Czech Radio criticizes RFE/RL for mistreatment of foreign employees, new executive expected to act

BBG Watch Commentary

Cesky RozhlasIn an nationwide broadcast by the state-owned Czech radio station, Cesky Rozhlas Plus (Cro+), Anna Sabatova, Chairwoman of the Czech Helsinki Committee, sharply condemned the ongoing mistreatment of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) foreign personnel. Sources told BBG Watch that the newly-appointed RFE/RL president Kevin Klose plans to address this and other issues in the near future but is now focusing on appointing new managers who can help him resolve these problems.

Commenting on the fact that RFE/RL uses different labor relations policies toward foreign employees in Prague than toward American and Czech employees, the Czech human rights activist said: “I think it is demoralizing, it is discriminatory because the distinction is made by nationality, where, under normal circumstances, no difference should exist–in labor law.”

In an earlier statement, Anna Sabatova also condemned the mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and expressed solidarity with the efforts of Lyudmila Alexeeva, the Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, to bring them back to Radio Liberty and to restore their pro-human rights programs. Kevin Klose had met with Alexeeva in Moscow and in Washington and assured her that he is working on resolving the Radio Liberty crisis. He has not yet met with Sabatova.

Czech Helsinki Committee criticizes treatment of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty employees

Anna Sabatova was a guest of Cro+ program “Zaostřeno na cizince” (Focus on Foreigners). The 20-minute-long broadcast, titled “Not Liberty But Legal Vacuum at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty” aired at 18.30 and was repeated at 23.40 local time on March 23.

Anna Sabatova

Anna Sabatova

Sabatova, formerly a spokesperson of the human rights group Charter 77 and a political prisoner in communist Czechoslovakia, was later the Czech Republic’s Vice-Ombudsman for Human Rights. She was awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize, which she shares with Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and such organizations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Since 1995, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has its headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic, to where the U.S.-funded media freedom station moved from Munich, Germany. Along with Czech and American citizens, it employs hundreds of foreign nationals who constitute the bulk of RFE/RL’s editorial staff. From Prague, RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 countries in 28 languages. These programs are designed to overcome state censorship on such topics as government corruption, human rights abuses, and violations of union and workers rights in countries like Iran and Russia.

But when it comes to its own foreign employees, RFE/RL managers in Prague and lawyers working in Washington, DC for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), use communist era Czechoslovak law to allow them complete freedom to fire foreign workers at RFE/RL, the Chairwoman of the Czech Helsinki Committee told the Czech Radio. The use of the communist era law by RFE/RL prevents foreign employees from organizing an effective employee union and places them at the total mercy of the management. This practice effectively silences dissent and is blamed for numerous journalistic blunders, including production of sexually suggestive videos for audiences in Kazakhstan and downplaying of news reporting for audiences in Russia as the Kremlin intensifies attacks on human rights.

BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe has publicly called for decent treatment of employees and allowing them to openly voice their opinions and concerns. Other BBG members share his view that reforms at RFE/RL are urgently needed. They selected Kevin Klose to lead RFE/RL with a mandate to carry out reforms.

Kevin Klose

Kevin Klose

Sources told BBG Watch that the new acting RFE/RL president Kevin Klose is expected to deal with this issue after he tackles numerous other problems left by the previous management, including the Radio Liberty crisis in Russia. While working as the director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) in 1997-98, Klose insisted on a settlement of the Hartman v. Albright case brought by women who were discriminated in the United States by the United States Information Agency (USIA), the then parent agency of the Voice of America (VOA).

Sabatova had previously appealed to Klose to also end discrimination of RFE/RL’s foreign employees and to restore the broadcaster’s image as a defender rather then an abuser of human rights. Klose is believed to be already replacing managers who had engineered the firing of Radio Liberty Moscow bureau journalists without any prior warning–an action which caused a moral outrage in Russia. He is also appointing new managers to help him deal with personnel and administrative issues, sources told BBG Watch.

Two former employees of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also participated in the Cro+ radio program, an Armenian national Anna Karapetian, a mother of three minor children who is suing RFE/RL in Czech courts, and a Croatian citizen Snjezana Pelivan, who accused the Czech Republic in the European Court of Human Rights of tolerating human rights abuses by the American management of RFE/RL.

While RFE/RL was based in Munich, even when it was part of the American zone of occupation, the American management had to abide by German labor laws which covered all employees regardless of their nationality. In Prague, RFE/RL lawyers refer to the communist era law of 1963 inherited by the Czech Republic from former Czechoslovakia when it was subjugated by the former Soviet Union. That law allowed foreign companies, the Soviet ones in the first place, to use foreign labor regulations if they did not contradict the fundamentals of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Such a law, which once gave the Soviet Union the right to function freely in communist Czechoslovakia, now, ironically, is being abused by the RFE/RL American management for discrimination against its own foreign employees.

But how the recourse to this communist law tallies morally and politically with the declared mission of American RFE/RL: “to promote democratic values and institutions,” “to strengthen civil societies by projecting democratic values,” “to provide a model for local media”? “For their own convenience, these guys will use even the Sharia law,” Snjezana Pelivan remarked in a media interview.

The Czech Helsinki Committee has already issued several statements criticizing RFE/RL for its labor policies and actions. CHC called them “immoral” and representing “an act of fraud.” CHC also noted that Czech and international media are calling RFE/RL labor policies “a public disaster instead of public diplomacy” and listed several other headlines from the region:

“RFE/RL: ‘Immoral,’ Indecent,’ ‘Unfair,’ ‘Cynical,’ ‘Hypocritical,” “At BBG and RFE/RL– Public Diplomacy is Public Scandal at Public Expense,” “American Radio Free Europe Violates Equal Rights of Its Foreign Employees in Prague,” “Radio Liberty Betrays Its Ideals,” “It’s the Morality, Stupid,” “Radio Free Europe – Guantanamo in Prague,” “Don’t Feed Kremlin’s Public Diplomacy With U.S. Public Hypocrisy,” “Public Disaster Instead of Public Diplomacy,” “From Human Rights Show to Human Rights Court.”

On March 5th, the Czech Helsinki Committee appealed in an open letter to Kevin Klose:

“Dear Mr. Klose, presently, the rescue of the public image of the radio station is entrusted to you, in Russia as well as in Prague. We would like to ask you for promoting the ending of the court cases with Mrs. Karapetian and Mrs. Pelivan with an amicable settlement and the change of discriminatory labor policies damaging, in our opinion, the reputation of RFE/RL. Czech Helsinki Committee shall be grateful for your answer.”

Anna Sabatova said during the radio program broadcast last Saturday by Cro+ that neither Kevin Klose, nor his predecessor Steven Korn, nor the U.S. Helsinki Commission answered the letters and appeals by the Czech Helsinki Committee. She called it “surprising”, leading to a conclusion that mistreatment of RFE/RL foreign personnel working on “dishonest” employment contracts, is “deliberate.”

Sabatova expressed her admiration and support for Anna Karapetian’s and Snjezana Pelivan’s perseverance in their struggle for their rights after it became clear that their work agreements “are de facto a fraud.” Sabatova said:

“I think that in labor relations people should have at least the basic legal protection regardless of where they work, but they were employed by the institution, which in the whole world is involved, let us say, in the field of human rights, and directly so declares. Therefore, I think that its relations with its own employees should also be correct.(…) I think it is demoralizing, it is discriminatory because the distinction is made by nationality, where, under normal circumstances, no difference should exist — in labor law.”

In Anna Sabatova’s opinion, the problem “should be solved because the Radio has the long-term support and financing provided by the U.S. Congress.”

The Cro+ program, “Not Liberty but Legal Vacuum at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,” was moderated by Goranka Oljaca. In conclusion, the moderator said :

Goranka Oljaca (Cro+): “The management of Radio Free Europe also had a possibility to express its position. On March 14th, I had sent six questions, asking in particular how it reacts to the appeals by the Czech Helsinki Committee, why it has three different standards in employment policies, and how it prepares changes concerning conditions of labor relations. After six days, I recorded the following answer by phone:

Jana Hokuvova (RFE/RL): “Good day, I am Jana Hokuvova, Radio Free Europe.”

Goranka Oljaca (Cro+): “Good day, I am Goranka Oljaca.”

Jana Hokuvova (RFE/RL): “I have for you a statement which is very short, I will quote it now, it says: ‘Thank you very much for your interest, we will express our position later.’”

Goranka Oljaca (Cro+): “I will be glad to have it. Because I think that in this case the old rule, ‘a still tongue makes a wise head,’ is not valid. It concerns not those six pointed questions, but the Czech public and quite a number of our loyal listeners. They still vividly recall the image of pre-revolutionary Radio Free Europe. They know well and respect what its democratic voice and honest word traditionally meant. Its present dumbness is not in spirit of that tradition.”

Sources told BBG Watch that Kevin Klose indeed plans to resolve this problem but he can’t do it without first appointing new managers who can deal with personnel and administrative issues. Sources said that these appointments will be announced shortly.

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