Two Women Fighting to Uphold America's Principles at America's Freedom Radio
To keep its bloated bureaucracy in times of tight budgets, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executive staff resorts to cuts in radio and TV broadcasts and closing down of BBG’s foreign language services. Not surprisingly, these cuts affect foreign-speaking journalists but leave the administrative staff in place. Thus, more and more BBG managers — they add bureaucratic positions even while broadcasters lose theirs — oversee fewer and fewer foreign language programs. The United States loses the ability to influence public opinion in strategically important countries — the BBG even proposed to cut Voice of America radio and TV to China — but that hardly concerns BBG bureaucrats and long as they get to keep their jobs.
Another tactic used by the BBG management to save money and their jobs is to replace permanent VOA employees with full-time contract employees. These men and women, mostly foreign-born, are shamelessly exploited by the BBG management. They are denied not just the basic benefits such as vacation and sick leave that should come with full-time employment — they work regularly scheduled hours, 40 and more hours a week. They are also not protected against arbitrary dismissal.
The BBG uses these tactics not just against the Voice of America (VOA) contract employees in Washington, DC, where they constitute 45 percent of the VOA workforce. BBG managers have employed the same personnel practices against the foreign-born journalists employed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague, the Czech Republic, where RFE/RL has its headquarters. The idea is to prevent these contract employees from organizing and complaining about discrimination and poor working conditions. What is even more outrageous is that Czech citizens employed by RFE/RL in Prague are protected by the Czech labor laws. The BBG makes sure, however, that foreign-born journalists brought to Prague by RFE/RL are exempt from these laws, can be fired at will and would not be able to challenge their dismissal.
A journalist living in Prague has sent us this update on the lawsuits brought against RFE/RL and the BBG by two former employees who are fighting for their rights.
A Letter from Prague: Two Women Fighting to Uphold America’s Principles at America’s Freedom Radio
A human-rights lawsuit brought in Prague by Armenian journalist Anna Karapetian against American Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is again before the Czech Supreme Court. The date of the trial has not yet been set. It is the sixth time her case will be heard by the Czech judges. In the ongoing court ping-pong, where the ball is human fate, RFE/RL is represented by a Wall-Street law firm, White & Case.
By now, the score is 3:2 for RFE/RL. But the moral parameters as measured by personal suffering and the international media reaction cannot be expressed in numbers. Armenian newspaper AZG (People), published in Yerevan, wrote: “The most devious anti-American mind would not have been able to design an international media campaign so devastating to RFE/RL and, by natural extension, to America’s image and trustworthiness abroad, as the American RFE/RL managed to cause on its own.”
Wall Street lawyers have argued in Czech courts that RFE/RL may apply to foreign personnel outside the United States American labor laws allowing the use of the “employment-at-will” doctrine, i.e. terminations without any stated reason. To its Czech employees, RFE/RL was forced by local trade unions to apply Czech legislation, which excludes arbitrary terminations.
The Anna Karapetian’s lawsuit is not the only one of its kind. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has received a legal complaint from a Croatian citizen, Snjezana Pelivan, also a former RFE/RL employee. She charges that the Czech Republic tolerates discrimination based on national origin by RFE/RL, an American employer. Her case is also pending.
In the Czech courts, Anna Karapetian, an Armenian, instructs an American institution that by the will of the U.S. Congress dictated by respect for the legal sovereignty of foreign countries, American labor laws are not applicable to foreigners working for American employers abroad. She has told the Czech courts that time and again that, without a single exception, U.S. courts, heeding to the will of Congress, refused to apply U.S. labor laws to foreigners employed by American companies overseas.
No doubt that the practice of arbitrary terminations, even if it contradicts the will of Congress and the laws of the United States and the Czech Republic, suits the bureaucrats managing RFE/RL. It also prevents its foreign employees, who constitute the vast majority of its editorial staff, from staging any open protests against unfair treatment and poor working conditions. DS Magazine published in Slovakia wrote that at RFE/RL “Everybody knows that any protest will end in a termination.” However, it is also obvious that the American management at RFE /RL in Prague would never dare to defy the will and laws of the U.S. Congress unless it was directed to do so from above.
In fact, RFE/RL stands for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. Federal agency that supervises all non-military U.S. broadcasting aimed at overseas audiences. The BBG, according to statements found on its website, “makes all major policy determinations governing the operations of RFE/RL” and “provides worldwide personnel management policies, programs, and services.” RFE/RL, the largest American civil institution abroad financed by the U.S. Congress, broadcasts in 28 languages to 21 countries and employs in Prague hundreds of foreigners.
Anna Karapetian, mother of three minor children, was one of them. In November 2006, her employment at RFE/RL Armenian Service was terminated without any preliminary warnings and no reason was given for her dismissal after 12 years of exemplary service. Simultaneously, RFE/RL management requested her to sign a letter stating that she accepts the termination and will not question it in courts. She refused to exchange her dignity and human rights for the hush money. In retaliation, the American employer, who in 1995 had invited Anna Karapetian to come to Prague, withheld her severance pay, to which she was entitled. For her family, which moved together with her from Yerevan to Prague, she was the only breadwinner.
In July of 1996, Hillary Clinton, the First Lady at that time, visited RFE/RL and called for the global “alliance of democratic values.” Hillary Clinton’s speech was translated into all RFE/RL broadcasting languages. Anna Karapetian was the journalist was translated the speech into Armenian. On April 4, 2009, Hillary Clinton again spoke in Prague to a packed RFE/RL audience. This time, as the Secretary of State, she was also and still is ex officio a full member of the BBG. In her own name and on behalf of President Obama, she praised the Radio for being “a ‘smart power’, which helps “to create a broad international agreement with values that respect human dignity, individual rights and responsibilities.” She thanked RFE/RL staff: “What you do here is an instrumental, essential part of everything America stands for.”
Among her listeners were hundreds of citizens and refugees from the Radio’s target countries who emotionally and politically identify with RFE/RL’s noble mission “to promote democratic values and institutions,” “strengthen civil societies by projecting democratic values,” “provide a model for local media… .” These well-informed professionals listening to these high-sounding phrases were acutely aware of the anti-discrimination lawsuits brought against RFE/RL by their former colleagues, Anna Karapetian and Snjezana Pelivan. Aware even more so because RFE/RL is denying them some of the very same values stressed so emphatically in Hillary Clinton’s address.
In his internationally circulated Open Letter to U.S. Senators, Czech Senator Jaromir Stetina, who is a member of the Czech Senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security, and the Vice-chairman of Senate caucus of the governing party, noted that RFE/RL “hires its foreign employees on labor contracts, which explicitly deny them protections automatically granted to any employee in the Czech Republic. 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.” Senator Stetina personally protested human rights violations also in Cuba and Belarus. In Russia, he is a persona non grata.
In her column in The Washington Post (Radio To Stay Tuned To, 4/22/2008), Anne Applebaum described the situation of RFE/RL foreign employees in these words: “Once there (in Prague), they can’t go home, they can’t get green cards, they don’t speak Czech.”
Anna Karapetian knows that all too well. In her appeal to President Obama she wrote: “Signing a standardized RFE/RL Employment Agreement ‘governed by the applicable laws of the United States, the laws of the District of Columbia or the Policies of the Company’, all non-American journalists trustfully and proudly placed themselves under the protective hand of RFE/RL, a beacon of human rights (on air). Only after landing jobless on the streets of Prague, I discovered that I and several hundred of my non-American colleagues, mostly from the target countries in RFE/RL broadcast area, being foreigners working for an American employer outside the United States, are exempt from legal protections provided to Americans by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Civil Rights Act of 1964, District of Columbia Human Rights Act of 1977, or by any other American labor law. RFE/RL foreign employees are intentionally placed in a legal vacuum.”
Since June of last year, there are new BBG members appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Since June of this year, there is a new RFE/RL president appointed by the BBG. But RFE/RL’s shameful labor policies sanctioned by the BBG — no labor rights for foreign-born journalists — remain the same. The BBG’s pronouncements, such as its newly “revised mission statement”: “To inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” sound hollow to the non-American journalists employed under BBG contracts. No wonder that the international media — in English, Russian, Armenian, Croatian, Czech, Slovak… — in reaction to the lawsuits against RFE/RL (read BBG), uses these words to describe the U.S. Government’s position: hypocrisy, betrayal of ideals, violation of human rights, lawlessness, double standards, moral disaster, fraud, cynicism, and the like. These words in response to the BBG personnel policies aimed at their foreign-born journalists have a devastating impact on the international moral standing of the United States.
“BBG is responsive to U.S. foreign policy priorities,” one reads in the new “BBG Strategic Plan” proposed for the next five years. Is the convenience of unelected American bureaucrats really the actual priority of American foreign policy?