Steven Korn condemns media critics of his soon-to-end tenure as RFE/RL president

BBG Watch Commentary

Battle of Words Article on Steve Korn in The Prague Post

The outgoing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president and CEO Steven Korn, whose resignation becomes effective January 25, blasted his media critics in an interview with the English-language Czech newspaper The Prague Post. See: “Battle of words: RFE/RL chief’s controversial resignation reverberates in Russia and beyond,” Andrew Greene, The Prague Post, Jan. 23, 2013.

Korn claims that he is resigning purely for personal reasons to be with his family in Atlanta, but media reports suggest that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members who had hired him in 2011 have asked him to leave.

Korn denies that he has been forced out and the BBG is not commenting. He will be replaced by former RFE/RL president and former NPR executive Kevin Klose, whom the BBG named the interim president and CEO. Klose will assume his duties on January 26 after Korn leaves the day before.

As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president, Korn’s primary responsibility was to defend media freedom in countries like Russia and to counter attempts to silence journalists criticizing local regimes by reporting on their persecution and giving them a forum in RFE/RL programs.

Korn, however, was not shy in lashing out against media critics of his own actions at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Russian and International Media on Radio Liberty Crisis, Jan. 12, 2013Numerous media outlets and bloggers in Russia, the U.S., Great Britain and in other countries have been highly critical of his management of RFE/RL. A BBG Watch list includes over 400 articles.

Korn was also criticized by heads of some U.S. human rights and media NGOs, including Freedom House president David Kramer and the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) executive director Ann Noonan.

“Some former employees at the embattled international broadcasting service have accused Steve Korn of gross mismanagement and say his tenure was ‘disastrous.’ In an exclusive interview with The Prague Post, the former lawyer has hit back at his critics and says he may even take legal action against them,” the Czech newspaper reported.

He was feared and disliked by most employees. His self-serving letter of resignation sets a new standard for arrogance and delusion,” said BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe. “His hiring was a terrible mistake we will spend years recovering from,” The Prague Post reported

His time in the job has been marred by controversy after he dismissed dozens of Moscow-based staff working for Radio Liberty’s Russian-language service, Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty), the Czech English-language newspaper also reported.

“This dismissal wasn’t voluntary — neither for me nor for my colleagues,” wrote Veronika Bode, one of the sacked reporters. “We were treated by these RFE/RL American executives like common thieves. … The whole old team of the Moscow bureau was fired — brave people, real human rights activists who for many years led the fight for human dignity. … We suffered a huge moral[e] damage.”

Korn told The Prague Post that his managers acted fairly and generously, and argues that after RFE/RL’s license was not renewed, there was no other choice but to shut down the radio signal and lay off employees.

“We didn’t have an option. We looked long and hard over a nine-month period with several law firms trying to figure out if there was a way around it — we found that we couldn’t; we feel like we have to obey the laws in the countries in which we exist and so we did that,” he told The Prague Post.

The Czech newspaper quoted several of Korn’s Russian critics, including former President Mikhail Gorbachev:

“In times of tight censorship in the USSR, Radio Liberty made appeals for democratization and openness,” Gorbachev wrote. “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in [the] context [of recent attacks on glasnost]. It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about-turn,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner added.

Lyudmila Alexeeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, joined the criticism of Korn’s actions, writing that the re-organization of Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) was carried out in a form of “special operation” that was “shameful and abusive for its employees.”

“The KGB could not harm the image of the radio and the United States in Russia as did U.S. managers — the president of Radio Liberty, Steven Korn, and the vice president, Julia Ragona,” Lyudmila Alexeeva said.

Korn insists the digital shift represents a growing investment in Russia, but one of the former Radio Liberty reporters Elena Vlasenko told The Prague Post that “first of all they fired the Internet team, which consisted of people who know exactly how to do it.” Vlasenko has received one of the prestigious Andrei Sakharov human right journalism awards for her online reporting, including her video reports. Vlasenko resigned from Radio Liberty in protest after her colleagues were fired.

Link to Radio Liberty Kazakh Service sexually suggestive video 'Agent'

Link to Radio Liberty Kazakh Service sexually suggestive video 'Agent'

One RFE/RL broadcaster, who spoke to The Prague Post on the condition of anonymity, said that “despite the problems in Russia the organization’s 26 other language services are all working well, and insisted Korn’s leadership has not harmed the organization.”

But according to information received by BBG Watch, many other current RFE/RL journalists and former broadcasters disagree. Korn and his management team fired experienced journalists in Ukrainian, Turkmen, and Kazakh services.

After experienced web editors were forced out, the Kazakh Service produced and posted online offensive videos with sexually suggestive content which led to protests from website visitors in Kazakhstan, a largely Muslim country. The Kazakh videos were later removed from RFE/RL websites. Smiling Steven Korn was photographed with the freelance producers of the controversial videos.

BBG Watch also reported that despite an atmosphere of fear at RFE/RL, a number of currently-employed Russian Service journalists in Prague and in Moscow supported a call for a reinstatement of fired journalists and protested against “soft journalism” supported by Steven Korn, Julia Ragona, and Masha Gessen.

Steven Korn with producers of sexually suggestive videos (later removed) for RFE/RL Kazakh Service

Steven Korn with producers of sexually suggestive videos.

The Prague Post is right, however, that many RFE/RL journalists and services continue to produce outstanding news programs to countries without free media.

The Prague Post reported that BBG Watch, which has campaigned heavily against Korn, claims that questions about “unauthorized expenses, waste and mismanagement” have marred his last days as president.

The Prague Post quotes Korn adamantly disagreeing and condemning his critics:

“People who say that have no idea what they’re talking about and it’s irresponsible and reprehensible that they would say that,” Korn responds passionately. “The budget of this company has been managed quite well and quite effectively. Indeed, we went through and took out a lot of fat in the budget and redeployed all of those monies to our core mission of journalism.”

Judy BachrachIn one of the best investigative journalism reports on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a contributing editor for Vanity Fair Judy Bachrach described in an article for World Affairs journal some of the extravagant spending.

“Why did Korn purchase,” Bachrach asks, “in order to enhance his apartment on Prague’s elegant Parizska Street, furniture and furnishings amounting to $36,000—a sum that constitutes, according to those who know, 40 percent more than his RFE/RL allotment?”

Bachrach also wrote in her World Affairs article:

“Korn basically didn’t set up shop in Prague until a few months after his June 2011 appointment (he delayed his permanent arrival for reasons no one can understand). Yet within short order, the new president wants (a) a Prague housing allowance of $4,200, which was about $1,000 more than the allowance of his predecessor, (b) costly furnishings, (c) to spend an inordinate amount of time in Atlanta, and (d) to leave?”

READ MORE: Steven Korn’s Wasteful Personal Spending at RFE/RL, Judy Bachrach, World Affairs, January 7, 2012.

Korn likes, however, to present himself as an executive who brought good management and financial austerity to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The Prague Post reported that “online posts, and in the article by some critics have even suggested Korn has wasted funds by spending thousands of dollars furnishing his Prague flat, a claim he angrily rejects. ‘That’s absurd, absolutely absurd. Will I take legal action? I have no idea. These people are beneath contempt frankly,’” he said.

According to BBG Watch sources, Korn has refused to provide some financial records requested by the BBG Strategy and Budget Committee. The RFE/RL Audit Committee is scheduled to meet on January 29 to look into allegations of mismanagement.

BBG Watch comments:

“Steven Korn knows best. “Will I take legal action? I have no idea. These people are beneath contempt frankly” is an interesting comment coming from the outgoing president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who is presumed to be a defender of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the countries to which RFE/RL directs it broadcasts. Korn’s choice to run Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, Masha Gessen, has accused some independent Russian journalists and commentators of slandering her. President Putin recently signed a law making slander a criminal offense in Russia. It is designed to silence media critics of the Kremlin.

We wonder what members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency which promotes freedom and democracy abroad by funding RFE/RL, think about such comments? Do they help or harm media freedom?”

For a full version of The Prague Post article: “Battle of words – RFE/RL chief’s controversial resignation reverberates in Russia and beyond” By ANDREW GREENE, Staff Writer, The Prague Post, January 23-29, 2013, click on the title or check the newspaper’s website and its Facebook Page.

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