Melody’s day job at Voice of America Persian News Network was to provide translation and voice-over services, reading copy already approved by the editor and occasionally giving the technical production crew a helping hand. One of her bosses, Joy Wagner, loved working with Melody and believed she was by far the best translator in the Persian Service. Ms. Wagner saw Melody as a “team player,” who “NEVER causes problems and is always cooperative and willing to help.” The perfect civil servant!
Joy Wagner was mistaken, in a way. As it turned out, Melody would be nothing but trouble to the VOA because when she went home from her job as the obliging civil servant she suddenly transformed into one of the most creative, rebellious and beloved music celebrities of the large Persian diaspora community. Melody Navab-Safavi happens to be one of the founders of the legendary Abjeez (Sisters) band.
In 2007, while the death toll from the Iraq war continued to rise, the Abjeez produced a music video (see above) that eviscerated President Geroge Bush’s claim that the war was being fought to bring democracy to the Iraqis. The timing couldn’t have been more terrible for Melody because the Abjeez video reached the eyes and ears of pro Iraq War Senator Tom Coburn just when concerns had been raised that the VOA staff were anti-American. Coburn led an attack against those responsible for the video. To complicate matters further, Congress had been asked to cough up an extra $50 million for VOA PNN broadcasts. You can’t beg for money and offend Congress at the same time. Some gesture of submissiveness had to be made. So the director of VOA at the time, Sheila Gandji called Saman Arababi, the producer of the video (and Melody’s husband at the time) into the office to explain that the management “did not want a scandal on its hands.” Arbabi was asked to resign and he refused, but Melody’s contract with VOA was cancelled.
Exit stage right.
Melody sued The Broadcasting Board of Governors—which oversees VOA-- for firing her. Suddenly her “upbeat attitude, radiant smile and team spirit” which made her a “pleasure to be around,” would cease to be assets to the organization because such laudatory remarks from her supervisors as to “acumen, intelligence, thoroughness and honesty” would appear in the court documents, strengthening her case against VOA for violating her constitutional right to free speech--and presumably for wrongful termination. The individuals named in the lawsuit moved to have the case dismissed. She can’t sue us, they said, because government officials are shielded from liability for violation of a citizen’s constitutional rights. They thought that this escape route (called “qualified immunity” in legalese) would be the end of it, but the Court ruled that in this case there’s no “shield.” BBG officials had to face the Court, give evidence, and prove innocence against the charges, just like anyone else accused of wrongdoing.
Reviewing the BBG arguments, it looks like their lawyers had been counting on the case being dismissed on the “qualified immunity” claim so that their clients would never have to face the judge. You can tell because these lawyers present a case that deserves disbarment for lack of preparedness. For example, in a seemingly desperate snatch at any defense, they claimed that the newsroom shown in the Abjeez video “spoofed” the VOA by “exactly duplicating Studio 50 of the Persian News Network, thereby creating the appearance that portions of the video were shot at a Voice of America studio.” The dry manner in which the Court rejects the notion reminded me of how the straight man in a comedy routine creates humor out of a ridiculous statement by the funny man: “The Court observes no similarity between the two studios that cannot be attributed to their common resemblance to a generic modern television news room. For example a monitor in the background…”
This left the BBG no choice but to engage in mediation with Meldoy Navab-Safavi.
Exit stage left.
Four years later, Melody is back at her job at VOA. I haven't found any public records of the agreement she reached with her employers, but based on the merits of each party’s statements, I suspect justice was served and Melody was compensated for the ordeal.
Here’s an observation and a caution.
Observation: while American soldiers fought on the Iraqi battlefield to bring a make-believe democracy to Iraq, this spirited artist fought in the American courts to preserve real democracy in America.
Caution: Melody was lucky in that her firing was mishandled from a legal point of view. It is unlikely that VOA would repeat the mistake. There are clever ways to get rid of an employee where the laws of our democracy can’t help her/him no matter how unfair the employer. In these strained times between the U.S. and Iran the simplest course of action for a VOA PNN employee is to ask herself honestly if her views are broadly in line with the policies of the United States. If you don’t know what that is, just work backwards from what the U.S. actually does. And if you don’t like what you see, do yourself and VOA a favor and get a different job. Keep in mind that government agencies aren’t like private companies where you can work your way up from the mailroom to become CEO and change what you don’t like. To have more than one vote's worth of say in U.S. policy you have to become an elected official, or chip in to help elect one that thinks like you...or make hit CD albums.
Note: The information in this writing was collected from public records, with no contact with current or past VOA employees.
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