Left Without Leadership, RFE/RL Georgian Service Faces Crisis

The Georgian service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) a private, independent international news organization whose programs — radio, internet, television, and mobile — reach influential audiences in 23 countries, has been left without leadership and, according to Georgian media, is now facing a serious crisis.

Davit Kakabadze, the Director of the Georgian service, was fired after an internal disagreement with his team, after which Marina Vashakmadze, a well-known and highly respected journalist and media scholar in Georgia, resigned as RFE/RL Bureau Chief in Tbilisi in protest and in solidarity to the dismissed Director.

Kakabadze, who had led the Georgian service since 2005, was dismissed after he and the Editor-in-Chief of Programming, Nenad Pejic, reached different positions over cooperating with Georgia’s local, opposition-affiliated Rustavi 2 TV, perceived by many Georgians as being under the influence of the former ruling party, the United National Movement, and Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who left Georgia and is wanted by the new government on multiple charges, which he dismisses as politically motivated.

In summer 2017, Georgia’s state-financed Public Broadcaster terminated its contract with RFE/RL’s two programs Red Zone and InterVIEW, and saw the RFE/RL management insisting they continue cooperation with private channel Rustavi 2. Kakabadze, however, said they should distance themselves from working with a broadcaster affiliated with the opposition or any other political forces, arguing that such a move would destroy RFE/RL’s reputation and credibility.

RFE/RL Georgian service explained that they addressed a cooperation offer to the Adjara Public Broadcaster, which accepted the offer and decided to air two RFE/RL programs.

“I explained many times to the RFE/RL senior management the negative results cooperation with Rustavi 2 would bring, but they chose not to listen to any of my arguments. Then I offered to talk to our other colleagues who had the same position as I, but this also failed to bring any results,” Kakabadze told Georgia’s Imedi TV.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors Watch (BBG Watch), “working to restore good management and a sharp news focus to taxpayer-funded American media outreach abroad,” reports that Vice President Pejic was among the senior managers of the US taxpayer-funded station which is behind the push to affiliate the RFE/RL Georgian Service with Rustavi 2 and another local Georgian channels.

The firing of Kakabadze was also supported by the head of RFE/RL’s managing US federal agency, BBG CEO John Lansing, an Obama administration-era appointee.

BBG Watch reports that the entire Georgian Service united in support behind their director David Kakabadze for resisting these attempts from senior management. It says Georgian Service journalists wrote a memo to John Lansing and his deputy Jeff Trimble, in which they complained of being exposed to “growing intimidation, unfair treatment and attacks from RFE/RL management for over a year.”

Moreover, the service staff also sent a letter of complaint to RFE/RL President, Thomas Kent.

After this, some of the most prominent academics, writers, artists, and human rights activists in Georgia signed an open letter to the BBG, the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate, and the White House, as well as creating a separate online petition, in which they defend the RFE/RL Georgian Service.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) based in Georgia also sent a letter to the management of Radio Free Europe, asking them to make public explanations regarding the recent developments inside RFE/RL and the firing of Kakabadze.

“For many of us, RFE/RL reporting in the Georgian language has been an example of the highest professional standards and journalistic ethics,” the letter reads.

The NGOs stressed that resignation of the Head of the Local Bureau raised further concerns that the conflict between management and the Georgian Service staff goes beyond internal dispute and may have deeper roots.

“We expect to be convinced by RFE/RL management that the journalism produced by this professional team is still in demand,” the NGOs stated.

Jeremy Bransten, Regional Director for Europe at RFE/RL, confirms that discussions took place about airing the dropped shows on Rustavi 2, which led to a disagreement between management and the Georgian Service; however, he claims these are “internal issues” and refuses to discuss further details.

“There were many other issues as well, which I am not prepared to discuss. As for Mr. Davit Kakabadze, he is a good man and a fine journalist,” Bransten stated.

Thea Morrison

05 February 2018 17:40
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