Anna Karapetian, a journalist from Armenia who in radio broadcasts funded by the U.S. government reported on human rights abuses in her country, is one of many people around the world who see Barack Obama’s inauguration as a hopeful beginning of a new era of change in Washington. Ms. Karapetian hopes that with Mr. Obama’s strong commitment to protecting workers’ rights, the new administration will end the policy of a U.S. government agency which can arbitrarily fire its foreign journalists working abroad and denies them many of the basic labor law protections available to Americans citizens and residents of other democratic countries.
The policy in question was instituted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the Federal government agency which manages privatized U.S.-funded international broadcasting stations, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Alhurra Television. Ms. Karapetian became one of the victims of the policy when she was fired from her broadcasting job at RFE/RL in the Czech Republic after almost 12 years of employment, which she describes as “impeccable,” with “very good” and “excellent” performance reviews.
Legal cases against RFE/RL’s employment practices have been filed by the dismissed employees with the Czech Supreme Court, the Czech Constitutional Court, and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Reports critical of their treatment have appeared in Czech media and included statements of support from Czech politicians. In yet another major embarrassment for the BBG, one of the most respected world statesmen, former Czech president and human rights activist Vaclav Havel, promised to personally monitor the cases of the fired employees.
The PR problem created by these cases and the damage to America’s image abroad can be traced back to the actions of a relatively small group of unelected U.S. government officials. Less than ten men and women, selected by the leadership of their political parties, appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, serve at any one time on the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors. Most of them are political loyalists and private businessmen without much foreign policy and human rights advocacy experience.
During the eight years of the Bush Administration, the BBG, which is responsible for RFE/RL’s personnel policies, greatly intensified its efforts to subcontract U.S. international broadcasting operations to privatized institutions. One of the major attractions of subcontracting was the realization by BBG members that unlike U.S. government employees, foreign workers hired abroad can be easily dismissed at any time and for any reason, or no reason at all, under the so-called “employment-at-will” doctrine. At the same time, the BBG was eliminating programs and terminating employment of American journalists working at the Washington-based Voice of America, which it also manages, while transferring Federal funding to these privatized stations.
After her employment was terminated by RFE/RL, Anna Karapetian, mother of three minor children, found out that unlike VOA journalists employed in Washington, D.C., and 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 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. They were placed under the Communist-era law, still on the books, which was used to facilitate the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia after 1968.
The influential Czech, quite pro-American newspaper, “Lidove noviny” wrote in an editorial:
“Prague headquarters of RFE/RL, which pretends to be a messenger of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, behaves as an employer in such a way as if the principles it heralds are relevant “just” for the whole planet but not for what is going on inside that estimable organization itself.” Read Anna Karapetian’s Open Letter.
This legal limbo was specifically sought by the BBG and RFE/RL to prevent court challenges by foreign-based journalists 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.”
While the BBG’s actions now appear to many as wrong and hypocritical, during the Bush Administration, both Republicans and Democrats serving on the BBG, became convinced that it would be easier for them and better for the White House’s war on terror to manage U.S. international broadcasting as a series of private businesses exempt from many U.S. government laws and regulations. These political appointees consistently eliminated programs at the Voice of America, where journalists enjoy significant independence and strong legal protections against arbitrary actions by management and were viewed as being opposed to the BBG’s and Bush Administration’s plans to transform U.S. international broadcasting. While BBG members claimed that their strategy would result in greater effectiveness and savings of taxpayers’ money, they have created multiple broadcasting units with multiple executive and administrative positions, which independent studies and media reports described as wasteful and lacking proper programming and fiscal accountability. ProPublica.org: Report Calls Alhurra a Failure
The fact that the neoconservative privatization agenda was led and implemented by a number of prominent Democrats on the BBG, including at least two former members with close links to Vice President Biden, may not bode well for Ms. Karapetian’s hopes for significant reforms at the BBG and at RFE/RL during the Obama Administration. As a U.S. Senator, Vice President Biden was a major patron of a former BBG member, Norman Pattiz, founder of the now failing U.S. radio syndicate Westwood One, who pushed hard for the elimination of VOA broadcasting services, including its Arabic Service, and was the primary force behind the establishment of privatized stations, such as Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television for the Middle East. Many RFE/RL and VOA journalists still hope, however, that President Obama and his close advisors will pay attention to media reports of mismanagement at the BBG. According to the latest Federal Human Capital Survey (FHCS), the employees of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have recently given the BBG Board members and the officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) the worst ever rating for good management and placed the BBG at the very bottom of Federal agencies. Broadcasting Board of Governors Rated Worst Than Ever By Its Employees and As One of The Worst Federal Agencies
During the last months of the Bush Administration, Edward E. Kaufman, another former Democratic BBG member who is now a U.S. Senator from Delaware and was previously Joe Biden’s chief of staff, worked closely with BBG’s former Republican chairman, neoconservative Bush appointee, James K. Glassman, who later became the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. They agreed to terminate VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, and India. Thanks to highly effective coordination behind the scenes by the BBG executive director, Jeffrey Trimble, who was formerly acting president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Board succeeded in taking VOA radio programs to Russia off the air just 12 days before the Russian military forces attacked Georgia last summer and then refused to resume them.
On December 31, 2008, the BBG also ended VOA radio program to Ukraine just hours before Russia cut off the flow of natural gas supplies to Ukraine and the rest of Europe. Only one BBG member, Blanquita Walsh Cullum, the only working journalist serving on the Board, was reported to have voted against these program cuts and reportedly also opposed many of the management practices supported by other BBG members. The other current BBG members are: Joaquin F. Blaya, D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, and Steven J. Simmons. The BBG web site still lists Condoleezza Rice as an ex-officio member, even though she is no longer the Secretary of State and therefore no longer sits on the Board.
Ted Lipien, president of San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit FreeMediaOnline.org, said that while privatized U.S.-funded broadcasting to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was highly effective at times during the Cold War, “this so-called ‘surrogate’ broadcasting model turned out to be totally outdated and inappropriate for providing news to the Middle East and the former Soviet republics under drastically different conditions.” Lipien pointed out that for most of the Cold War, RFE/RL journalists, who were based in West Germany, enjoyed far greater legal protections, as well as being protected from intimidation by communist security services, than the current RFE/RL journalists based in Prague and elsewhere behind the former Iron Curtain.
In addition to eliminating U.S. jobs and severely limiting the rights of overseas-based foreign journalists, the privatization of U.S. international broadcasting during the Bush Administration also produced major fiscal and editorial scandals at the newly established private stations and at RFE/RL. Both Republican and Democratic BBG members hoped that these private entities would be far more effective than the Voice of America in delivering programs against Islamist extremism. But the loosening of programming and fiscal controls and employment protections for journalists combined with the BBG’s marketing policy designed to maximize audience size regardless of local media conditions led to numerous editorial failures at the privatized entities. At the same time, as a result of BBG’s actions, some of them taken within the last few weeks, the Obama Administration found itself without radio broadcasts by the Voice of America from the United States to many countries around the world.
Unlike VOA journalists, many broadcasters at the privatized stations do not have extensive experience in reporting news about the United States and American politics. Some broadcasters, especially at Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa, have been accused of lacking basic journalistic training. U.S. and international media outlets reported that Alhurra aired unchallenged statements by Holocaust deniers and RFE/RL was criticized by a Russian human rights organization for giving extensive airtime to a Russian politician known for his racist comments about ethnic minorities, Jews, and Blacks. FreeMediaOnline.org reported that the BBG also failed to protect RFE/RL journalists and other employees who are Russian citizens and work in Russia. There is strong evidence that these employees are subject to blackmail and other forms of intimidation by the Kremlin’s secret police. “U.S. Taxpayers Pay for Spreading Racist Views on Radio Liberty in Russia: What Would Barack Obama Say If He Knew…” Use this link to the ProPublica.org web site to view the Alhurra Holocaust report (with English subtitles) as an example of what the BBG’s marketing strategy has produced at these privatized U.S.-funded stations: http://www.propublica.org/feature/alhurra-video
Ms. Karapetian points out in her open letter that foreign journalists employed by RFE/RL face serious risks from security services of local dictators when they work in their own countries and lack legal protections if they work at RFE/RL headquarters in the Czech Republic. But despite her accusations of mistreatment, she defends RFE/RL as a journalistic organization with a distinguished history that is still much needed by audiences in countries without free media. She also expressed concern that the personnel policies applied to foreign journalists at RFE/RL are damaging U.S. reputation abroad and give encouragement to authoritarian leaders in the former Soviet republics. According to Ted Lipien, the lack of basic job security and legal protections makes foreign journalists employed by RFE/RL far more vulnerable to threats from the security services of the countries to which they broadcast. Their family members who live in those countries are also subject to intimidation.
Ms. Karapetian ended her letter with an appeal to press freedom and human rights advocates to contact the current RFE/RL president, Jeffrey Gedmin, and urge him to put into action a statement from his recent speech that “We have as RFE/RL our intellectual and moral compass… We also need to lead by example…”. Anna Karapetian is hoping that being true to President Obama’s promise of change, his administration will show greater respect for the rights of foreign journalists employed by U.S.-funded international broadcasters. (Some media reports use “Karapetyan” as the spelling of her last name.)
Despite the reported failures on the part of the BBG, RFE/RL continues to play a vital role in many countries and, according to Ted Lipien of FreeMediaOnline.org, can be more effective in other countries if some of the failed policies of the Board of Broadcasting Governors are reversed. The ability to tell America’s story to the world in Voice of America broadcasts, however, has been largely destroyed by the privatization policies of the BBG during the past eight years. Journalists at VOA and RFE/RL hope that the Obama Administration will institute quick reforms in the use of “soft power” in communicating with the world. America’s image abroad would be improved by restoring Voice of America broadcasts and by putting an end to the shameful practice of restricting rights of foreign journalists who work on behalf of the United States, Lipien said.
The Obama Transition Team official responsible for international broadcasting is Ernest J. Wilson III, Dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you wish to protest or comment on the treatment of foreign journalists working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, you may also send emails to:
Jeffrey Gedmin, RFE/RL President, addressed to Mr. Martins Zvaners, Associate Director of Communications: email@example.com
Jeffrey N. Trimble, BBG Executive Director, addressed to the BBG Office of Public Affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org