At Broadcasting Board of Governors, public diplomacy starts at how its executives treat their most vulnerable foreign employees
How an employer treats his employees determines how loyal they are, how well they perform and how an organization they work for is perceived by the public. Public opinion matters, especially for government employers.
For the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that runs the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and other stations broadcasting news to the world with U.S. taxpayers’ money, the public opinion that matters is mostly abroad.
These stations provide uncensored news to many countries without free media and some, specifically the Voice of America, also represent the United States — the full spectrum of American opinions — as part of VOA’s mission. These stations are not in the public diplomacy business per se, but their news reporting and the image they project adds to the overall U.S. public diplomacy message in various countries.
If you are a foreign national and the news gets out that your U.S. government employer mistreats you and takes advantage of you, it’s not a good thing for America’s reputation abroad. Journalists talk to other journalists who in turn publish what they hear from their colleagues.
If the U.S. government employer claims that its activities reflect American values and help other nations transition to media freedom and democracy, the gap between actions and words becomes even more apparent.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors executive staff has never cared about such things. They have ignored the public impact of their actions for years as they continued to exploit foreign born and U.S. visa status journalists, denied them basic rights and got away with it until now.
But the news about their mistreatment of employees is now leaking out, bad press in many countries intensifies, and court cases pile up, including one at the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. Even pro-American foreign politicians speak out in defense of journalists mistreated and exploited by the BBG. This is not the kind of public diplomacy the U.S. needs. Yet, the BBG executive staff has remained unmoved.
But the tide may be turning against the BBG managers now working for the director of the International Broadcasting Bureau Richard Lobo. The fact that BBG employees rate their managers as being the worst leaders in the entire U.S. government, as reflected in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys, has caught the attention of BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe. He started meeting with employees and urged other BBG members to do the same.
Ashe reported at the BBG meeting held last week in Miami that Board members have learned about management practices that were hidden in the closet for many years. He also said that Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, who represented Secretary of State Clinton at the BBG meeting in Miami, made valuable suggestions on public input into the Agency’s operations. Another BBG member Susan McCue suggested that instead of cutting programs, the management should look for savings in “management.” At the same meeting, the Board reversed their staff’s recommendation to eliminate Voice of America radio broadcasts to Tibet and to close down the VOA Cantonese Service. The decision to reverse the Tibet and China cuts was announced by Governor Michael Meehan.
It appears that BBG members are finally beginning to realize that they themselves have been the victims of their own staff which has been responsible for numerous blunders, such as the proposal to end VOA radio to Tibet, but also for constantly proposing to cut programs, expanding their own bureaucracy at the expense of programming, and exploiting foreign journalists to maintain their positions and power.
The scheme devised by BBG executives involves cutting or reducing broadcasts, firing regular employees and replacing them with contractors who are paid very little, are denied basic employment benefits and can’t defend themselves effectively against abuses by the management.
Thanks to Governor Ashe’s efforts, BBG members and IBB director Richard Lobo have been hearing from some of these contractors at the Voice of America. For the first time, BBG members have met with union representatives. As Governor Ashe said, they have learned things they would rather not hear about, but things they should know. Exploitation and discrimination of foreign-born contractors was one of many topics which were discussed.
But neither employees nor their union are convinced that the current top BBG/IBB managers can be reformed. Most recently, the union representing BBG employees, AFGE Local 1812, posted an item on its website on the continuec Agency’s abuse of its J-1 Visa status journalists. It reads:
“Every so often there is case that so perfectly illustrates the mistreatment of employees committed by the BBG/IBB/VOA management that it needs to be told. The way this management has mistreated people that they brought into this country via the inappropriate use of the J-1 Visa process (known for good reason as the “nanny visa”) is appalling. Unfortunately the example below is not a singular case. There have been others that this management has sent packing in a similar manner. These former employees now have a very low opinion of the United States Government; if not America itself (although it needs to be pointed out that Sumaira has not indicated any ill will towards anyone at this point). I believe that the BBG/IBB/VOA management, by treating their J-1 Visa holders the way they do, turn these once enthusiastic promoters of America and our values into less than enthusiastic admirers of this country. In this way the management under the BBG undermines the Voice of America’s purpose, at least to the extent that we are supposed to promote good will towards this country and our ideals. I cannot vouch for everything she states but I can state that when the head of the H.R. office was asked what would have happened if Sumaira left the country when she was first informed that her visa had expired, she me told that there would not have been a reconsideration appeal because the Agency would not sponsor her to bring her back. In addition, the deciding official who heard Sumaira’s appeal did not sign the decision letter. One has to wonder why. I was a witness to Sumaira’s appeal and believe a third party decision maker would have thrown out the Agency’s allegations completely. Read Sumaira’s account by clicking on the title of this story.” Agency Abuse of J-1 Visa
Then there is the longstanding discrimination of foreign-born journalists employed as contractors by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty at their headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic. The Broadcasting Board of Governors executives devised a scheme of depriving these journalists of the protections they could receive under the current Czech labor law. That way they can fire them at will without any explanation and they can do that — they claim — under the communist-era rules that exempted certain foreign employers (It used to be Soviet companies in communist-run Czechoslovakia.) from some of the local laws and regulations.
This cynical abuse of the Czech legal system by the BBG has been a public diplomacy disaster abroad for the United States, but somehow it escaped the attention of most U.S. media and U.S. public officials.
This scandal has, however, been reported on widely by foreign media in some of the countries where RFE/RL operates. One case of a former RFE/RL employee Snjezana Pelivan has reached the European Court of Human Rights. Another case filed by an Armenian journalist Anna Karapetian is being reviewed by the courts in the Czech Republic. Both plaintiffs are women. They claim they were denied the protections of the Czech labor law because they were foreigners employed and then dismissed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFE/RL was merely following personnel policies set by BBG executives.
The husband of one of the women, himself a distinguished former RFE/RL editor and commentator, wrote a letter about the impact of this BBG policy on America’s image abroad. He provided a list of foreign media titles highly negative toward the United States as they reported on these court cases. The letter was addressed to the newly sworn in Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine. The author of the letter Lev Roitman is the husband of Snjezana Pelivan whose case against RFE/RL and the BBG is pending before the European Court of Human Rights. Roitman is a former RFE/RL senior commentator. He retired in 2005,after thirty years with RFE/RL in New York, Munich, and Prague.
“Please accept my congratulations on your confirmation by Senate as the next Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy. Hopefully, you will achieve better results for the United States than the kaleidoscope of your predecessors in that position.
In particular, the Secretary of State serves ex officio as a member of BBG and of RFE/RL’s
Board of Directors. You will represent her in that critical segment of U.S. public diplomacy.
For your predecessors, it was just a ceremonial and burdensome chore. The results of such a “leadership” (to use a politically correct word) are devastating to American image abroad.
Enclosed please find an Open Letter
At Broadcasting Board of Governors and Radio Free Europe/Liberty –Public Diplomacy is Public Scandal at Public Expense
It was delivered in hard copies to the listed addresses. On January 24th, the Open Letter was published and widely multiplied by Internet.
On January 27th, Mr. Walter Isaacson resigned as the BBG Chairman. Otherwise, nothing changed since then. Just the list of scandalous for the United States international publications (follows) grew longer. It is your task now to stop that cancerous grows of negative publicity.
I wish you real achievements in public diplomacy. You may start by confronting the self-serving BBG bureaucracy — for immediate benefit to our country.
“Abbreviated List of international publications (in Czech, Serbo-Croatian, English, Russian, Armenian, etc.) condemning RFE/RL discriminative personnel policies practiced in the Czech Republic”:
“At Broadcasting Board of Governors and Radio Free Europe/Liberty –
Public Diplomacy is Public Scandal at Public Expense,”
“Snjezana Pelivan asks Croatian government to support her legal claim in Strasbourg,”
“’Prague winter’ for USA’s Radio Free Europe/Liberty,”
“A Spectre (ghost) Haunts ‘Free Europe’ ,”
“A Letter from Prague: Two Women Fighting to Uphold America’s Principles at America’s Radio,”
“Samizdat at Radio Free Europe/ Liberty describes discrimination against foreigners, women,”
“American Radio Free Europe violates equal rights of its foreign employees in Prague,”
“U.S.-Funded Radio Free Europe Invokes Communist Law to Violate the Will of Congress,”
“American RFE/RL Fights in Courts against Armenian Journalist. And Scores Against America,”
“From RFE/RL: Immorality as a Matter of Policy,”
“Czech Court Rules Against RFE/RL in Suit by Dismissed Armenian Employee,”
“In handcuffs of ‘Liberty’,”
“Czech Court to American Radio Free Europe: No Use for U.S. Laws in the Czech Republic. Hillary Clinton Will Not Be Asked to Testify,”
“Czech Court Rules RFE/RL Cannot Discriminate Against Its Own Foreign Journalists,”
“Radio Liberty Betrays Its Ideals,”
“Czech Supreme Court Rules Against Radio Free Europe. Karapetian’s Case Returned for New Consideration”,
“It’s the Morality, Stupid,”
“Radio Free Europe – Task for Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg,”
“Radio Free Europe – Guantanamo in Prague,”
“Armenian journalist appeals to Obama to Protect Rights of Foreign Journalists at U.S. Government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,”
“Equality With Precondition. Practice of Free Europe Contradicts Its Ideals,”
“U.S. Attorney General is Asked to Investigate Fraud at RFE/RL,”
“Doomsday of Radio Liberty. From Double Standards to Double Morals?”
“A Sense of Betrayal,”
“Czech Politician Accuses U.S. of Discrimination Against Foreign Journalists,”
“On Air in Legal Vacuum,”
“Czech MP Writes to U.S. Counterparts Over Work Conditions in RFE/RL,”
”New Administration Must Undo RFE/RL Anti-Diplomacy Abroad,”
“BBG, RFE/RL: Bring Public Diplomats Instead of Public Bureaucrats,”
“Don’t Feed Kremlin’s Public Diplomacy With U.S. Public Hypocrisy,”
“Public Disaster Instead of Public Diplomacy,”
“Cases of Karapetian and Pelivan as Morality Check for Obama Administration. Radio Free Europe to Face European Court of Human Rights,”
“Czech MP Questions Pelivan Case,”
“Czech Sovereignty Ends at RFE/RL,”
“At Radio Free Europe/Liberty, Bulk of Discriminated Employees is Muslims. Hillary Clinton Serves on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Board of Directors,”
“Free Europe With Its Own Laws in Colonial Czech Republic?”
“From Human Rights Show to Human Rights Court,”
“Prague Spring Leads to Strasbourg,”
”News Flashes From Radio Free/Radio Liberty. The Face of America Abroad,”
“Czech senator angry about Croat’s lawsuit”… “