BET Programming Head Fired While on Leave for Breast Cancer

BET announced the departure of two of its top executives last week: its longtime president Stephen Hill and head of original programming Zola Mashariki.

Hill, a prominent fixture at BET since 1999, issued a hasty farewell email. Insiders say he was fired abruptly from the Viacom-owned network, for reasons that still remain unclear.

But according to sources with knowledge of internal discussions, Mashariki was caught off guard by public statements issued by the network and its CEO Debra Lee, which indicated she was out too. Mashariki sent her colleagues an email this week, notifying them that she’s been on medical leave since February after being diagnosed with breast cancer and that she planned on returning to her job.

A spokesperson for BET said that she’s no longer employed. “These claims misrepresent the facts and are without merit,” the rep told Variety. “We strongly deny any allegation of wrongdoing.”

Mashariki and her lawyer didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“I’m concerned that there was a reference to me, as Stephen’s departure is a separate issue from my status at the company,” Mashariki wrote in an email obtained by Variety that she sent to more than 40 colleagues after last Wednesday’s statement. She said that she’d just undergone “another surgery.”

“It’s a painful recovery for me,” she wrote. “It has also been hard on my children.”

“Here are the facts,” Mashariki continued. “My job is protected by the Family Medical Leave Act and related statutes (FMLA) and I have a contract in place. Viacom/BET are aware that I am scheduled to return

“Bob Bakish”—she said, in reference to the CEO of Viacom Inc.—”has said our company values should be honesty, empathy and bravery. I agree with this wholeheartedly and our team has embodied this over the 2 years we have worked together. Without question, including me in Stephen’s departure announcement is not in keeping with those values.”

She ended her note to her colleagues by suggesting that she would like to come back to work. “I have faith in the Viacom/BET leadership and know they will fix this,” she wrote. “Our Original Programming team has accomplished a lot in a short time and the filmmakers and community are excited to work with us again. There is so much more to do.”

BET reaffirmed that Mashariki is no longer employed at the network, saying in a statement: “These claims misrepresent the facts and are without merit. We strongly deny any allegation of wrongdoing.” According to network sources, Mashariki was terminated on grounds of performance issues that came before her medical leave.

Mashariki joined BET in April 2015, after 15 years as a production executive at Fox Searchlight. She’s worked on such art-house hits like “The Last King of Scotland” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”