BBG Watch Commentary
Famous Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva (also spelled Alexeyeva), whose programs on Radio Liberty have been broadcast every week since 1977, has stopped freelancing for the American-funded station after dozens of its journalists in Moscow were fired last month on orders of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn.
In addressing Korn at a panel discussion in the Russian capital Monday, Alexeeva said that even under the conditions of “wild capitalism in Russia, which the whole world finds repugnant, people are not treated the way you treated…the people at Radio Liberty.”
She was referring to Radio Liberty journalists being surprised by guards blocking entrance to their Moscow news bureau, directing them to a law firm, being forced to resign, and prevented from returning to work and saying good bye to their audience. Last month’s mass dismissals, affecting nearly 80 percent of the Moscow staff, were overseen by RFE/RL vice president Julia Ragona who also participated in Monday’s routable discussion.
Korn invited several Russian human rights activists and opposition political figures to meet with him after they sent letters to President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Congress, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages RFE/RL. They complained about the brutal firing of Radio Liberty journalists, the cancellation of their pro-human rights programs, and the appearance of appeasing President Putin as he increases the level of repression in Russia.
Former president Mikhail Gorbachev, former reformist prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov (fired by President Putin, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, former deputy speaker of the Russian Duma Vladimir Ryzkov and other major democratic politicians who also had issued statements highly critical of the RFE/RL management, did not come to the RFE/RL-organized event on Monday.
Human rights activists a representative of the liberal party Yabloko Galina Mikhaleva and renowned Russian sociologist Dr. Lev Gutkov who participated in the discussion rejected arguments advanced by Korn and his newly-appointed director of the Russian Service Masha Gessen. Nearly all said that none of their questions were answered. Another well-known human rights activist and former Soviet political prisoner Pavel Litvinov demanded on behalf of the group that the fired journalists be brought back and their programs restored.
Korn was unpersuaded by their arguments and said several times that he has a different point of view. He argued that the Russian Service had twice as many staffers that it needed to cover news and human rights issues in Putin’s Russia. Korn stressed that he has a duty to save money for American taxpayers, but admitted that the funds saved by firing staffers would be spent anyway by him on digital media, equipment and a new office.
A representatives of the fired journalists, Mikhail Sokholov, who is considered one of the best political reporters in Russia, accused Korn of destroying Radio Liberty and its reputation, a view also expressed by all the other participants not representing the RFE/RL management.
The participants also defended the fired Radio Liberty journalists from accusations by Mr. Korn that they were resistant to change and needed to be replaced by Masha Gessen’s new hires to lead a digital transformation. Several pointed out that the first staffers who were fired by Korn were the members of the Internet team who have created one of the best and most cited multimedia news website in Russia and streamed live video from anti-Putin demonstrations and political trials.
Sokholov pointed out that Radio Liberty and its website under Gessen’s management are in a total disarray. In addressing Masha Gessen, Alexxeva alluded to widely held views and media report suggestions that after the mass firings, and especially the way they were conducted, well known professional journalists, political figures and commentators like herself will avoid cooperating with Radio Liberty. Sokholov called it a boycott.
Sokholov also characterized Korn’s action as a betrayal of American ideals of democracy. “I do not think that you are an enemy of your own country, but you have disgraced the brand name of Radio Liberty,” Sokholov said and described Korn’s actions as “anti-American.” He called on Korn and his deputy Julia Ragona to resign for destroying the Russian Service, as well as the Kazakh Service and other RFE/RL services. He suggested that the U.S. Congress should hold hearings on this matter.
The most gripping statements came, however, from 85-year-old Lyudmila Alexeeva, who despite her age spoke with great passion while looking directly at Steven Korn.
Alexeeva is a historian, human rights activist, and founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. In February 1977 Alexeeva was forced to emigrate from the USSR. She and her family settled in the United States, where she continued her human rights activities as a foreign representative of the Moscow Helsinki Group. She regularly wrote on the Soviet dissident movement for both English and Russian language publications in the US and elsewhere, and in 1985 she published the first comprehensive monograph on the history of the movement, “Soviet Dissent” (Wesleyan University Press). In addition, after moving to the United States, Alexeyeva took up freelance radio journalism for Radio Liberty and the Russian language section of the Voice of America. In 1990 she published an autobiography that described the formation of the Soviet dissident movement. (The “Thaw Generation”, co-written with Paul Goldberg). In 1993, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she returned to Russia. (Source: Wikipedia)
In one of the most dramatic moments during the panel discussion, Alexeeva spoke about how Radio Liberty journalists were fired. Addressing Steven Korn, Alexeeva said:
“…even under the conditions of ‘wild capitalism in Russia, which the whole world finds repugnant, people are not treated the way you treated…the people at Radio Liberty.’”
Alexeeva also too issue with Korn’s opening statement, in which he spoke about how Russia and the media environment have changed. Many of the participants and observers found his comments to be highly condescending.
“I heard in Mr. Korn’s first words that the station should not work the way it has worked throughout all of the previous 60 years, although it has been true to its name and respected for it in this country… I can say this as someone who has freelanced for Radio Liberty since 1977.”
Alexeeva stated that during the last few weeks she stopped participating in Radio Liberty Russian programs.
“Not a single week, with the exception of the last ones, I never once missed a weekly program regardless of what was going on in my life because I had respect for those words — ‘Liberty’, ‘Radio Liberty.’ And I believed that we worked the right way.”
Since August 31, 2009, Lyudmila Alexeyeva has been an active participant in Strategy-31 – the regular protest rallies of citizens on Moscow’s Triumphalnaya Square in defense of the 31st Article (On the Freedom of Assembly) of the Russian Constitution. Since October 31, 2009, she has been one of the regular organizers of these rallies. On December 31, 2009, during one of these attempted protests, Alexeyeva was detained by the riot police (OMON) and taken with scores of others to a police station. This event provoked strong reaction in Russia and abroad. Jerzy Buzek, the President of the European Parliament, was “deeply disappointed and shocked” at the treatment of Alexeyeva and others by the police. The National Security Council of the United States expressed “dismay” at the detentions. The New York Times published a front page article about the protest rally (“Tested by Many Foes, Passion of a Russian Dissident Endures”). (Source: Wikipedia)
Alexeeva was visibly annoyed by Korn’s long lecture on how Russia has changed and his implied criticism of the Russian Service staff for being resistant to change, stuck in the 1980s, and incapable of using digital media. Alexeeva and those who know the fired Radio Liberty journalists are well aware that these accusations are completely unfounded.
Before the panel, former Radio Liberty staffers were streaming live video from their protest outside of the conference center and afterwards analyzed the discussion also in live online video. Alexeeva made her point clear in addressing Korn that he had no idea what kind of professionals he was firing, which he admitted later to be true when he said that he did not know any of these individuals.
“You are saying that it is necessary now to work differently because the world has changed. Of course, our country has changed. But, Mr. Korn, you should know that we have also changed as our country has changed. And those people who have worked at Radio Liberty, they have also changed in those last 20 years.”
Alexeeva, whom the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi branded “a Nazi” and one of Russia’s worst enemies, proceeded to criticize Korn himself for lacking knowledge of Russia and Radio Liberty’s role — the only time she appeared visibly shaken.
“And believe me, we understand our listeners better than you who do not speak our language. I think that Radio Liberty is interesting, Radio Liberty has its niche, it has its listeners.”
Alexeeva also pointed out to Korn that he dismissed the vast majority of the Moscow bureau staff in a two-day action in September, while Radio Liberty medium wave (AM) rebroadcasts — which Korn claims could not continue under different arrangements, a point strongly disputed by Sokholov and others — are not going to end until November 10. Why did you kill the old Radio Liberty already in September and did not wait until November 10, Alexeeva asked Korn.
The dismissed journalists are especially offended by Korn’s frequent assertions that he gave them generous extra three-month compensation not to work. They point out that they did not care about the money and wanted to work, but were subjected to extreme pressure and given no choice by RFE/RL executives and lawyers who told them they would be fired anyway even if they did not sign termination agreements.
“So that we would hear what? How are you planning to organize it? You said you will increase the number of freelancers. I don’t know to whom you will turn to.”
Alexeeva was alluding to the fact that the old Radio Liberty had an extensive network of regional correspondents covering the whole territory of the Russian Federation and reporting regularly on corruption and human rights abuses at the local level. The correspondent network was organized by a former private radio station owner and former president of the Independent Broadcasters Association Vladimir Abarbanell who was among more than 30 staffers fired in September. (Eight more resigned in protest to show solidarity with their colleagues.) Many of the regional correspondents who were recruited and worked under Abarbanell’s guidance now refuse to report for Radio Liberty.
Alexeeva then expressed her doubts, shared by many others and independent media in Russia, about Korn’s and Gessen’s plans for Radio Liberty.
“And who will be the new freelancers? About what are they required to talk that we did not talk about? And about what are they going to be silent that we are not silent about? Can you answer this question for me? We need to reach a young audience. But you also have to talk to them about something. I’m interested what is this new concept for which you threw out and brought Masha Gessen and we do not know who else.”
Gessen responded that she brought with her employees who have worked with her at a Russian magazine. The former members of Radio Liberty Internet team have pointed out that Gessen lost web visitors for her previous employer and the new staffers lack multimedia skills.
Alexeeva, who in 2010 was assaulted on live television in the Park Kultury metro station by a man as she was paying respect to the victims of the 2010 Moscow Metro Bombings, then told Korn that she herself witnessed the brutal dismissal of Radio Liberty journalists who had these skills.”I accidentally happened to be at Radio Liberty on that day. I normally don’t go there too often,” Alexeeva said and added that what she saw was for her a tremendous shock. Alexeeva, who made that statement, has witnessed in her life many acts of repression and abuses of human rights and fearlessly protested against them as she did to Korn and Ragona.
Steven Korn, however, apparently did not come to Moscow to be persuaded. After hearing Alexeeva and similar strong criticism from all other human rights, scholars and political figures, all he could say was that he and the participants in the discussion obviously do not agree.
After their petitions and those of Russian political and human rights leaders like Alexeeva were ignored by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the State Department, the fired Radio Liberty journalist formed a group Radio Liberty-in-Exile and appealed for help to the U.S. Congress in this YouTube video presentation.