Radio Liberty and other independent journalists in Russia want BBG Governor Ashe to stay

BBG Watch Commentary

Radio Liberty in Exile Facebook Photo

Radio Liberty in Exile journalists who were fired or resigned from Radio Liberty. Some, but not all of them, have now been rehired. Many of them signed a letter to the U.S. Senate in defense of Victor Ashe's membership on the BBG Board.

BBG member Victor Ashe

Victor Ashe

When former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executives fired them without any warning, Ambassador Victor Ashe was initially the only Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member who spoke up publicly in their defense. After numerous protests from such prominent Russian leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev and Lyudmila Alexeeva, Victor Ashe was later joined by other BBG members who voted to change RFE/RL’s management and encouraged the station’s new acting president Kevin Klose to rehire fired journalists and resume their pro-human rights programs. Some of them have returned to RFE/RL and resumed their work in Russia for the U.S. taxpayer-funded media freedom broadcaster.

These Russian journalists and their colleagues are now trying to repay Victor Ashe for his support. They have called on members of the U.S. Senate to keep Ashe as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. One of the best known and respected Radio Liberty journalists in Russia Mikhail Sokolov wrote on his Facebook page:

“Виктор Эш защищал настоящую Свободу. А мы поддерживаем его.”  (Victor Ashe defended real Liberty. And we support him.)

As citizens of a foreign country, Russian journalists do not have the same standing with members of Congress as American citizens. But American citizens have also written letters to the U.S. Senate in support of Victor Ashe. Russian journalists point out that they “cannot comment on the reasons for such a decision” to replace Victor Ashe on the BBG board.

But their diplomatically written letter is still likely to be noticed by members of Congress. It is addressed to both Senate Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid, as well as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Senator Robert Menéndez and the Ranking Member Senator Bob Corker. Especially powerful is Russian journalists’ arguments that Mr. Ashe’s departure will be interpreted inside Russia as a signal of support for the repressive policies of the state towards the media and that it will negatively impact the freedom of speech in their country.

“It was with great sadness that we found out about the possible departure of Mr. Ashe from his post on the Broadcasting Board of Governors. We cannot comment on the reasons for such a decision. But we can speak about the things we do know: that Mr. Ashe played an enormous part in the fight for freedom of media in Eastern Europe and Russia.”

It appears that Victor Ashe’s continued BBG membership is in doubt because he has made some powerful enemies among senior executives of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) who strongly object to his calls for more transparency and accountability. They were the ones who may have encouraged the firings at Radio Liberty or at the very least kept BBG members in the dark about the growing crisis in Russia caused by the dismissal of journalists reporting on human rights abuses and corruption.

IBB executives are believed to have been in contact with the Office of the Inspector General in an attempt to smear Ashe’s reputation by presenting his calls for better government as a nuisance for hard-working bureaucrats such as themselves. There have been many calls for the State Department IG to be investigated for allowing political pressure to influence its work.

IBB executives are in fact rated in official Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys as being some of the worst managers in the federal government. The agency they manage on a day to day basis also has the lowest employee morale — an issue Victor Ashe has been trying to address with his frequent calls for management reforms.

It is widely believed that some of the IBB executives have contacted the White House personnel staff to get Victor Ashe removed from the BBG board. Their efforts succeeded when President Obama nominated former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker to replace Ashe as a Republican member on the bipartisan board. However, Ashe is currently the only Republican serving on the BBG board that should have four Republicans and four Democrats, plus the U.S. Secretary of State.

It is unlikely that the U.S. Senate, and especially the Senate Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell, will take any action to replace Ashe until more Republican BBG members can also be confirmed.

The news of Ashe’s possible replacement enraged rank and file BBG employees who view him as one of their few defenders against discredited IBB managers working under the protection of IBB Director Richard Lobo. The BBG employee union, American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812, issued a statement in defense of Ashe and wrote a letter to Senator McConnell urging him to keep Ashe as a BBG member and to look into mismanagement within the IBB bureaucracy. The fact that a Republican has to defend federal employees and their union should tell something members of Congress about the quality of IBB managers.

The independent and nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) has also written a letter to Senator McConnell urging him to keep Ambassador Ashe as a BBG member and to look into mismanagement within IBB.

Unlike letters from AFGE Local 1812 and CUSIB, Russian journalists’ do not comment on labor-management issues and IBB managers, but they do point out that “the departure of Governor Ashe would be a massive loss for all of us, especially when Russia is in such a difficult moment, when democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, and transparency are under threat.”

Ashe who serves as a Deputy Chair of the RFE/RL corporate board is currently in Prague to attend a BBG board meeting. However, with only four members out of nine still serving, the BBG board lacks a quorum and cannot take formal votes. The RFE/RL board operates under different rules and still has a quorum.

But because the BBG board has no quorum, replacing Ashe at this time makes very little sense. It would be widely perceived as a political retaliation for his attempts to eliminate corruption and protect interests of America and American taxpayers against discredited and unaccountable IBB bureaucracy.

June, 17, 2013

To the U.S. Senate:
The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Minority Leader
The Honorable Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader

To the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations:
Sen. Robert Menéndez Chairman
Sen. Bob Corker Ranking Member
United States Senate
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington DC 20510

Dear Senators,

It was with great sadness that we found out about the possible departure of Mr. Ashe from his post on the Broadcasting Board of Governors. We cannot comment on the reasons for such a decision. But we can speak about the things we do know: that Mr. Ashe played an enormous part in the fight for freedom of media in Eastern Europe and Russia.

His activities in defense of independent journalists, his thorough knowledge of the subject, his principled stance, his experience as a politician and diplomat, his ability to give useful and timely advice, and his capacity for fixing mistakes are now needed by the BBG more than ever.

The departure of Governor Ashe would be a massive loss for all of us, especially when Russia is in such a difficult moment, when democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, and transparency are under threat.

We, the journalists who work in Russia, despite the increasing government pressure on democratic institutions, continue to fulfill our mission.

But we are concerned by the fact that Mr. Ashe’s departure will be interpreted inside Russia as a signal of support for the repressive policies of the state towards the media. We fear it will negatively impact the freedom of speech in our country.

For these reasons, we turn to you with a request to reconsider Mr. Ashe’s position on the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Respectfully,

Abarbanell V., RFE/RL journalist
Bode V., writer and journalist
Chizhova L., RFE/RL journalist
Gorelik K., Russian human rights journalist
Fanaylova E., RFE/RL journalist
Kachkaeva A., Russian media expert
Kaloeva B., Public Television of Russia
Kirilenko A., RFE/RL journalist
Korolev A., RFE/RL journalist
Kuznetsov A., RFE/RL journalist
Mulin S., freelance journalist
Nalitov D., sound producer
Orlov-Sokolskiy A., sound producer
Ogandzhanynts N., freelance journalist
Polyakovskaya E., RFE/RL journalist
Pomerantsev I., RFE/RL journalist
Rezunkov V., RFE/RL journalist
Rykovtseva E., RFE/RL journalist
Saidov A., RFE/RL journalist
Shakirov M., freelance journalist and film director
Skorobogatko T., freelance journalist
Sokolov M., RFE/RL journalist
Stayne M., RFE/RL coordinator
Tatarsky N., RFE/RL journalist
Telen L., chief editor of the newspaper ‘Sovsekretno’
Timasheva M., Russian cultural journalist and doctor of science
Tochkin I., technical director RFE/RL Moscow
Tolstoy I., RFE/RL journalist
Torocheshnikova M., RFE/RL journalist
Trefilov I., RFE/RL journalist
Trukhan A., chief editor of the Savik Shuster studio
Vasiliev Y., freelance journalist
Zharova D., RFE/RL journalist

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