What future holds for RFE/RL President Korn and his team and for Radio Liberty?

BBG Watch Commentary

RFE/RL president Stven Korn with his deputy Julia Ragona looking at Radio Liberty in Exile protesters in Moscow.

It’s hard to imagine that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President and CEO Steven Korn can hold on to his job much longer, considering all the damage he has done to RFE/RL, not only in Russia but also in Kazakhstan and in other countries, as well as to America’s image and to U.S. public diplomacy in the region.

After Freedom House President David Kramer said during a panel discussion in Washington on Thursday that what Korn had done to Radio Liberty is what Putin never could have done, his fate was definitely sealed. Kramer simply repeated what Alexeeva, Gorbachev and other Russian human rights and democratic political leaders had said before, but the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members could not ignore his comments and pretend that nothing happened.

The panel on Russia was sponsored by the BBG and two BBG members, Michael Meehan and Victor Ashe, were present. And at the BBG open meeting on Friday, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) Executive Director Ann Noonan delivered a blistering criticism of Mr. Korn after having been invited to speak as a member of the public by Governor Ashe. None of the other BBG governors objected. The public humiliation could not have been greater for Mr. Korn, who was present, short of a spectacle of a public dismissal, which the BBG apparently wanted to avoid.

The BBG Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton announced at the Friday meeting that a BBG senior executive, the International Broadcasting Bureau Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, will lead a review of what happened at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau. There is no way Korn can survive such a review, and the fact that the BBG ordered it and Lynton announced it publicly makes Korn’s effectiveness, credibility and reputation within RFE/RL nonexistent.

The question is not whether Korn will remain at RFE/RL, but for how long and how much more damage he can still do. The talk at the BBG building in Washington is that his departure is only a matter of weeks under an arrangement agreed to by him and BBG members.

The tragedy of the situation is that with each passing day, Radio Liberty’s credibility and reputation are being further destroyed and the damage is becoming more difficult to repair. Each extra day Korn and his top deputies stay at RFE/RL, the fired Russian journalists who have made Radio Liberty what it is cannot resume work. Without them, Radio Liberty in Russia is finished. By now, nearly everybody at the BBG in Washington knows it.

The RFE/RL Board met on Friday morning in a closed session, during which decisions about Korn’s future were no doubt made. Sources told us that BBG members were deeply disturbed by Freedom House President’s comments about Mr. Korn and the fired Radio Liberty journalists. We have also learned that they were not at all impressed by Masha Gessen, who came to Washington with Korn, his Vice President for Content Julia Ragona, and his Vice President for Administration Dale Cohen. (We were told that at least Ragona and Cohen flew business class, which may be a violation of the Fly America Act. We would not be surprised if Korn did as well.)

Gessen apparently talked in circles, without really saying anything to BBG Governors who expected an informed analysis, just as she did not provide answers to questions during the meeting in Moscow with Russian human rights activists and opposition political leaders. Gessen could not explain why she has already lost more than half of Radio Liberty’s online audience.

We also learned, however, that Masha Gessen was giving away copies of her book about Putin, but some of the BBG members know by now that much of the information in the book was uncovered and publicized earlier by investigative journalists from the old Radio Liberty team who were fired by on orders from Mr. Korn or resigned in protest. BBG Governors also realize by now that RFE/RL executives mislead them about the dismissed journalists and their prior role in turning Radio Liberty into a multimedia platform. Compared with them, Masha Gessen’s team not only lacks many of the same skills, most of her associates also have no name recognition in Russia or ability to appear on major Russian media outlets, as many of the fired journalists and those who resigned in protest do.

So while there is little doubt that Korn and hopefully his top deputies will soon be gone from RFE/RL, the question remains how this very important institution for U.S. national security and global democracy can be saved and how quickly this can be done. We hope that Jeff Trimble and others at the BBG are already working on plans to bring back the fired Radio Liberty journalists. Without them — without their talent and credibility and their on-the-ground ideas about digital expansion — Radio Liberty’s reputation in Russia, Kazakhstan and in other countries cannot be restored.

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