BBG Watch Commentary
Dozens of former Radio Liberty journalists fired by American managers who used guards and other coercive measures are getting ready to confront Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Steven Korn and his deputy Julia Ragona during their planned visit to Moscow early next week. Journalists formed a group, Radio Liberty-in-Exile (Radio Svoboda-in-Exile), which is planning a number of protests and other events in Moscow to coincide with Korn’s and Ragona’s visit, sources told BBG Watch.
The group consisting of some of the best known independent journalists in Russia has the support of nearly all major Russian democratic opposition leaders, including legendary human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva, former president Mikhail Gorbachev, former reformist prime minister Mihkail Kasyanov, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and many others who have written letters of protest to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency in Washington which oversees RFE/RL. The BBG ignored these petitions and its interim chairman Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, expressed confidence in Kron as an experienced professional. His statement was later removed from the BBG website after another BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe objected and voiced strong misgivings about Korn’s leadership. Ashe said that Korn’s actions have led to a meltdown at Radio Liberty. Korn claims that Gorvachev, Alexeeva and all other activists and scholars have been misinformed, which shows that he has little faith in the intelligence of Russian leaders and their knowledge of their own country, one longtime observer of Russia said. It is far more likely, the expert said, that it is Mr. Korn who lacks the necessary knowledge and is not open to advice from those who understand Russia.
Radio Svoboda-in-Exile has just launched a USTREAM site, which it plans to use during the visit to Moscow of RFE/RL executives to broadcast live on the Internet any events and protests associated with the visit. Korn has told BBG officials that the fired journalists were resistant to change, outdated and lacked digital skills, but he and his top assistants also fired Radio Liberty’s Internet team which had created one of the best and most cited multimedia radio news website in Russia.
Some of the fired journalists and their colleagues who resigned in protest had pioneered live streaming of video from anti-Putin demonstrations. They say that Korn mislead BBG members about their work and plan to use their digital skills during his visit to Moscow to show that they were humiliated by the actions of RFE/RL executives and that the most important institution of free speech in Russia was destroyed by Mr. Korn.
Critics charge that Mr. Korn, who — in their view — lacks understanding of Russia and its culture, engineered the mass dismissal when he became fascinated with Masha Gessen, who is a successful writer and gay rights activist but has a poor management record and lacks substantive experience in radio, television and new media. According to a study prepared by the members of the fired Internet team, Masha Gessen lost website visitors for her previous employer, while they had greatly increased traffic to the Radio Liberty site. In an op-ed in The Moscow Times, Korn wrote that new Radio Liberty will carry out its old mission. “Anyone who thinks that we are retreating or shrinking in the face of a hostile Russian administration should look no further than to the hiring of our new director, Masha Gessen, who holds both Russian and U.S. citizenship. She is widely recognized as a pre-eminent journalist, editor, author and leader,” Korn wrote. Critics say that Mr. Korn is so disconnected from reality of Russia that he does not grasp that no one there believes a word he says.
Critics also question Gessen’s judgement after she accused some independent journalists of slandering her by suggesting a link between her appointment and the mass dismissals, which came shortly after her job was announced but before she officially came on board. She had worked previously, however, as a consultant for Mr. Korn. The Kremlin has been relying on the anti-libel law, recently signed by President Putin, to stifle investigative journalism and free speech.
Sources told BBG Watch that Korn and Ragona plan to add insult to injury against the fired journalists by holing a public panel discussion in Moscow titled “Reforming Radio Liberty.” One of the leaders of Radio Liberty-in-Exile group is a well know and highly respected journalist Mikhail Sokholov who, in recognition for his courageous reporting during the 1991 communist coup, received a decree from the then president Yeltsin, giving RFE/RL permission to operate in Russia. Major independent newspapers in Russia now publish Sokolov’s articles under a byline “ex-Radio Svoboda.”
Other well known Radio Liberty journalists who were fired include cultural critic Marina Timasheva, human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik, and social issues reporter Veronika Bode. Renown Russian sociologists, including Prof. Vladimir Shlapentokh (Michigan State), have sent letters to the BBG protesting against these dismissals.
In addition to more than 30 outstanding journalists, Internet team members, video reporters and other media professionals who were fired, eight more equally talented staffers resigned in protest. The latest to resign, after Masha Gessen came on board, was a 28-year-old web editor and investigative radio reporter Anastasia Kirilenko who compared the new Radio Liberty to a sinking Titanic. She wrote that she was told to cover kindergartens in Russia. She reported before on corruption and human rights abuses. Kirilenko stated that she could not in good conscience as a journalist stay at the “new” Radio Liberty. She also reported that the new management told journalists to become more “normal.” Kirilenko interprets these directives as telling Radio Liberty reporters “not to dwell on the political opposition.”
In addition to Kirilenko, seven other Radio Liberty journalists have resigned in protest, including Anna Kachkaeva, the dean of the Department of Media and Communications at the Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE), who hosted a talk show and other programs. Others who resigned in protest included a well known poet Elena Fanaylova, a political observer Vitaly Kamyshev, a talented cameraman Nikita Tatarsky who was streaming live video to the Radio Liberty website from anti-Kremlin protests, a talented young reporter Elena Vlasenko who described the firings in an article for Index on Censorship, an economic reporter Ivan Trefilov, and an ecology reporter Lyubov Chizhova.
Kirilenko and others said that it is unlikely that any well known and respected independent journalists in Russia will want to join Masha Gessen’s team after what was done to their colleagues. She also wrote that these American executives have no support left in Russia, other than the laughter heard from Mr. Putin’s office in the Kremlin.
The mass dismissals were conducted during a two-day special operation which was overseen by RFE/RL Vice President Julia Ragona. Radio Liberty journalists were prevented from entering their office, directed to a law firm in Moscow and later denied permission to say good bye to their audience of many years. Korn and Ragona claim that they went out of their way to treat the employees with great respect and gave them generous severance compensation. Former employees say that they were forced to resign under extreme pressure and given no choice, but Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona insist that they all resigned voluntarily.
A former journalism intern at Radio Liberty and a group of radio listeners and supporters organized a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Radio Liberty-in-Exile plans to present their case to the Russian and American public again during Korn’s and Ragona’s visit to Moscow next week using social media tools as well as traditional protests. Some of the group’s members have already published op-eds in American newspapers and were interviewed by NPR. They received support from Americans concerned about the direction taken by RFE/RL management and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, including current BBG member Victor Ashe, former BBG member Blanquita Cullum and the nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – www.cusib.org). CUSIB director Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America associate director, and Mario Corti, a former director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, wrote a highly critical assessment of RFE/RL management’s actions in an article published in National Review.
David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent, has also criticized the mass firings and changes at Radio Liberty in a Russian media interview. Satter, a long time observer of Russia and the former Soviet Union, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Radio Liberty-in-Exile has also posted an online petition which was signed by more than 2500 people, mostly in Russia.
A former Reagan administration official Bruce Chapman wrote that “a Russian government crackdown on outside democratic influences and the announcement of layoffs at the American-financed Radio Liberty in Moscow bracket the crumbling of American public diplomacy.” Chapman, chairman of the Discovery Institute, a think tank based in Seattle, is a former director of the United States Census Bureau and also served as deputy assistant to President Ronald Reagan and as director of the White House Office of Planning and Evaluation. He was also U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, Austria.
Radio Liberty During Happier Times
Most of the Radio Liberty journalists seen in this video celebrating 20 years of the existence of the RFE/RL Moscow bureau have been fired or resigned in protest. The video was shot by another well known award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist Mumin Shakirov, who was also fired. In an online openDemocracy.net article, The End of ‘Liberty’ he described the the methods used to fire Radio Liberty journalists.
All BBG members should look at Mr. Korn and at these Radio Liberty journalists in this video and ask themselves do they really believe that these men and women are stuck in the 1980s, are resistant to change, unfamiliar with video and digital media, or was Mr. Korn taking them for a ride with these claims so that he could fire them, hire Masha Gessen and allow her to put her friends on the RFE/RL payroll? BBG members should also ask themselves whether these men and women deserved to be herded by guards, sent at a law firm to be fired and prevented from saying good bye to their audience? They should also ask themselves who has more credibility with Mr. Gorbachev and Ms. Alexeeva, is it Mr. Korn or Mikhail Sokholov and Kristina Gorelik who have interviewed them and known them for a long time? Whom are Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona hoping to persuade in Moscow? Whom are they kidding?
Ted Lipien told BBG Watch that looking at these talented journalists, talking with them and reading about what they have achieved and what they are doing to defend their reputation and to save their beloved Radio Liberty using their considerable skills, new media tools and important connections within the democratic movement in Russia, one has some hope that common sense might prevail among BBG members.
Lipien added, however, that the BBG, and particularly its executive staff, as well as the current management at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have shown tremendous resistance to change and taking in good advice in the past, and it is not at all clear whether they will listen to people like Gorbachev and Alexeeva. It remains to be seen, Lipien said. What is most amazing, he added, is that Democratic members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors don’t seem to be appalled by the humiliating and brutal way in which distinguished and highly successful Radio Liberty journalists and new media professionals were treated by RFE/RL executives and that almost the entire board seems to ignore warnings on how public institutions should and should not be managed coming from Ambassador Ashe, who was a popular Republican mayor of Knoxville, TN before serving as U.S. Ambassador to Poland.