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Job’s Not Done, But Radio Free Europe in Limbo

December 2, 1993

BERLIN (AP) _ Workers at Radio Free Europe are angry over reported plans to slash their budget and move their base to the very countries they once targeted with their broadcasts.

The radio workers cite an internal management memo, obtained by The Associated Press, which says it may be easier to cut the staff if the Munich operation moves to Prague because Czech labor laws are less stringent.

″Many of my colleagues were brought specially to Munich from all over the world, and now they’re asking what to do,″ said Georg Pretchner, a Czech who has worked 10 years for Radio Free Europe.

″I am 44, the worst age to get a new job,″ he said. Pretchner is a member of the staff council negotiating with management on a severance package.

Management is aware of morale problems, said Richard McBride, executive director of the Board for International Broadcasting, the Washington agency that oversees the Munich operations and the Voice of America.

″We plan to live up to all contractual obligations,″ he said in a telephone interview. ″There are some advantages to moving to Prague,″ he said, but he doubted that labor law would be the deciding factor.

McBride acknowledged that the Munich staff had been hit by abruptly announced measures as the Clinton administration changes the broadcast structure.

The budget of $223 million is to drop to $208 million in 1994, then plunge to $75 million in 1996.

″We had gone several years without much change in the budget, so it’s a rather cataclysmic change for the organization,″ McBride said.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty began after World War II as Central Intelligence Agency-backed broadcasters to eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, respectively. The CIA link ended in the early 1970s and the Board for International Broadcasting was formed to channel funds from Congress to the radio stations, which broadcast in 21 languages.

The Clinton administration proposes merging the Munich stations and the VOA in a new agency. It may move the Munich headquarters to Prague or Washington and wants to slash overall staff from 1,500 to 750. About 1,100 work in Munich.

Czech broadcast services are to move to Prague; Polish to Warsaw.

Broadcasts to Hungary and Afghanistan stopped in October. The Afghan staff had only one day to prepare a farewell program before the plug was pulled Oct. 19.

″It was certainly abrupt,″ said Stephen Sego, supervisor of six Afghan broadcasters. ″This shakes morale, to happen so suddenly.″

Abdul-Bari Hakim, 40, has worked for Radio Free Afghanistan since 1986 and always hoped to return to his country after a victory of the mujahedeen, or Muslim holy warriors.

But now the contending forces call him and his colleagues ″known members of the CIA and imperialists, working for interests of the United States and the West,″ Hakim said.

Washington is considering granting the Afghan broadcasters entry to the United States.

A Polish staff committee sent a memo to management declaring that the U.S. government has a moral responsibility to employees who gave up contacts with their families, native lands and professions.

″The decision to cast these people aside because they are, supposedly, no longer needed by America will no doubt echo throughout our target countries,″ it said.

Yuri Handler, director of Russian services, which are not likely to be cut, said he was willing to deal with whatever changes will come.

″We work in a profession of sacrifice,″ Handler said. ″Some journalists are killed in the front lines in Yugoslavia or Africa. Why should we be afraid to move from one very good city to another very good city?″

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