BBG Watch Commentary
Controversial director of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian Service Masha Gessen has resigned after only seven months on the job. She had been hired in September 2012 by former RFE/RL president Steven Korn who himself was replaced in January 2013 by new acting president Kevin Klose.
Her departure may open the way for rehiring Radio Liberty journalists in Russia who were fired by RFE/RL’s previous management shortly before Masha Gessen became Russian Service director, sources told BBG Watch. Klose has already met with representatives of the fired journalists and with Russian human rights leaders who support them, including the Moscow Helsinki Group chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeeva.
Some were called at home early in the morning by a receptionist. Others found out something was wrong when they reported for work at the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow. Newly hired guards stopped them. They were told to go to the Moscow law office which does legal work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Some 20 journalists and web editors would be fired that day and about the same number the next.
“We are often asked why we didn’t refuse to sign our dismissal agreements, why we didn’t protest, why we did not strike and occupy the office?
What could be the outcome in such a case?
We could have a big scandal with big damage to the image of the station and the American government. All anti-American propagandists in Russia would be ready to blame USA in connection with this incident. In fact , the fired journalists, me included, worried more about saving America’s and RFE/RL’s reputation than the RFE/RL management , which hired guards to repress us. Imagine photos in the Russian newspapers, TV and online media how these guards are leading us out! A very good news for everbody who hates America.” — Vladimir Abarbanell
Abarbanell and others formed Radio Liberty in Exile and started to provide multimedia coverage of human rights and other news stories in Russia which “Radio Gessen,” as it became known, was downplaying or ignoring, according to independent journalists.
Shortly after Gessen’s appointment was announced by Korn in September, but before she came officially on board, RFE/RL managers fired dozens of Russian Service journalists in Moscow in a special two-day operation carried out without any warning and without allowing those fired to say good bye to their audience. More journalists resigned in protest and with their fired colleagues formed Radio Liberty in Exile. Gessen, who had previously worked as a private management consultant for RFE/RL, denied that she was responsible for the dismissals. Her associates were hired to replace some of the fired journalists. Former RFE/RL managers claim that all journalists had resigned voluntarily and were treated with great respect.
Compared to how employment of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists was terminated last September, today’s resignation of Masha Gessen was a civilized affair. “Masha Gessen is an award-winning journalist who will continue to bring her insight, energy and activism to journalism — in the interest of civil society in Russia,” said RFE/RL Acting President and CEO Kevin Klose.
Unlike today’s news, the mass dismissal last year of well known and respected reporters, many of whom specialized in human rights reporting and exposing political corruption, produced moral outrage among pro-democracy Russians supporting Radio Liberty, as did programming changes introduced by Gessen. Russian media reported that Radio Liberty de-emphasized news and investigative political reporting and increased the number of features and images on the Russian website. Media reports also pointed out that the redesigned website began to lose visitors at an alarming rate.
Nearly all leading Russian democratic leaders and human rights activists issued statements in support of the fired journalists. They included former president Mikhail Gorbachev, former reformist prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, all of them in opposition to President Putin’s authoritarian rule.
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lyudmila Alexeeva and other Russian human rights leaders wrote protest letters to the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress. Alexeeva told RFE/RL president Kevin Klose that Gessen does not understand Radio Liberty’s mission and should leave her post.
Russian media reported that Radio Liberty’s reputation among pro-democracy Russians was ruined and it has lost a significant portion of its previous online and radio audience. Many leading Russian oppositionists have been boycotting the station and giving interviews to the fired journalists for their Radio Liberty in Exile Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty) news website.
Some members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency which oversees RFE/RL, said that they had not been fully informed about the firings of the Moscow staff and programming changes. They also said that their own top executives in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) failed to alert them to the growing crisis in Moscow. They also became aware that the claims of the former RFE/RL management that the fired journalists lacked digital skills were completely untrue. Those fired included members of the award-winning Internet team and many other professionals highly skilled in multimedia broadcasting.
BBG members eventually selected Kevin Klose to restore Radio Liberty’s effectiveness in Russia and in other countries without free media. Critics of the former RFE/RL management among BBG governors, Susan McCue and Victor Ashe, were elected recently as chair and vice-chair of the RFE/RL corporate board. Along with another BBG member Michael Meehan, they are believed to support rehiring of the fired journalists.
Victor Ashe said that their dismissal from Radio Liberty last September was a tragedy and apologized to them on his own behalf.
“We cannot let the tragic events at the Moscow Bureau over the past six months go unmentioned. As one Board member, As one individual Governor, I want to apologize for what happened. I can assure you the Board was never informed in any significant way as to what happened. That does not lessen the scope or the manner in which decisions were made and implemented. I feel with Kevin Klose, RFERL has a new leader who generates confidence and deserves our support as he works to deal with the situation.”
Afterwards, it was reported that Masha Gessen tried to prevent Ashe, the vice-chairman of the RFE/RL corporate board, from attending a reception in Washington, DC during which she received a journalistic award from a for-profit U.S. investment corporation Liberty Media. Ashe was invited by Liberty Media. Gessen reportedly relented after Kevin Klose said that he would also not attend the reception if Ashe was barred from entering.
In the United States, other defenders of the fired journalists included Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) who spoke on their behalf at Broadcasting Board of Governors open meetings. Gessen criticized Noonan and other CUSIB members in an interview for Russian media.
Russian media is now reporting widely on Masha Gessen’s resignation from Radio Liberty.
RFE/RL Press Release
Gessen Resigns As RFE/RL Russian Service Director
April 30, 2013
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — Masha Gessen, director of the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for the past seven months, today announced her resignation from the position to begin work on a new book.
“Masha Gessen is an award-winning journalist who will continue to bring her insight, energy and activism to journalism — in the interest of civil society in Russia,” said RFE/RL Acting President and CEO Kevin Klose.
Gessen, author of the political biography of Vladimir Putin, “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” (Riverhead Press, 2012) is a 2013 winner of the 4th annual Media for Liberty award for “The Wrath of Putin,” published in Vanity Fair magazine last year.
Ms. Gessen also lectures on human rights, and is a regular contributor to The New York Times’ “Latitude” blog.
Klose said that in future, the Russian Service will be coordinated by senior editors in Prague, the network’s operations center, and Moscow, where the service recently installed a state-of-the-art news bureau.
RFE/RL is a private, independent international news organization whose programs — radio, Internet, and television — reach influential audiences in 21 countries, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the republics of Central Asia. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).