Czech politician accuses U.S. of discrimination against foreign journalists

A member of the Czech Senate has written a strongly-worded letter to key U.S. senators complaining of discriminatory personnel policies aimed against foreign journalists employed by the U.S. Government-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). U.S. taxpayer-funded RFE/RL has its headquarters in the Czech Republic and broadcasts radio programs to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and some of the former Soviet republics.

bbglogoIn a letter addressed to Senator John F. Kerry and Richard G. Lugar, Czech Senator Jaromir Stetina accuses the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) of treating foreign journalists at RFE/RL as third-class citizens by denying them basic legal protections against unfair treatment and discrimination.

The BBG is run by a board composed of up to eight officials selected from both U.S. political parties. Appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, they are charged with managing RFE/RL and other U.S. broadcasting entities targeting foreign audiences overseas. The U.S. Secretary of State serves as an ex officio member of the BBG. Most of the BBG broadcasting units, which also include Arabic-language Alhurra television and Radio Sawa, are operated by private contractors who receive Federal funding from the BBG.

Among the BBG-managed broadcasting entities, only the Voice of America (VOA) broadcasters are U.S. Government employees. Journalistic independence of VOA broadcasters is guaranteed by a Congressional charter.

Some of the BBG members and their executive staff have been accused of eliminating VOA broadcasting services and jobs in Washington to benefit their private contractor friends and associates. Despite a strong bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress, including a warning statement from Senator Patrick Leahy, the BBG members and executives terminated VOA Russian-language radio programs just 12 days before the Russian military action against Georgia in 2008. They also eliminated VOA radio broadcasts to Ukraine and VOA broadcasts in Arabic.

President Obama has nominated new members of the bipartisan BBG. They now await confirmation by the U.S. Senate, but the BBG is still run by members appointed by President George W. Bush. Their executive staff includes managers who were responsible for implementing personnel practices at RFE/RL and at other privately-run U.S. broadcasting entities. The BBG has been consistently rated in government-wide U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee surveys at the top of the worst-managed Federal agencies.

Unlike the Voice of America, most of the privately-run broadcasting entities have weak editorial controls and their journalists can be easily fired if they complain about poor journalistic practices and mismanagement. Members of Congress were shocked to learn that Alhurra Television was broadcasting statements from Holocaust deniers, but during the Bush administration, all Democrats and most of the Republicans at the BBG strongly favored private broadcasters over VOA.

Senator Stetina’s letter to Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar brings up the case of two dismissed RFE/RL employees, an Armenian journalist and a media specialist from Croatia. Their dismissal is now being reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights.

Excerpt from Senator Stetina’s letter to Senator Kerry and Senator Lugar (see full text here):

“The Czech Republic was and remains a very hospitable country to American RFE/RL. However, the Czech Republic definitely does not deserve the price it is now paying for its hospitality to RFE/RL. Legal gimmicks and court tricks aside, it is patently indecent, unfair, cynical and hypocritical to exploit for bureaucratic ends the sad fact that many highly-qualified foreign professionals working for RFE/RL are stateless persons, dissidents, political refugees who, being cut off from their native countries, are existentially dependent on their employment with RFE/RL. Placed by RFE/RL in a legal vacuum in the Czech Republic, they simply don’t risk protesting their status of having no rights.”

Media outlets in the Czech Republic and in Croatia have reported on Senator Stetina’s letter.