How Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty top brass fired journalists in Moscow and caused a scandal
BBG Watch Commentary
An online openDemocracy.net article, The End of ‘Liberty’ by a former Radio Liberty (RL) Russian Service journalist, Mumin Shakirov, describes how senior managers of the U.S. government-funded radio station engineered the firing of dozens of journalists at the RL Moscow bureau, causing a major scandal in Russia, especially among opposition leaders and opposition media figures. The incident is being widely commented on in the Russian media as an example of incompetence, political naiveté, and moral failure of American executives in charge of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Some liberal Russian commentators speak of the complete ruining of Radio Liberty’s stellar reputation as a defender of free media and human rights. They portray the recent events at RL Moscow bureau as a result of the political and moral failure of the U.S. administration. Still others suspect some kind of a secret deal with the Kremlin, for which it does not appear to be any proof.
Prominent Russian media figures are commenting on the selection of Masha Gessen, an opposition journalist and gay rights activist, who was named to become the new director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service. A few days before her selection was announced by RFE/RL, Gessen was summoned for a private meeting with President Putin. She denies widely-repeated speculations by Russian commentators, especially among opposition and liberal journalists and by Radio Liberty broadcasters, that she may have recommended to the RFE/RL management major personnel changes at the Moscow bureau and at the Russian Service in Prague. She is not scheduled to begin work until October 1, but has been working previously as a consultant for RFE/RL. RFE/RL President Steven Korn announced that Gessen, who reportedly has a dual U.S. and Russian citizenship, will be based in Moscow rather than at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic, which raised security concerns among experts familiar with how the Russian secret police, the FSB, operates.
Almost all liberal Russian commentators agree, however, that at the very least the American management of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has been fooled by President Putin. One highly-respected opposition writer, Russian satirist Victor Shenderovich, wrote that the KGB, the Soviet Communist Party, its Pravda newspaper and the current secret police the FSB could not have done more damage to Radio Liberty and its reputation than the American managers who run it now and who engineered the purge at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau.
Meanwhile, Masha Gessen has accused Victor Shenderovich of slander with regard to his comments on her previous employment and her job offer from RFE/RL and demanded that the publisher remove that part of his text from his column. The publisher responded that they never censor their columnists but, after receiving a document from her, apologized for any inaccuracies. It has become an unseemly spectacle.
Some prominent Radio Liberty journalists, widely respected for their reporting on abuses of power in Russia, have resigned to protest how their colleagues were treated by the management. We also learned that several iconic figures of the Soviet-era and current human rights movement in Russia are planning to send a letter of protest to Washington.
The mass firing of journalists was approved by RFE/RL President Steven Korn and implemented by his deputy, Julia Ragona, and his new management team based at the broadcaster’s headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic. But the ultimate responsibility for how this public American institution is managed rests with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency in Washington DC and its nine-member (currently seven) presidentially-appointed bipartisan broad, on which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton serves ex-officio.
We have learned that some BBG members did not know beforehand about the mass firing of RL journalists in Moscow or the manner in which it was to be conducted. But the same board had ignored earlier Mr. Korn’s private and public references to his RFE/RL employees as “old white guys” and “cute high school intern” and accepted his replacement of experienced journalists and area scholars with non-journalists and managers without significant experience in political and social affairs of the region.
Perhaps protests from prominent Russian human rights activists and this account by one of their former journalists will help BBG members focus their attention and force them to ask whether they themselves would like to be treated in a similar manner. They could also ask themselves whether they would treat longtime employees at their own private companies and institutions they ran in the U.S. the same way RFE/RL management treats employees in Moscow and in Prague. Let’s keep in mind that some of these fired journalists risked their lives on assignments in dangerous places like Chechnya and faced additional risks exposing abuses of power and resisting pressures from the Kremlin’s secret police.
by Mumin Shakirov
Thursday, 20th September. The phone rang at 9am. I picked it up and heard the voice of Tatiana Ivanova, a receptionist at Liberty’s Moscow bureau. ‘Mumin, get yourself round to 25 Leontievsky Pererulok. They’re expecting you at 10.30 at the DLA Piper law firm.’ ‘What…? Why?’ I mumbled, still half asleep. ‘Instructions from Korn (Radio Liberty’s Director). Eighteen people have been asked to go there, and your name’s on the list. Ask for Sergey Kolchin, one of their legal team.’ The line went dead.
‘The lawyer’s arguments are convincing: legal action against the company will be fruitless; he is making us an offer we can’t refuse; mutual agreement, severance packages, everyone to hand in their ID passes and equipment. Full stop.’
My first thought was that it must be about medical insurance, that we were finally getting it after hassling them about it for years. But then I started wondering – why the hurry, first thing in the morning, and why at a law firm rather than the office? With these worrying thoughts in my head I travelled into central Moscow. DLA Piper was on the fourth floor, with secretaries straight off a catwalk and a conference room with a large oval table around which colleagues from the RL internet department were sitting. Seeing me, their faces fell: ’you too?’ A nervous laugh. I look round and see at the window a group of RFE/RL bosses, headed by the station’s Deputy Director Julia Ragona.
Everything becomes clear. The DLA Piper lawyer quietly extinguishes all our emotions and protests. His arguments are convincing: legal action against the company will be fruitless; he is making us an offer we can’t refuse; mutual agreement, severance packages, everyone to hand in their ID passes and equipment. Full stop. Nearly twenty journalists lost their jobs that day, and the same number the next. In two days, Radio Liberty’s Moscow office was shut down. Not a thank you, not a goodbye. End of the story. Curtains. Nearly twenty years of working for the station finished.”
READ MORE of The End of ‘Liberty’ by Mumin Shakirov on openDemocracy.net.
RFE/RL President Steven Korn insists that the fired journalists were properly treated and given generous severance benefits. He also issued a statement, in which he said: “Though we have said good-bye to some of our journalists and other colleagues, we are thankful to have had the benefit of their creativity and dedication over the years and hope they will continue to contribute their voices and ideas to the public forum.”
One East European journalist described Korn’s response as an “example of unashamed hypocrisy.”