FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, Commentary by Ted Lipien, April 15, 2009, San Francisco — When Anna Karapetian, an Armenian-born journalist, accepted a job offer in 1995 from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S. government-funded radio station that promotes democracy and the rule of law mostly in the countries of the former Soviet Union, she could not have imagined that nearly 15 years later she would be preparing to pursue an anti-discrimination lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against RFE/RL and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the troubled U.S. Federal agency that oversees the radio station headquartered in Prague, the Czech Republic.
“I accepted the invitation to join RFE/RL with an unhidden pride as I was becoming a part of a radio station with a glorious history,” she says. “From the very first day of my employment I got the task of covering the Bosnian war.” Before joining RFE/RL, this graduate of the Moscow State University worked for numerous media outlets in Armenia, including the UPI news agency, covering local politics and the war in Karabakh. At RFE/RL, she wrote feature stories, edited and moderated newscasts and produced the daily programs. One of her regular weekly radio series was on the 1700 anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. Continuing to show pride and loyalty toward her former employer despite a sense of betrayal, she describes RFE/RL as an excellent school of journalism.
When Anna Karapetian was suddenly fired from her job two years ago even though her job performance was described as exemplary, this mother of three minor children discovered that non-American employees like herself, most of whom are journalists, are as unprotected against arbitrary decisions and discrimination by the RFE/RL management as their colleagues in the countries to which the radio station broadcasts programs about the importance of defending human rights.
“The methods are different but the results are virtually the same,” Anna Karapetian wrote in a letter to media freedom and human rights organizations in January 2009. “In RFE/RL target countries the journalists are harassed, persecuted and forced into silence. At the Prague main office, they are harassed and left without means of livelihood and work prospects by arbitrary separations from the Radio.”
After RFE/RL terminated her employment, Anna Karapetian found out that unlike her American colleagues working at the RFE/RL headquarters in the Czech Republic, she did not have the protection of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Federal Civil Rights Act, and many other U.S. anti-discrimination institutions and laws. The Czech government made sure that locally-hired Czech employees would have the full protection of the Czech labor law, but at the insistence of the BBG it allowed RFE/RL to exempt foreign journalists working for RFE/RL in Prague from the Czech labor standards. They were placed instead under a special Communist-era law, still on the books, which was used to facilitate the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia after 1968. This special law allowed RFE/RL as a foreign employer to fire any third-country non-American journalist at any time without any reason.
This legal limbo for foreign-born journalists was specifically sought from the Czech Government by the BBG and RFE/RL to prevent court challenges by non-American employees against adverse personnel actions. Shocked and angered by how she was treated by her U.S. taxpayer-supported American employer, Anna Karapetian wrote in an open letter to freedom of the press and human rights organizations that non-American and non-Czech RFE/RL employees working in the Czech Republic, who often come from semi-dictatorial countries of the former Soviet Union, have “about as much legal protection as the inhabitants of Guantanamo: not in the country of their origin, not in the place of their presence, nor in the United States.”
The Washington-based Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is responsible for these personnel policies, was rated by its own American employees in the most recent government-wide Office of Personnel Management survey, as the worst-managed U.S. Federal agency. The agency is run by a small group of political appointees representing both parties. (There are currently four BBG members plus Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who serves as an ex officio member.) The Board’s executive director, Jeffrey Trimble, is a former acting president of RFE/RL.
“On various solemn occasions different members of the BBG have been encouraging us with their speeches by stressing the mission we had – dissemination of free word and advocacy of human rights,” Anna Karapetian told FreeMediaOnline.org. “I have come to realize that unfortunately there is now little or no difference between the BBG members, the RFE/RL management and the pathos of Communist leaders’ speeches addressed to people with no rights. I believe that the people with no rights can’t have any sincere mission, thus it appears that the US Congress finances double standards of the BBG and RFE/RL in the name of American foreign policy.”
In a case brought by another former RFE/RL employee, Croatian-born Snjezana Pelivan, a court in the Czech Republic recently agreed with RFE/RL lawyers that since the Communist era law allowing foreign companies to exempt their foreign workers from the Czech labor regulations is still on the books, their treatment of Pelivan did not violate the Czech law. Pelivan and Karapetian now plan to seek help from the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg.
Snjezana Pelivan, who graduated from the University of Sarajevo, was employed by RFE/RL to facilitate the use of its programs by radio and television stations in countries still developing their democratic institutions and free media. Like Anna Karapetian, she feels betrayed by RFE/RL, the BBG, and the U.S. Government but still strongly believes in the importance of U.S. international broadcasting.
“In Munich and later in Prague, RFE/RL — with its message of tolerance, rule of law, democracy, human rights — became for me not just an employer. I could identify with RFE/RL broadcasts supporting reconciliation and peace in my native Balkans and, in similarly war-torn, Caucasus.”
Pelivan came from a politically engaged family. When she left Sarajevo in 1992, her father, Jure Pelivan, was the first Prime Minister of independent Bosnia and Herzegovina. She became a refugee in Germany and later worked with relief organizations and accompanied deliveries of humanitarian aid to the camps of Bosnian refugees in Croatia.
“For me, it was not humanitarian mission only but also a personal and political one, ” she told FreeMediaOnline.org. “I am just sorry that the notions of human dignity, individual rights and fairness have a different meaning for the American bosses of that great radio station than for its employees. The bosses are not ‘living American values’, in the words of Hillary Clinton who has recently visited RFE/RL. They’re just selling them — but with less and less success. The salesmen are losing the trust of their own employees and the people to whom they try to sell their ideas.”
Neither Pelivan nor Karapetian see their cases as wrongful termination claims by individual employees but as a landmark lawsuit designed to put an end to a “shameful discrimination” that has affected many journalists at RFE/RL. They describe themselves as having the determination and the support of their friends, RFE/RL employees, and families to stand up to the radio station’s management and the BBG. Other journalists from Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tatarstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, North Caucasus, and former Yugoslavia whose contracts were terminated could not afford to lose their severance pay by not signing a release agreement demanded by RFE/RL.
The agreement stipulates that “to receive a severance as a result of involuntary termination”, they had to sign a letter of “General Release”, which states unequivocally: “In consideration of the payments and promises contained in this letter, you agree…” Then follows half a page of promises and obligations not to make any claims, demands, complaints, legal charges against RFE/RL, and to keep the whole matter strictly confidential. After signing such a letter, they receive severance pay for their work at the radio station. Often, it is a double-digit figure depending on number of years with RFE/RL. Anna Karapetian and Snjezana Pelivan did not sign it together with another former RFE/RL employee who later decided not to go to court.
While there may be legitimate reasons for RFE/RL and the BBG to make job reductions, the current practice does not protect foreign-born journalists from arbitrary terminations and retaliation by the management. Both Anna Karapetian and Snjezana Pelivan were considered outstanding employees and received excellent performance reviews. One former RFE/RL broadcaster told FreeMediaOnline.org that after landing on a street in Prague — with no job and no prospect to find one, no income, no language, no connections, no usable education and experience but with a family, kids, sometimes other dependent relatives — it is no surprise that most people sign the release and take the “shut up” money. This former RFE/RL journalist pointed out that Turkmen or Uzbek broadcasters who report on human rights abuses “are not in high demand in the Czech Republic or elsewhere, just in Turkmen and Uzbek prisons.” The BBG and RFE/RL worked together to make sure that these journalists would have no access to legal protections or union representation that could safeguard them from unfair treatment. Read Broadcasting Board of Governors Rated Worst Than Ever By Its Employees and As One of The Worst Federal Agencies.
These policies of discriminating against journalists and other employees on the basis of national origin are directly linked to the BBG’s efforts over more than a decade to privatize U.S. international broadcasting. One of the main goals was to bypass many of the U.S. government personnel rules which apply to employees at the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA), which is also managed by the BBG. While the BBG kept outsourcing U.S. broadcasting jobs abroad and to private contractors, VOA was being slowly dismantled. In the view of most BBG members, the U.S. government offered too many protections to employees and prevented the BBG from quickly implementing the previous Administration’s schemes for changing the public opinion in the Middle East that turned out to be wateful and counterproductive.
Without understanding the special mission of U.S. international broadcasting and the special role of journalists engaging in human rights reporting to countries ruled by repressive regimes, BBG members want to treat them the same way as employees of U.S. commercial broadcasters. Unlike most of their foreign-born colleagues, fired American journalists with job experience and degrees from American universities can compete for new jobs in the large and open U.S. media market. More importantly, they have rights that are being denied by the BBG to foreign-born journalists at RFE/RL and to journalists working for other BBG-managed private contractors. Lacking job security, they were less likely than their colleagues at VOA to question the BBG’s misguided ideas about increasing audience reach with entertainment programming. Fearful of losing their jobs, they were also less likely to resist the pressure to offer a platform to Holocaust deniers in the hope of winning approval among Alhurra’s viewers.
There is an additional journalistic and security risk associated with this kind of treatment of vulnerable employees. FreeMediaOnline.org has warned that denying RFE/RL journalists basic rights and job security makes them and their families more vulnerable to intimidation by intelligence and security services of countries like Russia and Uzbekistan.
Embolden by the freedom to fire and hire journalists in Prague, the BBG executive staff has been trying to find ways to subject workers at the Voice of America to some of the personnel practices used against foreign-born employees at RFE/RL and at other private broadcasting entities under their management. This task is being accomplished largely through program and budget cuts designed to reduce the number of government employees protected by the union and Federal personnel rules.
In order to continue broadcasting to critical regions of the world, these budget and program cuts have forced the Voice of America to rely increasingly on independent contractors, called Purchase Order Vendors (POVs), who work without any job protections. In violation of existing U.S. laws, they perform all the functions of full-time government employees, but as in the case of foreign-born journalists at RFE/RL, they can be dismissed at any time without any reason.
Recently, a TV producer in VOA’s Russian Service was abruptly fired after years of excellent and loyal service but cannot challenge her dismissal because she is not a government employee. The system imposed by the BBG prevents contract workers, who for all practical purposes are regular employees, form joining a union and protecting their rights. It also allows managers to fire older workers, often women, and replace them with friends and former associates.
VOA’s Russian Service has become the latest target of the BBG’s efforts to weaken and dismantle Voice of America broadcasting in favor of private radio stations such as Alhurra and RFE/RL. In July 2008, the BBG eliminated all VOA on-air radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian military invasion of the disputed part of Georgia. As a direct result of the BBG’s actions, VOA’s annual audience reach in Russia diminished by an unprecedented 98% in just one year, from 7.3% in 2007 to the estimated figure of just 0.2% in 2009.
Both Republicans and Democrats serving on the BBG have supported privatization of U.S. international broadcasting, limiting the rights of foreign-born journalists at RFE/RL, and dismantling of VOA broadcast services. The effort to eliminate all VOA Arabic-language programs and to create privately-run Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television wanted by neoconservatives in the Bush White House and the Pentagon was led by two prominent former Democratic BBG members: Norman Pattiz, founder of Westwood One radio syndicate, and Edward E. Kaufman, now a U.S. Senator from Delaware. Since their creation, there have been reports of numerous financial and editorial scandals at both of these stations, including charges of giving airtime to Holocaust deniers. A study by researchers for the University of Southern California, who conducted a review of Alhurra broadcasts, concluded that “the quality of Alhurra’s journalism is substandard on several levels.“ With only one BBG member, conservative radio host Blanquita Cullum voicing her concern, all others supported eliminating VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, India and a number of other countries. As a result of the decisions taken by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America no longer has any Arabic-language programs. Read ProPublica.org: Report Calls Alhurra a Failure
Hillary Rodham Clinton did not join the BBG until she became the Secretary of State in the Obama Administration and was not involved in making these controversial decisions. Both Anna Karapetian and Snjezana Pelivan hope that a woman of her experience and stature would intervene to put a stop to some of the mismanagement and abuses for which they hold the BBG and its executive staff responsible. Snjezana Pelivan had petitioned the Czech court to question Secretary Clinton about the BBG’s personnel policies because of her role as the Board’s ex officio member. There was very little chance, however, that a Czech court would take this step and in any case Hillary Clinton, as a foreign government official who enjoys diplomatic immunity, could not be compelled to give a testimony. As one former RFE/RL journalist ironically observed, in rejecting Snjezana Pelivan’s claim, the Czech court ruled that RFE/RL is in full compliance with a Communist law. When RFE/RL was based in Munich, Germany, its employees enjoyed full protection of German labor laws. When the radio station was moved to Prague in 1995, the BBG gladly took advantage of Communist-era Czech laws to limit the rights of RFE/RL journalists. Unless there is a settlement, the case will most likely be decided by the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg.
Some of the current and former BBG members, including Norman Pattiz, Senator Kaufman, and D. Jeffrey Hirschberg have close ties to Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton. It’s not clear whether these personal ties and the fact that these Democrats joined forces with neoconservatives in the Bush Administration will affect how Secretary Clinton the Obama White House deal with the reports of mismanagement at the BBG. Snjezana Pelivan hopes that the new Secretary of State might make a difference, but she is only cautiously optimistic after learning that Mrs. Clinton made no public comments about BBG’s personnel policies during her recent visit to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty headquarters in Prague:
“I admire Hillary Clinton, but I felt sorry for her when I was reading her address to RFE/RL journalists. She had to visit RFE/RL; it is “her” Radio now. But everybody there who listened to her knew about mine and Anna’s court cases; everybody knew that she was suggested as a witness against RFE/RL; and everybody knows that we are fighting not only for our but also for their rights and dignity.”
Snjezana Pelivan says that she plans to ask the Croatian Government to join her in her case against RFE/RL and the BBG at the European Court of Human Rights. Anna Karapetian may also ask the Armenian Government to join the suit. For more information about the case see the press release from ICCEE – Information Centre – CAUCUSUS EASTERN EUROPE. ICCEE, a non-governmental non-profit organization established in Prague in 1999, is the publisher of major Armenian magazine in Europe, Orer (Days).
Even some members of RFE/RL management are appalled by the personnel practices encouraged by the radio station’s former and current leadership and the BBG. One manager sent this letter to Ms. Pelivan:
Forgive me for not being able to adequately express my feelings in this short e-mail. The news about your firing was too shocking and surprising. Yes, I’m deeply surprised by the fact that a professional like you was fired and by the way it was done. I don’t know the details of your cooperation with other services but on behalf of our service and its bureau I would like to express you our sympathy and gratitude for your very important job done with and for our service during last few years. It was a great pleasure to have you, an excellent teamworker, among us. I wish you all the best for the future. Best regards, (name withheld — SP)”
About Ted Lipien
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was also a regional BBG media marketing manager responsible for placement of U.S. government-funded radio and TV programs on stations in Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in Eurasia. In the 1980’s he was in charge of VOA radio broadcasts to Poland during the communist regime’s crackdown on the Solidarity labor union and oversaw the development of VOA television news programs to Ukraine and Russia. He is also author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church” (O-Books – June 2008). In his book he describes the efforts of the KGB and other communist intelligence services to place spies in the Vatican and to influence reporting by Western journalists.
FreeMediaOnline.org is a San Francisco-based nonprofit which supports media freedom worldwide. Founded in 2006, FreeMediaOnline.org reports on threats to media independence and assists journalists in media-at-risk countries.