Hello, Conflict of Interest

by Joshua Foust on 4/30/2011 · 2 comments

Xandra Kayden, a senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, is unhappy with RFE/RL:

There is something weird and rather disturbing about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) – a U.S.-funded media outlet that is famous for broadcasting information during the Cold War to support our friends and undermine our enemies – attacking an ally over our mutual enemy, radical jihadism…

If there were ever a nation wary of terrorism in that part of the world, it is Azerbaijan. It is both too close to Iran culturally and too far apart from it in temperament, desire and fundamentalist religious commitment. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has been vehemently and relentlessly attacking Azerbaijan for closing mosques that preach Islamic fundamentalism, banning head scarves in public schools and imprisoning radical clerics. It is perhaps also worth noting that the ban of head scarves in schools was based on addressing socioeconomic issues and not based in religion. While it may have gone a little further than some nations with large Muslim populations in Europe, it does not have a majority population of “others” who can overwhelm the development of terrorism by its sheer existence. On the other hand, it does have a population that is quite mindful of the dangers – especially to women – of a radical takeover. Fighting back is a lot harder for a nation to do once a foothold has been gained, as we have seen in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And so on (you get the point, but do read the whole thing to make sure I didn’t miss some nuance somewhere). Xandra seems to misunderstand the role of RFE/RL: yes, it was meant to be pro-American propaganda, to an extent, but it was credible in the former Soviet Union—and now, not coincidentally, inside Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—because of its ability to criticize U.S. and allied policies. In fact, it was the remarkable ability of RFE/RL journalists to maintain their editorial independence despite funding from the U.S. government-funded BBG —something not afforded the actual propaganda outlet Voice of America—that gives RFE/RL its value.

So in that sense, Xandra’s argument is a bit off, as it rests on an incorrect assumption about the purpose, role, history, and behavior of RFE/RL journalists. By her logic, the RFE/RL reporters who criticize Pakistan’s policies in the NWFP, or who highlight Kyrgyzstan’s continuing issues with ethnic clashes, are similarly engaging in the undermining of allied Muslim countries. It is terrible logic, in other words.

Xandra is also wrong to react against criticism of Azerbaijan. The Azeri government has a history of attacking the institutions of free speech and lashing out at legitimate opposition figures through false claims of libel, defamation, and stirring rebellion. The government has a nasty habit of imprisoning political prisoners. Furthermore, the government is not shy of using threats of violence when it confronts those preaching a religion it dislikes.

This is the government Xandra Kayden is defending from mean old RFE/RL pointing out that banning the headscarf—not a “socioeconomic move,” as she says, but a very obvious move to limit Muslim freedom of expression (a move which, not coincidentally, happens to be a major recruitment tool for Islamists)—is a really bad idea. “U.S. foreign policy and concerns are certainly not served by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in this instance,” she claims. This is clearly not true: everyone is better off if RFE/RL is allowed to maintain its editorial independence, and can criticize oppression even in U.S. allies.

So what gives?

Xandra routinely attends meetings organized by “The ELS Independent Research Center” (Google it if you wish; I got repeated warnings of the site being infested with malware and declined to risk seeing what they have to say). Best I can tell, ELS is an Azerbaijani government-funded NGO which conducts exit polls for elections—they reported, quite rightly, that the 2010 elections were all pro-Aliyev.

Here’s the thing, though: the OSCE agreed that the technical conduct of the election was mostly okay, except for some candidates who were intimidated to drop their opposition. But ODHIR also reported that there was substantial suppression of the opposition, a suppression of alternative voices during the campaign process, and an undemocratic domination of the ruling party.

So the election wasn’t great, and Xandra Kayden has financial ties to a government-funded NGO. That’s bad as far as it goes, but Xandra is also a major figure in the League of Women Voters of America. It would make sense, after some consideration that she would react against a negative portrayal of a headscarf ban, as many American women simply don’t believe that a Muslim woman could ever make a free and un-coerced decision to cover her head. Also, the LWV has a habit of liaising with Azerbaijani government-funded advocacy groups to promote the “voting” that accompanies elections.

Of course, none of this is especially nefarious, except for Xandra Kayden’s negligence to reference her substantial ties to the Azeri government in her bio at the end of her op-ed. It is important context when gauging the credibility of her defense of the Aliyev regime’s attempt to suppressing the religious liberties of Azerbaijani citizens. When contemplating why she’d lash out at a respected news organization like RFE/RL to defend a man universally considered a tyrant, who runs a country no one thinks is free or even very functional, I sure would like to know she’s just the latest of a long line of American intellectuals (and Andrew Brietbart) the Azerbaijani government had funded to produce a more positive impression of the country in the public here.

By not disclosing her financial and other ties to the government in Baku, Xandra Kayden is misleading the Washington Times’ readers into thinking she represents an objective, academic assessment. She does not. Xandra Kayden has a vested interest in defending the Azerbi ban on headscarves, and she should have stated that when writing about it publicly.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Realist Writer April 30, 2011 at 11:48 pm

“Certainly, Azerbaijan needs to do much more in dealing with corruption, political freedoms and treatment of journalists. The need for further reforms is obvious and urgent.”—Xandra Kayden

This means Xandra can remain just as objective as RFE/RL, since she just criticized Azerbaijan. In fact, since some of the very people who called Kazakhstan’s elections free and fair also ended up criticize Kazakhstan’s election generally, it also does indicate a certain degree of subtle nuance being demonstrated that could be easily missed here.

Alan May 5, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Yes, I agree. I don’t think it’s fair to drag this woman’s name through the mud when you yourself are not even sure (“Best I can tell” etc…) about her connections to the AZ government. The ones that you seem to have uncovered through a very rudimentary search on Google seem exaggerated and even then aren’t particularly compelling…

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