My Brief Tenure as RFE/RL President
Some of you may have learned that I had a brief tenure as President of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.
Some of you may be also interested to know that just a few hours before the new Acting U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO, Ms. Kelu Chao, had an e-mail sent to me by an administrative assistant informing me in the middle of the night (my time in Prague) without any warning or any explanation that she was removing me from my position as RFE/RL President, she and I had an hour-long very friendly telephone conversation—we have been colleagues and collaborators for many years and share an immigrant background—during which she specifically denied that she was planning to remove me and expressed strong support for what I was doing at RFE/RL, particularly in reference to my plans for greater empowerment of RFE/RL foreign language services and a greater focus on human rights reporting and analysis.
Ms. Chao specifically agreed with me that Russian autocratic leader Vladimir Putin was trying to blackmail RFE/RL into acknowledging Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by forcing Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) to label its website for Crimea as complying with Russian law.
Crimea is not part of Russia. It is Ukrainian territory illegally occupied by the Russian government led by President Putin. I told Ms. Chao that I was absolutely opposed to the labeling of the RFE/RL content for Ukraine under Russian law, and she again agreed with me. Ms. Chao also agreed with me that the Kremlin has some time ago set a legal trap for RFE/RL and that she shared my shock in discovering how much U.S. taxpayer money RFE/RL has already spent and was likely to spend trying to comply with increasingly repressive Russian regulations designed to humiliate Radio Liberty and to damage its credibility.
She and I also agreed that Radio Liberty journalists in Russia have been put in an extremely difficult situation and that this problem should have been addressed much earlier by the former management to mitigate the negative impact on RFE/RL employees. I made the same arguments Thursday to a group of bipartisan congressional staffers and advocated strongly against caving into Mr. Putin on labeling RFE/RL program content to Ukrainian Crimea, as well as against intrusive labeling of its content to Russia.
Convinced of Ms. Chao’s full support for RFE/RL’s editorial and organizational independence, I informed RFE/RL staff in general about her views with regard to our organization and went to work during the last hours in my job to win a humanitarian release for RFE/RL media consultant in Belarus Mr. Ihar Losik. He has been kept in prison for many months and is on a hunger strike at great risk to his life and health and great hardship for his wife and their young child. After trying to reach American lawmakers and diplomats and communicating with several European politicians and diplomats, I went back to my hotel in Prague. In the middle of the night, an e-mail came to my private account with a copy of the letter signed by Ms. Chao informing me that she was removing me from my position and stating that she had the authority to make such a decision.
I feel that I should also mention that some of the media reporting about my views and my background was wrong or misleading. NPR and some other media outlets described me as “a former VOA [Voice of America] official” and falsely implied that I am a partisan supporter of President Trump. Because I value objectivity as a journalist, media commentator, and press freedom advocate, I do not publicize my party preferences. I have been registered for some years as an independent voter.
Media references to me as a former “official” are inaccurate because they imply that I might have been politically appointed when in fact I was promoted within the Voice of America. I am not a partisan activist or even particularly conservative. I happen to support gay marriage and progressive taxes with strong fiscal controls. I am mostly a former VOA frontline journalist and a refugee from communism who was in charge of VOA broadcasts that brought liberal democracy to Poland. I have always argued for a balanced inclusion of liberal and conservative views.
I have been also a strong supporter over the years of a completely non-partisan approach to U.S.-funded international media outreach with a focus on promoting respect for human rights and democratic principles in countries under the greatest threats from totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. That is exactly why I agreed to accept the job of overseeing Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and that’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish at RFE/RL, an institution for which I have the greatest respect, especially for its journalists reporting in their native languages to countries deprived of uncensored free media.
Radio Free Europe was the Western station I listened to and admired the most when I lived in Poland in the 1960s under communism. I wanted to use my experience as a media manager to improve its focus on human rights reporting and to better resist propaganda and disinformation, particularly from the Kremlin, but also from other sources, including China.
Serving RFE/RL for these few short weeks was a great honor and privilege for me. I wish I could have done more for RFE/RL staff, for their safety and well-being, and for the organization which I greatly value and admire.
I am now free to return to my private life which I very much enjoy with my wife in Portland, Oregon. I want to thank everyone, particularly my RFE/RL colleagues, who have expressed their support for me. Please remain strong and independent. You can count on my continued interest in your important work and my continued support.