Still in fear of Steven Korn and his deputies, RFE/RL journalists continue to ignore controversy and need for balance

BBG Watch Commentary

RFE/RL English News Website, Jan. 1, 2013

RFE/RL English News Website, Jan. 1, 2013

“For the first time ever the RFE/RL newsroom has published ‘information’ that we have every reason to believe is not true.” “We have never knowingly published lies before at the orders of top management.” — RFE/RL Central Newsroom journalist

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Newsroom continued to ignore basic rules of objective journalism as it reported on the resignation of RFE/RL president Steven Korn. According to inside sources, RFE/RL Newsroom journalists were forced by unidentified higher-level managers to post a link to Korn’s resignation letter and his photo prominently on the home page of the RFE/RL English news web site without offering any balance or explaining true reasons for his imminent departure.

The RFE/RL Newsroom also issued a news report for use by the station’s many language services, which could have come from Soviet Pravda in its reports on Politburo personnel changes. The RFE/RL news report did not offer any balance to Korn’s lengthy letter or provided material facts explaining the controversy of his tenure at the U.S. taxpayer-funded institution charged with supporting free flow of information and fighting censorship. A source within the RFE/RL Newsroom explained that the staff is still gripped by fear of Korn and his principal deputies, vice-president for content Julia Ragona and vice-president for administration Dale Cohen, while the Russian Service fears more firings by Korn’s new service director Masha Gessen.

One of RFE/RL Central Newsroom journalists said that by being forced to post Steven Korn’s letter of resignation as a news story without any balance, for the first time ever the RFE/RL “newsroom has published ‘information’ that we have every reason to believe is not true.” “We have never knowingly published lies before at the orders of top management,” an RFE/RL journalist observed.

“I feel today as if Korn took RFE/RL (and especially Central News) down with him. They ordered us to publish his letter on our website in the news section. It is the first time ever that our newsroom has published “information” that we have every reason to believe is not true. And this has demoralized everyone here deeply. Our complaints to our own managers were ignored. No one from middle management stood up to Ragona or Korn, even now. RFE has developed into a profound “yes-man” culture and there is absolutely no one to stand up for journalism here anymore.”

The RFE/RL journalist also noted that before Korn’s announcement of his resignation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty almost completely ignored the controversy surrounding the mass firings of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and numerous protests from Russian human rights activists and prominent opposition political leaders widely reported on by Russian and international media:

“I have never been more disappointed in us as an organization — we have twisted stories before, and we have skipped stories that we should have covered (like the death of the Russian Service) in order to please management. But we have never knowingly published lies before at the orders of top management. And that is the feeling that I am starting the new year with. I have almost no hope that any new manager will bring back any sense of the pride that we used to have.”

In commenting on one part of Steven Korn’s letter, “The journalists of RFE/RL, however, ‘speak truth to power’ every day in places where doing so can, and all too frequently does, mean imprisonment, torture or death. To me that is the very essence of courage,” the RFE/RL journalist observed, “This is exactly what he has destroyed. No one at RFE/RL speaks truth even to crippled power now.”

Sources could not explain from whom the order or suggestion to put a link to Korn’s letter and to display his photo prominently on the news home page came and to whom it might have been sent.

“It all happened by SMS and phone over the holiday, so it isn’t possible to know who was involved. As mid-level managers were posting Korn’s letter, several journalists vigorously and uselessly protested and were ignored.”

The RFE/RL Newsroom then issued a news item on Korn’s resignation for use by the language services that was completely devoid of any material facts or balance:

“PRAGUE, January 1, 2013 — Steven Korn, the president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has tendered his resignation, effective January 25, after less than two years on the job. Korn, who had faced some opposition to his restructuring efforts, cited family reasons as his primary motivation for stepping down. In his resignation letter, he praised the work of RFE/RL’s journalists and urged the organization to continue modernizing to meet the challenges of a changing global media market. Korn criticized what he called the “structural dysfunction” of U.S. International Broadcasting and expressed hope that it would be reformed. No immediate successor has been named. (Korn letter)”

One RFE/RL source had this comment on Korn’s resignation letter: “Warped: Like an Eastern European Dictator claiming he was fighting for justice in the face of the evil West.” Another RFE/RL source said: “His Dicksonian reference made some think of Uriah Heap out of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and Korn is Uriah Heap.”

No one at RFE/RL, however, dares to make such comments in public.

A balance to Korn’s long resignation letter that could have been used by the RFE/RL Newsroom was offered by BBG Governor Ambassador Victor Ashe who made the following statement to the media:

“Korn’s departure was necessary for the survival of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He was feared and disliked by most employees. His self serving letter of resignation sets a new standard for arrogance and delusion. His hiring was a terrible mistake we will spend years recovering from.”

“This has been a nightmare for many at RFE/RL especially in Moscow but also in Prague. I look forward to working to re-estblish fairness and respect for dissent at the RFE/RL family,” Ashe added.

The RFE/RL Newsroom ignored Ambassador Ashe’s statement, as it has ignored his previous statements and to a large degree similarly critical comments from such leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev, Lyudmila Alexeeva, Boris Nemtsov and many other prominent Russians and foreign critics.

Gessen-Izvestia-My Dismissal-Is-Impossible

Several RFE/RL language services used the so-called “news” item produced by the Central Newsroom over the New Year holiday, but a search of the Russian Service website did not produce any results for online reports about Korn’s resignation. We were not able to check whether a report Korn’s resignation was included in a radio program. However, the Russian-language RFE/RL website targeting the Caucasus region, “Эхо Кавказа” did use the RFE/RL “news” item and even gave it the headline “Стивен Корн подверг критике международное вещание США” “Steven Korn Criticizes U.S. International Broadcasting.”

Thanks to RFE/RL’s “outstanding” Central Newsroom “news” reporting, Russian-speaking website visitors could learn that instead of being universally criticized in Russia along with Masha Gessen and Julia Ragona, Steven Korn became a critic of U.S. international broadcasting.

Great job.

Masha Gessen, the new director of the Russian Service who was selected by Korn, told Izvestia that her dismissal after Korn’s resignation would be impossible, the Russian newspaper reported.

While RFE/RL and Voice of America English and Russian websites ignored the real story, according to our online searches, numerous Russian media outlets reported extensively on the real reasons for Korn’s resignation. Also, the BBC’s Russian Service made it quite clear what was behind Korn’s announced departure:

“Rumors about the decision of the American Broadcasting Board of Governors to dismiss Korn as the head of the station appeared at the end of December. Korn himself then insisted that he went on vacation.
Earlier, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the U.S. government agency, announced its intention to inspect the work of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty after sharp criticism from the human rights organization Freedom House, which declared that Korn damaged the media outlet ‘more than Putin.’ The BBG expressed concern about the drop in the Radio Liberty site traffic by 50% in two months. In September, there have been massive layoffs in the Radio Liberty Russian Service.”

BBG Watch reported that the Broadcasting Board of Governors had stripped Steven Korn of his authority to fire RFE/RL employees, but RFE/RL journalists are still afraid of being fired by Julia Ragona, Dale Cohen or Masha Gessen. This may explain why some RFE/RL editors continue to ignore basic rules of journalism and fail to stand up to the management which has turned RFE/RL into its private fiefdom and has debased RFE/RL news operation with is megalomaniac postings. Internal dissent within RFE/RL has been essentially eliminated.

Elena Polyakovskaya

Elena Polyakovskaya

A few days before the New Year and Russian Orthodox Christmas, Masha Gessen fired an a Russian Service human rights reporter who had 20 years of television, video and other broadcasting and reporting experience by refusing to extend her full-time freelancer contract. After getting inquiries from the BBG, Gessen later told the journalist that she will have work for her after all but presented her with a contract that does not guarantee her full-time employment. The journalist, Elena Polyakovskaya, who posts regularly on the Radio Liberty Russian website, has done online video reports, speaks several foreign languages, and also reports for the Ukrainian Service, is a single mother raising two children and has a mortgage.

Polyakovskaya was not afraid to defend the fired journalists and protested against the de-emphasis of news and news analysis on the Radio Liberty Russian website and the failure to cover important news stories, including the Dr. Andrei Sakharov human rights journalism awards, which Masha Gessen declared a low profile event in Russia. One of the awards went to a former Radio Liberty reporter Elena Vlasenko who resigned in protest against the dismissal of her colleagues and to the fired Internet team where she was a web editor.

Another RFE/RL journalist, Nazira Darimbet, who worked for the RFE/RL Kazakh Service in Almaty, did not have her contract renewed after she publicly questioned Steven Korn about the firings of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and later protested against the posting of offensive videos with sexual content produced by RFE/RL-hired contractors. The videos were later removed from the RFE/RL Kazakh website after protests from site visitors in this largely conservative and Muslim country.

In addition to Nazira Darimbet, four other Kazakh Service journalists in Prague had been fired earlier by the RFE/RL management.

It’s no wonder, that most RFE/RL journalists, particularly those in the RFE/RL Central Newsroom and in the Russian Service, and are still afraid of the Korn-Ragona-Cohen-Gessen management team, while Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty continues to ignore some of the most basic requirements of good journalism and its mission.

Ragona and Cohen mislead RFE/RL service directors about a recent BBG panel discussion on Russia and their statements, recorded and posted online by anonymous staffers, were strongly rebuked by Freedom House president David Kramer and BBG Governor Ambassador Victor Ashe. They also tried to discourage RFE/RL journalists from believing in BBG Watch reports on the Radio Liberty crisis, all of which turned out to be true. RFE/RL executives claimed falsely that BBG Watch never presents balanced information and never asks for comments, but when BBG Watch emailed them with requests for comments about a rebuke from Freedom House president and reports about Korn’s imminent resignation, neither Ragona nor Cohen responded.

This cycle of “news” stories that insult the intelligence of RFE/RL audience and the campaign of disinformation and intimidation and fear aimed by top managers at their own journalists must end for the survival of this once great institution of media freedom in the part of the world that still desperately needs it.

Freedom House President David Kramer said that nothing short of a complete housecleaning of the RFE/RL top leadership is required. “The damage they have done is immeasurable,” Kramer concluded.

We completely agree.

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