Sex and drugs trump human rights on new Russian home page of Radio Liberty

BBG Watch Commentary

Radio Liberty on Prof. Paul FramptonOn the International Human Rights Day, December 10, Masha Gessen’s Radio Liberty, also known in Russia as “Gessen Radio,” still offers on its home page an old story about Paul Frampton, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who after flying to Argentina to be with a “well known model” he met over the Internet was convicted and sentenced to four years and eight months in prison for allegedly trying to smuggle 2 kilograms of cocaine hidden in his luggage.

This stale (Prof. Frampton was convicted in November) and largely irrelevant story, that is also hardly headline material, has been prominently displayed on the Radio Liberty home page already for several days and was still there on December 10.

The article, titled by Radio Liberty “Body Physics,” assigned to the category of “Popular Science,” (Really?) includes a photo of the professor with drawings of sexy women and this passage (loosely translated back from Russian):

“There was a time when the city had so-called ‘topless restaurants. One could go there for lunch or dinner and contemplate the girls who danced topless at first, and then without wearing anything. It turned out that one of these establishments is only one and a half miles from my home, so I often went there. I sat at one of the tables, doing a little physics, writing my thoughts on a paper napkin with jagged edges, and at times drawing one of the dancing girls, or one of the visitors, just for practice. My wife Gwyneth, an Englishwoman, normally refers to the fact that I go here: ‘English men always go to clubs.’ So this was a bit of my club.”

Again, the story is stale, irrelevant, and hardly headline material, but Masha Gessen and her team would not know it because they apparently don’t know what news is what U.S. taxpayers, who pay their salaries, want from Radio Liberty. Masha Gessen apparently thinks that less news is better and seems to prefer feature stories with sexy pictures. It’s not surprising because she and most of her team don’t have much experience working under tight news deadlines, so keeping irrelevant and stale items on the home page for days on end doesn’t seem to bother them one bit.

But there is another surprise. Visitors to the Radio Liberty Russian website are not impressed. They can find much better pictures and stories of this kind on websites of tabloid Russian magazines. The Radio Liberty site has lost more than 50 percent of its audience since last September.

Still, Masha Gessen and her team are not impressed that the audience is not blown away with their new product. But then, not much in terms of news seems to impress them unless it comes with a sexy image and sexy content.

The new team were therefore unimpressed that a former Radio Liberty human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik, whom they replaced together with dozens of other RFE/RL journalists who were fired last September, received the prestigious Helsinki Watch Group prize for journalism in support of human rights. This happened on December 10, the International Human Rights Day. By the new editorial standards at Radio Liberty, it was a boring story. Gorelik’s picture did not make it to the Radio Gessen home page. Someone from Radio Liberty, however, did call Gorelik for a comment. She graciously agreed on the assumption that Radio Liberty still had some audience left that deserves news coverage. Gorelik’s audio comment was buried somewhere deep within the site.

To Masha Gessen’s credit, however, she has not yet posted any sexually suggestive videos as did the Radio Liberty Kazakh Service after some of its seasoned journalists were fired on orders of RFE/RL President Steven Korn. A young Kazakh woman journalist who protested against these videos as totally pointless and offensive saw her contract not being renewed. Kazakhstan is a largely Muslim country and the videos created an outrage. RFE/RL then removed them from its website. As to the young Kazakh journalist whose contract was not renewed by RFE/RL, she also made a mistake of complaining to President Korn about the dismissals of Radio Liberty Russian colleagues in Moscow. She no longer works for RFE/RL in Kazakhstan.

As to the stale, pointless but by the new Radio Liberty standards sexy story of a professor at an American university, it had only 2 Tweets and 10 Likes on Facebook.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in Washington. One of the BBG board members ex officio is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The super women in the RFE/RL’s image illustrating the story were drawn wearing costumes with American flag stars and colors even though a “well known model” the professor was seeking to meet was reportedly Argentinian. But then Radio Gessen does not claim to be a news radio but a website for young, successful and rich Russians. Even they, however, seem to have a better taste for women, for news and for websites, as Radio Liberty’s site statistics continue to fall under Masha Gessen’s editorial oversight.

Rather than commenting on it ourselves, we chose to quote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments about the need for effective U.S. public diplomacy abroad:

Illustration for "Body Physics" story on Radio Liberty website

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking on March 2, 2011 at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington

“We are engaged in an information war. You know, during the Cold War we did a great job in getting America’s message out. After the Berlin Wall fell, we said: ‘Okay, fine, enough of that. We’ve done it. And unfortunately we are paying a big price for it.”

“Our private media cannot fill that gap. In fact, our private media, particularly cultural programming, often works at counterpurposes to what we truly are as Americans and what our values are. I remember having an Afghan general tell me that the only thing he thought about Americans is that all the men wrestled and the women walked around in bikinis, because the only TV he ever saw was ‘Baywatch’ and [professional wrestling shows].”

“So we are in an information war, and we are losing that war. I’ll be very blunt in my assessment. Al-Jazira is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English language and multilanguage television network. The Russians have opened up an English language network. We’ve seen it in a few countries, and it is quite instructive. We are cutting back. The BBC is cutting back.”

“Most people still get their news from TV and radio. So even though we’re pushing online, we can’t forget TV and radio. And so I would look very much toward your cooperation to try to figure out how we get back in the game on this.”

And this from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2012 (perhaps we did not look hard enough, but there was nothing about Secretary Clinton’s statement on Radio Liberty’s home page:

“We celebrate Human Rights Day every December, but advancing freedom and human rights is our daily work. Those of us lucky enough to live in countries like the United States have an extra responsibility, first, to remain vigilant in ensuring that we honor and implement our own commitment to human rights at home, and second, to help others gain what we have – the chance to live in dignity. We will continue to uphold and advance these fundamental freedoms both on and offline; we will continue to speak out about oppression wherever it occurs; we will continue to foster tolerance; and we will continue to work toward building a more just and peaceful world.”

Does Masha Gessen and her team know how to do this?

We doubt it.

Kristina Gorelik and her colleagues did, but they were fired by RFE/RL President Steven Korn and his deputies The Broadcasting Board of Governors should bring these experienced journalists back to work at Radio Liberty without any further delay.

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