are designed to help Iranian workers and their independent labor unions as they did for the Polish Solidarity trade movement during the Cold War?
On the American Labor Day, the Czech Helsinki Committee (CHC), a human rights organization, published in English a factual Supplement (“Doplneni”) to its earlier Statement on discrimination of foreigners at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, which has its headquarters in the Czech Republic but is managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors with U.S. taxpayers’ money appropriated by the U.S. Congress.
The BBG is an independent U.S. federal agency . Its top executive is President Obama’s appointee Richard Lobo who heads BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). His deputy is a former RFE/RL executive Jeff Trimble. The ultimate responsibility for U.S. international broadcasting rests with nine (currently seven) members of the bipartisan BBG Board, which is divided and ineffective in demanding better performance and accountability from BBG and IBB executives. Some BBG members, particularly Ambassador Victor Ashe, have been highly critical of the BBG/IBB management. Other BBG members known to be deeply dissatisfied with the agency’s top management include Michael Meehan and Susan McCue but they can’t agree what ought to be done to change the corporate culture at the top level. Some of the other BBG members often miss their board meetings or tend to side with Richard Lobo and his team, ignoring public and Congressional criticism. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is an ex officio BBG member but is represented at BBG meetings by the current Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine.
The public criticism of the BBG is by no means limited to groups in the United States. The Labor Day statement from the Czech Helsinki Committee is just the latest in foreign NGO and media reports about mismanagement and abuses at the entities managed by the U.S. international broadcasting agency. During the Cold War, Helsinki Committees in Czechoslovakia and in other communist-ruled countries defended political dissidents like Vaclav Havel, who later became his country’s president after its pro-Soviet regime was replaced. As they struggled for democracy, their pro-human rights statements were widely reported in Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty programs broadcast behind the Iron Curtain.
Since the end of the Cold War and the move of the U.S. government-funded broadcaster from Munich to Prague, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty executives who report the Broadcasting Board of Governors have severely limited the right of RFE/RL employees to unionize and introduced work contracts which deprive foreign journalists in the Czech Republic of some of the basic protections of Czech and American labor laws.
“These anti-labor policies of the Broadcasting Board of Governors executives are a public diplomacy liability for the Obama Administration, especially since they are being enforced at Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which helped the United States win the Cold War by its broadcasts in support of the Solidarity labor movement in Poland,” one former BBG official observed. He noted that when RFE/RL was most effective it had a strong employee union and its employees were not afraid to initiate successful programs. RFE/RL also enjoyed strong support from the American labor federation AFL-CIO and the independent trade union movement abroad, as well as strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. “BBG executives are undermining this important base of support by their anti-labor rhetoric, blaming employees for the management’s own spectacular failures, and dismissing Congressional concerns, a former BBG official said.
The Czech Helsinki Committee condemned these BBG employment practices as “immoral.” Other critics described them as hypocritical for a public institution that claims its news programs support democracy and human rights in countries without free media, including the right of workers to organize. The same Broadcasting Board of Governors executives are also waging a war against federal employees at the Washington-based Voice of America, with plans to privatize it and remove it from Congressional oversight, members of the BBG’s AFGE Local 1812 employee union told BBG Watch.
RFE/RL actions are defined in the Czech Helsinki Committee document as “akt podvodu” (“act of fraud”). “ Doplneni” is accessible online in Czech: http://www.helcom.cz/view.php?cisloclanku=2012083001 .
In the meantime , The Croatian Times, published a detailed article based on the facts provided in the CHC “Supplement.” One of the former employees, whose case against RFE/RL is now being reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, is a Croatian citizen.
One former RFE/RL journalist told BBG Watch: “‘Act of fraud’ — the term used by the Czech Helsinki Committee to describe discrimination against foreign employees at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty — fits perfectly with the lies of Broadcasting Board of Governors executives about the Voice of America “Parazit” satirical television program to Iran, which has been off the air for nine months while these executives told members of Congress and American public that it was still being broadcast. They are likewise trying to deceive the U.S. Congress, the Obama Administration and the American taxpayers with their anti-worker personnel practices at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty in the Czech Republic and even at the Voice of America in the U.S. capital.”
Unofficial English translation
Supplement to the Czech Helsinki Committee
Statement: Employment of Foreigners in Radio Free Europe
On June 4, 2012, Czech Helsinki Committee (CHC) released the Statement: Employment of Foreigners in Radio Free Europe, noting: “We considered the practice of Radio Free Europe as immoral.” RFE/RL provides its foreign employees with standardized employment agreements stating: “Conditions of employment are governed by the applicable laws of the United States, the laws of the District of Columbia (DC) or the policies of the Company.” In fact, hundreds of foreign employees of RFE/RL, which broadcasts from Prague to 21 countries in 28 languages, are — as the foreigners working for American employer abroad –exempt from whatever protection provided to Americans by U.S. labor laws, civil and human rights regulations.
Snjezana Pelivan, Anna Karapetian
August 30, 2012
On June 4, 2012, Czech Helsinki Committee (CHC) released the Statement: Employment of Foreigners in Radio Free Europe, noting:
“We considered the practice of Radio Free Europe as immoral.” HYPERLINK “http://www.helcom.cz/view.php?cisloclanku=2012060501” http://www.helcom.cz/view.php?cisloclanku=2012060501
Factual situation: Absence of protection for foreign employees
RFE/RL provides its foreign employees with standardized 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, hundreds of foreign employees of RFE/RL, which broadcasts from Prague to 21 countries in 28 languages, are — as the foreigners working for American employer abroad –exempt from whatever protection provided to Americans by U.S. labor laws, civil and human rights regulations. In particular, to foreigners working for RFE/RL are not applicable Fair Labor Standards Act, Equal Pay Act, U.S. Civil Rights Act, District of Columbia Human Rights Act, etc. HYPERLINK http://www.gentrylocke.com/showarticle.aspx?Show=242 http://www.gentrylocke.com/showarticle.aspx?Show=242
Applicable to them are only the “policies of the Company” contained in RFE/RL Policy Manual. RFE/RL commits also another act of fraud: not a single foreign employee of RFE/RL has been acquainted with or orally informed of RFE/RL’s employment, disciplinary and the termination-of-employment policies at the time of hiring procedure. The following rule is absent in employment agreements and is not to be found in any U.S. federal, District of Columbia law, statute, or any other legal act or regulation:
“Employment at will.
RFE/RL’s relationship with its employees is governed by an “employment-at-will “philosophy. This means that …either party may terminate an agreement at any time for any reason.”
RFE/RL Policy Manual also states that “RFE/RL may change its policies at any time” — without any consultations with those employees whose conditions of employment are by those policies governed. At the insistence of Czech labor unions, RFE/RL has for its Czech employees totally different Policy Manual. It provides Czech employees with legal safeguards according to the Czech legal system, does not contain “employment-at-will” philosophy, and can be changed or amended by American employer only with expressed consent of the Czech trade unions.
It is wrong to assume that “employment-at-will philosophy” is morally welcome in the United States itself.
“Employment-at-will doctrine leaves employees vulnerable to malicious, immoral, and capricious terminations… Academic opposition to the rule is nearly unanimous. There are at least 74 law review articles condemning the rule as unsound law, immoral in result, and unjust policy.” HYPERLINK http://www.ali.org/doc/Motion-Employment-Ballard-201.pdf http://www.ali.org/doc/Motion-Employment-Ballard-201.pdf
In the sworn Affidavit to Czech courts, the American lawyer Talin V. Yacoubian states:
“U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) refused to consider claims by foreigners employed by American employers abroad . RFE/RL cannot apply to its non-American employees in the Czech Republic the American legal doctrine of employment-at-will included in RFE/RL Policy Manual and derived from the laws inapplicable to those employees (…) Foreigners employed by RFE/RL in the Czech Republic are in essence in legal limbo.”
Factual situation: Protection is not provided by Czech courts
Czech courts take inconsistent decisions as to what laws shall be used for foreigners working for RFE/RL– either Czech laws, which expressly exclude arbitrary terminations and protect RFE/RL Czech employees, or the Policy Manual of RFE/RL permissive to employer. That “pro and contra” ping pong with human fates goes on in Czech courts for years. It is the sixth time that the case of Anna Karapetian, an Armenian journalist, mother of three minor children, will be considered by Czech judges.
Case of Snjezana Pelivan was heard four times. In its Decision of March 16, 2009 the
Czech Constitutional Court
“did not find the applied by employer legal arrangement permitting termination of employment without providing reason , to contradict Czech public order.”
(sp. zn. I. US 491/09)
The Constitutional Court, as indicates Snjezana Pelivan, recognized the evident absence of legal protection of the foreigners employed by RFE/RL in Prague to be in line with fundamentals of social and legal system of the Czech Republic.
In her Application to the European Court of Human Rights, Snjezana Pelivan accused the Czech Republic — as the host country to American RFE/RL – with the tolerance to RFE/RL policies of “no-rights-to-foreigners” and multiple violations of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In particular, with violations of the “right to fair trial” and “prohibition of discrimination”.
To illustrate the inequality of foreigners working for RFE/RL, Snjezana Pelivan provides the following example, among others:
“A foreign woman working for RFE/RL receives a maternity leave in accordance with RFE/RL corporate Policy Manual. It is almost three months shorter than provided by Czech law to anyone else in the Czech Republic, including Czech employees of RFE/RL. But a foreign employee of RFE/RL has no place to complain – neither to American courts, nor the Czech ones.”
Factual situation: Political dimension
Present Czech government, just as the previous governments of this country, is perfectly aware of that legal vacuum created and maintained on the Czech territory by American RFE/RL. Already twice, on June 11, 2009 and February 4, 2010 Czech Parliament discussed the abhorrent RFE/RL’s labor policies. Parliamentary inquiries (interpellations) to successive governments of Prime Ministers Mirek Topolanek and Jan Fischer, respectively, were initiated by the Communist deputy Vaclav Exner.
However, the indignation by these illegal and immoral undertakings cuts in the Czech Republic across the whole political spectrum. In February 2010, Czech Senator Jaromir Stetina appealed to American senators with an Open letter, “Actions of Radio Free Europe Damage Czech Republic and the United States”.
HYPERLINK http://www.jaromirstetina.cz/aktuality/unor-2010/jaromir-stetina-pise-americkym-senatorum-ve-veci-rfe.html http://www.jaromirstetina.cz/aktuality/unor-2010/jaromir-stetina-pise-americkym-senatorum-ve-veci-rfe.html
A year later, in a letter to Hillary Clinton, “From Fame to Shame: Stop Human Rights Violations and National Discrimination of Foreign Employees at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty”, he branded RFE/RL labor policies as being
“patiently indecent, unfair, cynical and hypocritical.”
The Senator’s letters were covered by Czech and international mass media and could not escape the attention of Czech governments – previous or present. From Washington, Senator Stetina never got any answer.
The following letter Senator Stetina, Vice-chairman of the Senate caucus of the TOP 09 party addressed to the head of that party, Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg personally:
“…Your personal appeal to Mrs. Hillary Clinton who is the member of U.S. Federal agency Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and also of RFE/RL Board of Directors, will put an end to violations of human rights at American RFE/RL and to the court cases caused by those violations: the case by Croatian journalist Snjezana Pelivan v. Czech Republic in European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; and the case of Armenian citizen Anna Karapetian… Those lawsuits regularly commented by the Czech as well as foreign mass media, damage international reputation of our country as the sovereign democratic state. They may and must be ended immediately by direct order from Washington. I am also sure that your authoritative address to Hillary Clinton, whatever form it takes, shall help to promptly solve another essentially simple — political and moral but non-legal problem — the problem of discrimination of the hundreds RFE/RL foreign employees at the territory of Czech Republic.”
The Czech government did nothing, however. In fact, Czech government consciously abstains from political appeal to Washington concerning RFE/RL practices at the territory of Czech Republic.
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