RFE RL Faces Ethnic Discrimination Charges

Snjezana Pelivan

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org, Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, September 9, 2009, San Francisco — A former employee of Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has asked the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to look into charges that the US taxpayer-funded radio station broadcasting to countries without free media discriminates against foreign-born journalists and other workers by denying them the same legal protections available to American and Czech employees. Snjezana Pelivan, a Croatian citizen, had challenged her dismissal by RFE/RL and filed an unlawful discrimination suit in a court in the Czech Republic, where the American radio station has its headquarters and where she was employed by RFE/RL as a marketing specialist to help place its programs on local radio stations throughout Eurasia.

The Czech court sided with RFE/RL, ruling that the station’s non-Czech and non-American employees, including many journalists who fled persecution by authoritarian regimes in their native countries, can be treated differently under the Czech law than their Czech and American colleagues. Americans and Czechs working for RFE/RL are entitled to much greater legal protections and employment benefits than citizens of other countries. Ms. Pelivan and others at RFE/RL view this as a discriminatory measure used against journalists who come mostly from poorer nations, are not familiar with American legal system, and have few other options of working as journalists in their native languages.

The picture is far different for American citizens at RFE/RL. Under an arrangement worked out with the Czech government, they enjoy some of the same privileges as US diplomats although they are not Federal workers. One of the benefits reserved for American employees at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague is being exempt from paying Czech income taxes. RFE/RL employees who are Czech citizens are protected by liberal Czech labor laws.

The US taxpayer-supported radio station is technically a private journalistic institution, incorporated in Delaware, and receives US government grants. Ms. Pelivan had asked the Czech court to request the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to appear as a witness in her case to explain how the US government can “allow journalists from countries without democracy and free media to be treated as ‘second class’ citizens when working abroad for an American radio station funded by the US Congress with a mission to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” Secretary Clinton is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a US Federal agency, which provides grants to RFE/RL and is responsible for programming and management policies at the radio station. The Czech court did not respond to her request to submit questions to Secretary Clinton.

In her appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, Ms. Pelivan wrote that the Czech court ruling empowers American management of RFE/RL to practice in the Czech Republic arbitrary terminations of its foreign employees without a need to justify such actions in any court of law. She expects that the European Court of Human Rights will ask the government of Croatia, her native country, to support her suit against the Czech Republic and RFE/RL. Croatia is entitled to present to the court in Strasbourg written comments and participate in hearings concerning the rights of its citizens.

Anna Karapetian
Anna Karapetian

A similar unlawful discrimination case filed by a former RFE/RL journalist Anna Karapetian, an Armenian citizen, is still pending before Czech courts. Both Snjezana Pelivan and Anna Karapetian have petitioned U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder to open a criminal civil rights investigation into RFE/RL employment practices in the Czech Republic. Their petition notes that “actions of RFE/RL, financed by U.S. taxpayers money as a tool of American public diplomacy, make a mockery of its Mission Statement… ‘to promote democratic values and institutions… strengthen[ing] civil societies by projecting democratic values… [and]provid[ing] a model for local media…”

Both women have received excellent performance evaluations prior to their dismissals. Both claim that the RFE/RL management has not provided them with a clear explanation for their firings and tried to get them to agree not to discuss publicly their treatment at the radio station in Prague. They were not charged with violations of any work rules and were considered model employees.

The employment policies promoted by the BBG at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty in the Czech Republic are believed to be part of a larger effort to privatize US international broadcasting and to limit the role of the Washington, DC-based Voice of America (VOA), which is a Federal government international radio also managed by the BBG. Federal workers at the Voice of America told FreeMediaOnline.org that during the last two years they have noticed an alarming number of veteran VOA journalists, employed in areas which the BBG wants to downsize, being dismissed for minor disciplinary violations. They suspect that these personnel practices have been adopted by the BBG executive staff from employment policies at RFE/RL and at some of the other BBG-managed private broadcasting entities. VOA journalists also report continued attempts by the BBG to replace Federal VOA employees, who do have some job security protections, with private contractors who can be dismissed at any time without any explanation. These practices are common at most of the BBG’s privately-run broadcasting stations. The current BBG Executive Director Jeff Trimble came from RFE/RL, where his jobs included Acting President, Counselor to the President for Programs and Policy, Director of Policy and Strategic Planning, and Director of Broadcasting.

In a government-wide survey of employees conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the BBG has been consistently rated as one of the worst-managed Federal agencies. In addition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the bipartisan board currently has four other members: Joaquin F.Blaya, Blanquita Walsh Cullum, D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, and Steven J. Simmons. Despite its bipartisan membership, most of the Democrats serving on the board, including former members Norman Pattiz and now US Senator from Delaware Ted (Edward E.) Kaufman, strongly supported privatization of US international broadcasting and downsizing of the Voice of America.

Norman Pattiz, chairman and founder of radio industry giant Westwood One, and Ted Kaufman, who took over Vice President Biden’s Senate seat and was at one time his chief of staff, were the primary authors of the Bush Administration’s plans for Alhurra Television privatized broadcasting to the Middle East and were responsible for the elimination of the Voice of America’s highly-regarded Arabic Service. A study conducted by The University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School determined that Alhurra TV has been a journalistic failure and is unable to attract a wider audience. The BBG tried to keep the Center on Public Diplomacy report secret but was eventually forced by Congressional and media criticism to make it available on its website.(http://www.bbg.gov/reports/others/uscreport.pdf)

Kaufman and a former BBG Republican Chairman, James Glassman, who was President Bush’s last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, were primarily responsible for terminating Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian army attacked Georgia in August 2008. Only one board member, Blanquita Walsh Cullum, the only working journalist among the current BBG members, was reported to be opposed to programming cuts at VOA and was said to have criticized some of the controversial BBG decisions at closed board meetings. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, she was outvoted by other Republicans and all Democrats. There have been unconfirmed rumors that the Obama Administration wants to replace most of the current BBG members. Republican leaders in Congress would have to be consulted which Republican BBG members should stay or be replaced.

Link to unedited English translation of the ICCEE (Information Center Caucasus-Eastern Europe) Press Release, Prague, the Czech Republic September 9, 2009. ICCEE is a nonprofit organization which publishes in Europe Europe Orer (“Europe Days”), an Armenian news magazine.

ICCEE Press Release in Russian: Американское «Радио Свобода» и его страна пребывания Чехия обвиняются в Европейском суде по правам человека в национальной дискриминации

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