Charges against a US federal agency of discriminating against journalists

Share: Logo., Free Media Online Blog,, October 9, 2009, San Francisco — Media in the Czech Republic, which have been critical of President Obama’s handling of the recent missile shield decision, have also been reporting on apparent discrepancies between words and actions of the new US administration when it comes to the treatment of foreign employees by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG, a federal agency which manages the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL. The US taxpayer-funded radio station and the BBG, its parent agency, deny foreign journalists working at RFE/RL in the Czech Republic the same labor law protections available to the station’s American and, to some degree, also its Czech employees.

Snjezana Pelivan

Snjezana Pelivan

CTK, the Czech News Agency, carried a news item based on an article published in Croatia by the English-language newspaper Croatian Times, which reports on a complaint filed at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg by Snjezana Pelivan, a Croatian citizen previously employed by RFE/RL. Ms. Pelivan complained to the European court that the Czech courts had failed to safeguard her rights to non-discrimination and a fair trial guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Her employment contract was terminated by RFE/RL in June 2005 without any reason stated orally or in writing, any prior warning or previous disciplinary measures, and without severance pay because she had refused to agree in writing with her dismissal and, also in writing, to give up her right of appeal.

Most RFE/RL journalists, who come from countries without free media, have little choice but to agree to the employment terms presented to them by the management. Without signing a secrecy agreement, they would not receive their severance pay. Resulting economic hardship could leave some of them no choice but to return to their country of origin, where they could face possible persecution for their journalistic activities while employed at RFE/RL.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors allows RFE/RL to use “employment-at-will” contracts for their most vulnerable foreign workers in the Czech Republic. These contracts effectively prevent employees from seeking redress in Czech and American courts against unfair treatment. Some of them described themselves in this context as virtual modern-day indentured servants.

Anna Karapetian

Anna Karapetian

Another former employee who chose not to remain silent and filed a suit in Czech courts against RFE/RL is Anna Karapetian, a journalist from Armenia. “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.” Unless the BBG changes its employment policies, her case is also likely to end up at the European Court of Human Rights.

Diskriminace cizinců v Česku?
Дискриминация иностранцев на Радио Свобода в Чехии?

The controversy over the BBG’s employment practices at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is having a negative impact on the US government’s image abroad at a sensitive time in relations between Washington and some of America’s allies in Europe. Commentaries in both Czech and Russian media made references to the discrepancy between the Obama Administration’s verbal commitments and the treatment of US allies, Poland and the Czech Republic, in connection with the president’s decision to withdraw US missile defense system from Central Europe.

Ted Lipien, a former BBG and Voice of America manager who now heads media freedom nonprofit Free Media Online, said that the BBG’s treatment of foreign journalists is a shocking behavior that undermines freedom of expression and damages America’s image abroad. Free Media Online has been contacted by journalists from countries of the former Soviet Union who had been fired by RFE/RL and admitted to being forced to remain silent about management abuses to protect economic well-being of their families.

Such treatment of foreign workers is especially appalling since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been now an ex officio member of the BBG for several months, Lipien said. He added that “the US Congress should not tolerate a public entity, which gets all of its funding from American taxpayers, using secrecy agreements to cover up possible mismanagement and discrimination. Tactics, such as keeping foreign-born journalists in a highly dependent relationship by denying them the protection of American and Czech labor laws, should not be used by a US government-funded radio station to prevent the public from looking into how taxpayer money is being spent.”