RFE/RL Board to meet Monday to deal with Radio Liberty crisis, Steven Korn’s resignation and personnel issues

BBG Watch Commentary

RFE/RL LogoSeveral sources told BBG Watch that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Corporate Board is planning to meet Monday to discuss the crisis at Radio Liberty and personnel issues in the wake of Steven Korn’s expected resignation as RFE/RL president and CEO.

Sources told BBG Watch that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members who also serve as members of the RFE/RL Board of Directors will discuss candidates for possible replacements for Mr. Korn, both on an interim and permanent basis. Several inside and outside candidates are being mentioned, including former RFE/RL presidents, former BBG members, and heads of human rights NGOs.

According to sources, BBG members may also explore ways of rehabilitating Radio Liberty journalists who were fired by Korn. Most BBG members seem now convinced, according to sources, that the mass dismissals of the Moscow staff and programming changes introduced by the new management have made Radio Liberty an enemy of the human rights and democratic opposition movement in Russia and also turned many ordinary Russians against the station. It would be up to the new interim or permanent RFE/RL president to rehabilitate the fired journalists and to bring them back to Radio Liberty, sources told BBG Watch.

Many of those fired and their colleagues who resigned in protest are outstanding journalists with multimedia skills. They are highly respected in Russia among supporters of democracy who rallied to their defense, including chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alexeeva and former President Mikhail Gorbachev.

RFE/RL executives lied to the BBG that the fired journalists were unskilled in digital media. Several among those who were fired or resigned in protest won prestigious journalism awards. Some of the recent awards were for their news website and online reporting on human rights abuses in Russia. The new management of Radio Liberty Russian Service refused to cover the Sakharov human rights journalism awards, one of which went to a former Radio Liberty reporter who resigned in protest and to the fired Internet team.

While BBG members reportedly already stripped Korn of his authority to fire employees, his choice for the director of the Russian Service Masha Gessen, who declared the Sakharov awards a low profile news event in Russia and refused to cover it, tried to fire a full time contract reporter Elena Polyakovskaya who also works as a Moscow correspondent for the Radio Liberty Ukrainian Service. Polyakovskaya specialized in human rights reporting.

Elena Polyakovskaya

Elena Polyakovskaya

A single mother mentioned in a New York Times article, “Rich or Poor, More Russian Mothers Go It Alone,” for combining her professional career with raising two children, Polyakovskaya has 20 years of television reporting experience, speaks Russian, Ukrainian, English, and French, and has covered most human rights stories in Russia, including Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot trials.

Polyakovskaya defended the fired journalists and was critical of some of the programming changes that de-emphasized news on the Radio Liberty Russian website. Two of the Radio Liberty staffers fired by Korn last September were fully qualified employees with disabilities. Gessen claims that she had nothing to do with the firings last September that later allowed her to bring on board her own associates, but most Russian media reports question her denials. Gessen accused journalists who made these suggestions of slander, which President Putin made recently a criminal offense in Russia in an apparent effort to stifle criticism of the authorities and to limit investigative reporting.

Faced with widespread criticism in Russia for her previous and current actions since she joined RFE/RL on October 1, and with inquiries from BBG members and staff, Gessen later offered Polyakovskaya a new contract but on far less favorable terms.

BBG Governor Dennis Mulhaupt is RFE/RL’s Corporate Board Chair. BBG Governor Susan McCue is RFE/RL Corporate Board Vice-Chair.

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