‘Prague winter’ for USA’s Radio Free Europe/Liberty
Thu 05 January 2012 08:12 GMT | 8:12 Local Time
by Alsou Taheri, the pseudonym of a journalist working at RFE/RL in Prague.
These days, Soviet-style samizdat is doing the rounds at the Prague
headquarters of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty. It is a press release on
the letter to Croatian government by Snjezana Pelivan, a Croatian
journalist living in Prague. Her case against the Czech Republic as a
country that tolerates the national discrimination practised on its
territory by the American RFE/RL, is in the European Court of Human Rights.
In her letter, she officially requests the government of Croatia to support
her lawsuit in Strasbourg.
Pelivan’s letter is passed clandestinely from hand to hand, like forbidden
fruit. Computers are not trusted. It is an open secret here that the RFE/RL
management monitors all intranet communications. At RFE/RL, many knew
Snjezana personally and retain fond memories of her. Many remain close to
her. And there is hardly anyone who does not know about her human rights
case against the Radio in the Czech courts, and of her present claim
against the Czech Republic as the host country to RFE/RL.
In 28 languages, RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 so-called `target countries’. In
Prague, the Radio employs hundreds of foreign nationals forming the great
majority of broadcasting departments. Eighteen of the RFE/RL broadcasting
languages are spoken predominantly by Muslim people. Snjezana Pelivan,
daughter of the first prime minister of independent Bosnia and Herzegovina,
was responsible for the placement of RFE/RL programs with affiliated radio
stations abroad, particularly in the Caucasus and former Yugoslavia. The
termination of her employment was met with disbelief and consternation.
International lawsuit for international hospitality*
In 1995, RFE/RL moved from Munich, Germany to Prague. The radio is
subordinate to the federal agency, the BBG (Broadcasting Board of
Governors), in Washington. The BBG is appointed by the president of the
United States and confirmed by the Senate. Ex officio, it includes the
secretary of state, at present Hillary Clinton. Simultaneously, the BBG
serves as the Board of Directors for the same RFE/RL.
With a straight face and disdain for the listener’s intelligence, RFE/RL
represents itself as `independent’ and `private’. The insiders laugh: it’s
about as ridiculous as calling Russia’s Gazprom an independent private
company. At that, Gazprom has slightly over 50 percent of state capital.
RFE/RL has 100. The largest American civil institution abroad, RFE/RL is
fully financed by the US Congress. And it is anything but independent. The
influential BBG, which controls and directs all American non-military
broadcasters abroad, says on its website that it `makes all major policy
determinations governing the operations of RFE/RL’, `provides worldwide
personnel management policies, programs, and services’.
The practical consequence of the BBG-designed personnel policies, writes
Snjezana Pelivan in her letter, avidly read in RFE/RL corridors, is that
all foreign journalists, producers and other specialists employed by RFE/RL
in Prague, are provided with uniform work contracts based deceptively on
American labour laws. American laws don’t cover foreigners outside the
RFE/RL contracts with foreigners have the only purpose: to strip them of
any legal defence – be it in the United States or in the Czech Republic.
American courts, which are open to Americans, are off limits to them. Czech
courts, on the other hand, take inconsistent and mutually excluding
decisions as to what laws shall be used for foreigners working for RFE/RL
strict Czech laws, which exclude arbitrary terminations and cover Czech
workers at RFE/RL, or the regulations which give free rein to the employer
contained in the discriminatory contracts provided by RFE/RL to foreigners.
In Munich, notes Snjezana Pelivan, even when it was in the American zone of
occupation, American RFE/RL had to abide by German labour laws.
The `pro and contra’ ping pong with human fates, continues Pelivan, goes on
in Czech courts for years. Presently, the case of an Armenian journalist,
the mother of three young children, Anna Karapetian, similar to Pelivan’s
lawsuit, is again in the Czech Supreme court – repeatedly, after making
already two full rounds of the lower courts. It is the sixth time that her
claim against RFE/RL will be handled by Czech judges.
The case of Snjezana Pelivan was heard four times. Her employment with
RFE/EL was terminated without any preliminary warnings or any reason being
provided. Simultaneously, the RFE/RL management demanded that she sign a
letter stating that she accepted the termination and would not question it
in courts. She refused. In retaliation, the American employer withheld her
severance compensation for years of impeccable service. In the same
fashion, Anna Karapetian’s contract was terminated. She had worked for
RFE/RL for 12 years.
The acute interest in Pelivan’s letter is dictated not only by the fact
that she was the first to contest her termination in the Czech courts. Anna
Karapetian became another rebel. But many of their former co-workers at
RFE/RL were forced by financial and family reasons to succumb to demands
and the arbitrariness of American management. They accepted the `hush’
money, signed the statements depriving them of their basic civil right to
appeal against mistreatment, and left. Every foreigner at the
`human-rights’ Radio knows that he or she could be treated as an expendable
mercenary, too. As Afghan woman Saliha K was treated, or more recently,
two Ukrainian journalists. Who is next?
To Urbi et Orbi, RFE/RL solemnly proclaims its official mission: `To
empower people in their struggle against violations of human rights,’ `to
promote democratic values and institutions,’ `strengthen civil societies by
projecting democratic values,’ `provide a model for local media=85′
The BBG is no less ambitious: `Help audiences in authoritarian countries
understand the principles and practices of democratic, free and just
In reality, writes Snjezana Pelivan, the Czech Republic tolerates on its
territory a situation in which “fewer foreign detainees are placed in a
legal vacuum at the US naval base on Guantanamo, Cuba, than foreign
journalists deprived of legal protection by American Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague’.
*Havel’s legacy as window dressing*
On 18 December former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who invited RFE/RL from
Munich to Prague, died. Commemorating him, RFE/RL President Steven Korn
wrote: `He championed the rights of the powerless=85 Havel embodied the
principles that guide our organization.’
Walter Isaacson, BBG chairman, echoed: “We have lost a great champion of
Were they sincere? Have their personnel policies of
`no-rights-to-foreigners’ – designed by the BBG in Washington and used by
RFE/RL in Prague – anything in common with Havel’s essay `The Power of the
Powerless’ directed against the `brutal and arbitrary application of
power’, `hypocrisy and lies’, `arbitrary abuse of power’? Havel’s
perception of RFE/RL’s mission was and always remained `old-fashioned’:
`defence of human rights, civic rights and human dignity’. Rather, their
lip service to the memory of the great humanitarian enables them, to use
words from his essay again, `to deceive their conscience and conceal their
true position both from the world and from themselves’. Did they ever read
that essay written in 1978 by Vaclav Havel, the dissident?
Snjezana Pelivan quotes Czech Senator Jaromir Stetina, vice-chairman of the
Senate caucus of the governing party, member of the Senate Committee on
Foreign Policy, Defense and Security, who described RFE/RL labour policies
in the Czech Republic as `patently indecent, unfair, cynical and
When she comes to Prague, Hillary Clinton usually visits RFE/RL and makes a
speech. Last time, she thanked the staff for helping `to create a broad
international agreement with values that respect human dignity, individual
rights and responsibilities’.
Among her listeners were hundreds of the `rightless aborigines’ as RFE/RL
foreign employees were once called by Czech newspaper Lidove noviny.
In her `Petition to Call the Witness’ addressed to the Czech Constitutional
Court, Snjezana Pelivan raised the question if the discriminatory
employment policies practised by RFE/RL in the Czech Republic, were
dictated by some political necessity. The witness suggested to the Court
was Hillary Clinton as a member of the BBG and RFE/RL boards of directors.
The Secretary of State was expected in Prague shortly. Czech news agency
CTK and major Czech newspapers reported Pelivan’s request. Within five
days, the Czech Constitutional Court ruled in a five-page long decision
against Snjezana Pelivan. However, her request to call Hillary Clinton as a
witness was not even mentioned. No reason was given why the witness should
not be heard. In its ruling, the Court decided that the virtual absence of
legal protection for RFE/RL foreign employees is `compatible with the
social, state, and legal order of the Czech Republic’.
In his article in Prague newspaper Halo,`Free Europe with Its Own Laws in
Colonial Czech Republic?’ Vaclav Exner, then the chairman of the
Parliamentary Subcommittee on Foreign Relations, commented: `The
Constitutional Court indeed achieved a speed record on this matter, as far
as I know.”
On Exner’s initiative, the Czech parliament already twice, on 11 June 2009
and 4 February 2010, discussed the abhorrent RFE/RL labour policies. Vaclav
Exner was a Communist deputy.
However, stresses Snjezana Pelivan, the indignation at the immoral policies
and actions of RFE/RL cuts in the Czech Republic across the whole political
spectrum. Senator Jaromir Stetina is actively anti-Communist and
pro-American. In February 2010, he addressed American senators with an open
letter `Actions of Radio Free Europe Damage the Czech Republic and United
States’. A year later, he sent a public appeal to Hillary Clinton – `From
Fame to Shame: Stop Human Rights Violations and National Discrimination of
Foreign Employees at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’. The senator’s
letters were broadly covered by Czech and international mass media.
The Czech government, however, does not dare to appeal to the Broadcasting
Board of Governors in Washington and request an end to the violation of
Czech legislative sovereignty, writes Snjezana Pelivan.
*Not a Prague Spring but Prague Winter*
Asking the government in Zagreb to support her legal claim against the
Czech Republic, she mentions the official statistics: out of 158 cases
against the Czech Republic tried by the European Court of Human Rights in
Strasbourg, Prague has won only five.
In his broadly circulated Open Letter to Hillary Clinton, Senator Stetina
suggested an alternative solution to the court battles scandalous for
RFE/RL and the Czech Republic:
“The ongoing ugly lawsuits should and could be stopped by a dignified
peaceful resolution acceptable to all the parties involved, including the
As was reported recently by The Croatian
in English in Zagreb, Snjezana Pelivan is sceptical: `If such an
offer comes, we’ll consider it. It is just that Americans spit on this
country openly and smile nicely. And Prague wipes itself dry and keeps
To illustrate national discrimination, Snjezana Pelivan gives the following
example, among others: `A foreign woman working for RFE/RL will receive
maternity leave in accordance with the RFE/RL Corporate Policy Manual. It
is almost three months shorter than the leave provided by Czech law to
anyone else in the Czech Republic, including Czech employees of RFE/RL. But
a foreign employee of the Radio has no place to complain – neither to the
American courts, nor the Czech ones. In the sovereign Czech Republic, the
American RFE/RL is the most sovereign judge in its own court without the
right of appeal.’
Foreign journalists working on the uniformly discriminatory contracts
provided to them by RFE/RL know this all too well. Their comments are
bitter: `Here the Wild West met the Wild East’. Most of them sincerely
share the high ideals and goals of the RFE/RL official mission. It is not
with a light heart that they read the now innumerable articles in the Czech
and international mass media, print and electronic, denouncing their place
of work: `hypocrisy’, `betrayal of ideals’, `violation of human rights’,
`lawlessness’, `double standards’, `moral disaster’, `fraud’,
`cynicism’, `Guantanamo in Prague’, `public idiocy instead of public
diplomacy’, and the like.
In low voices they discuss Pelivan’s letter at American RFE/RL, just as
samizdat was discussed in the Communist autocracies. But can they do
anything to protect their own `rights of the powerless’? For them, this
question is not theoretical anymore.
They are professionals working with information. They are fully informed
that their colleague in the Moscow bureau, Karen Agamirov, organized a
trade union, which on 25 March 2009 forced the unwilling RFE/RL management
to sign a collective agreement which provides protection for employees. But
they are also aware that last year Karen Agamirov was fired on a
far-fetched pretext. The RFE/RL management has a long and vindictive memory.
They know that the RFE/RL acting director of communications, Julian Knapp,
got sick and tired of publicly defending the Radio’s deceptive labour
policies. He took his hat and left Prague last September. John O’Sullivan,
RFE/RL executive editor, is about to go, too.
Yes, they are very well informed. Of their own situation and of the world
around them. In turn, they inform their audiences – about the `Arab
Spring’, the `Moscow December’, `Occupy Wall Street’, protests in Kiev =85
They are my colleagues. And from what I hear, it seems they are about to
protest publicly against their feudal status at the `human-rights’ radio.
To judge by the current season in Prague, their collective protest will be
called a `Prague Winter’. The heat is on.
*Alsou Taheri is the pseudonym of a journalist working at RFE/RL* *in Prague