Breaking News – Gorbachev, other Russian opposition leaders defend fired Radio Liberty journalists, criticize U.S. management and Obama administration
BBG Watch Commentary
Former Soviet President and author of glasnost and perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev, was surprised by the decision of the American managers of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to dismiss virtually all journalists of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda), the Interfax news agency reported. Those dismissed worked at Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau and included some of the best known Russian journalists who have reported on human rights abuses, corruption and the crackdown on independent media by the Kremlin. Federally-funded RFE/RL is managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent U.S. government agency headed by a bipartisan board. BBG Watch has learned that members of the BBG board, some of whom were reportedly surprised by the mass firing, have scheduled a teleconference later this week to discuss the crisis at the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow.
“In times of tight censorship in the USSR, Radio Liberty made appeals for democratization and openness the leitmotif of their broadcasts. Now it is difficult to get rid of the impression that the American leadership of Radio Liberty is ready to rotate 180 degrees,” said Mikhail Gorbachev. He also added that both in Russia and in other countries glasnost is under attack.
Read MORE: Горбачев вступился за уволенных со “Свободы” журналистов, Lenta.ru, October 2, 2012.
The sudden dismissals of dozens of radio journalists and Internet content providers for Radio Liberty’s popular website were done on orders of RFE/RL President Steven Korn who had earlier selected Russian-American author, journalist and gay right activist Masha Gessen, to serve as the new director of RL’s Russian Service. Russian media has linked her appointment to the dismissals, although she has strongly denied any direct role in the firings, which occurred after her selection was announced but before she formally started working.
Some Russian media describe Gessen denials in response to critics as disingenuous and point out that prior to her appointment as the Russian Service director she worked for RFE/RL as a consultant and did an evaluation of Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau. Gessen made an accusation of slander against one of the fired Radio Liberty contributors, famous Russian satirist Victor Shenderovich who suggested such a link. His highly popular political puppet show Kukly (Puppets), which was aired on NTV 1994 to 2002 before the station was taken over by the Kremlin, has been compared to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. President Putin has recently signed a law criminalizing slander and imposing fines of up to $150,000. Critics say that the law and the threat of accusations of slander against journalists are designed to stifle free speech and independent media in Russia. Gessen has also accused the fired Radio Liberty’s Moscow website editor-in-chief, Ludmila Telen, of slander, also for suggesting that Gessen knew about the firings and played a role in them despite not being officially on board at RFE/RL. Gessen continues to deny any role.
Shortly before her selection for the Radio Liberty position, Gessen had an unexpected semi-private meeting with President Putin who reportedly tried to get her re-hired at a Russian magazine from which she was fired for refusing to cover a news story involving him, which she dismissed as a publicity stunt. Russian commentators questioned some of Gessen’s reporting on her meeting with Putin and said that the timing of RFE/RL’s management’s decision to announce her selection and to fire most of Radio Liberty’s Moscow journalists shortly after her meeting with Russia’s autocratic leader was a public diplomacy disaster.
Read MORE: Reset at Radio Liberty Russia – Never Attribute To Malice That Which Is Adequately Explained By Stupidity by Lev Roitman, BBG Watch, October 1, 2012.
Many of the fired journalists have been strong public critics of President Putin. One of Radio Liberty’s best known journalists, who was fired with the majority of his colleagues in Moscow, is Mikhail Sokholov. In August 1991, after RFE/RL’s full coverage of the communist August Coup, President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree allowing Radio Liberty to broadcast in Russia and gave it personally Sokolov in recognition of his on-the-scene coverage of the coup despite a great danger to his safety.
Read MORE: Former Radio Liberty journalist comments in Index on Censorship blog on purge of Svoboda online writers and broadcasters, BBG Watch, September 30, 2012
A group of prominent Russian human rights leaders sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress protesting the firings and the cessation of Radio Liberty broadcasts on a medium wave (AM) frequency in Moscow. The signatories included Lyudmila Alexeeva, Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group; Sergei Kovalyov, Chairman of the Russian human rights group “Memorial”; writer Vladimir Bukovsky, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union; and Tatiana Yankelevich, daughter of Elena Bonner who was the wife of Andrei Sakharov.
RFE/RL Vice President Julia Ragona, who conducted the firings in Moscow with the help of an international law firm, said that these human rights activists were confused and did not know the decision to end radio broadcasts on the AM frequency was forced by a new Russian media law and that the signatories did not know they were criticizing Masha Gessen. No human rights leader, however, has withdraw his or her signature. The letter said that the KGB could not have done more damage to Radio Liberty’s reputation and America’s image in Russia than the recent actions of RFE/RL’s American managers.
Critics charge that while the new Russian law did affect the use of the AM frequency, Korn and Ragona did nothing to prepare for it to save broadcasting and used it as an excuse to destroy Radio Liberty in Russia by firing journalists that have won the station a distinguished reputation and loyal audience. RFE/RL leaders argue that they are promoting a digital transition at Radio Liberty, but many of the fired journalists were working for the RL website, which was considered to be the best in online and new media outreach among all U.S. international broadcasters funded by the U.S. Congress and managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Some fired Radio Liberty journalists have accused RFE/RL Vice President Julia Ragona of lying.
In an article in World Affairs Journal, the Washington bureau chief of RTVi television network, independent Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, described RFE/RL President Steven Korn’s statement as a mockery.
Read MORE: Putin Critics Slam ‘Ludicrous Reset’ as US Silences Radio Liberty by Vladimir Kara-Murza in World Affairs Journal, September 27, 2012
In his statement, Korn 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.”
Steven Korn, Julia Ragona and other RFE/RL executives insist that the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau employees were treated with respect. Some prominent journalists at the RL bureau in Moscow who were not fired, including well know media expert and university professor Anna Kachkaeva, resigned in protest to show solidarity with their dismissed colleagues. BBG Watch has learned that RFE/RL executives said privately to their bosses in Washington that Kachkaeva left because she, like the others, accepted a generous buyout offer. But another well-known Radio Libety journalist and filmmaker, Mumin Shakirov, reported that the firings were conducted in a highly degrading and humiliating fashion and that the management gave them no choice but to agree to depart voluntarily.
Read MORE: The End of ‘Liberty’ by Mumin Shakirov in openDemocracyRussia, September 26, 2012
In addition to Gorbachev, another well known Russian opposition leader and former politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma (Russian Parliament) deputy from 1993 to 2007, former Duma speaker, and host of a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio station, wrote an op-ed in The Moscow Times, criticizing the firings at Radio Liberty as part of the Obama Administration’s retreat from supporting human rights and democracy in Russia. Ryzhkov, who is a co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom, said:
“It [the U.S. Administration] did not make a single attempt to preserve Radio Liberty or the USAID mission in Russia. As a result, Radio Liberty, which once hosted such talents as poet and playwright Alexander Galich and author Sergei Dovlatov, is being systematically destroyed. Millions of Russians who want a more democratic Russia have been betrayed and abandoned, while dozens of NGOs of critical importance to Russian civil society will be severely curtailed or closed outright.”
Vladimir Ryzhkov also wrote:
“In addition, Radio Liberty has shut down its radio operations and will shift to an Internet format. Radio Liberty president Steven Korn explained the move as a way to make its broadcasting format more modern. But regardless of how Korn tries to spin it, the shutdown will be a blow to freedom of the media in Russia. The “modernization” amounted to firing dozens of outstanding journalists, including Mikhail Sokolov, Anna Kachakaeva and Lyudmila Telen. Once a powerful radio station that millions of Russians tuned in to for alternative views and discussions will be diluted by key staff reductions and lost in the huge expanse of the Internet.”
Read MORE: Obama Caves In to Kremlin Repression by Vladimir Ryzhkov in The Moscow Times, October 2, 2012.
Another Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Energy Minister of the Russian Federation Vladimir Milov described the firings at Radio Liberty in Moscow as a “stunning example of desperate political idiocy.”
“However, this was all completely destroyed in one week. Now that the
exceptionally professional Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty is virtually
fully dissolved, best professionals had left the radio station. All
this have happened without any direct interference by Putin’s regime –
American bureaucrats from Radio Liberty central headquarters, along
with the newly appointed director of Radio Liberty Russia, Masha
Gessen, did the job for Putin. Now, there’s virtually nothing left of
what just a few weeks ago was one of the best and most professional
among the few remaining independent media teams in Russia.”
Commenting on the RFE/RL’s American management and the new Russian Service director Masha Gessen, Milov wrote:
“I totally exclude [the possibility] that the new Radio Liberty Russia director, Masha
Gessen, will have the ability to rebuild something even remotely
reminiscent of the recently brutally dissolved and destroyed Radio
Liberty Moscow bureau, even in years. Ms. Gessen, in my opinion,
completely lacks the necessary professional skill and qualities
required for that task, and 20+ years of a brilliant journalist team
build-up can not be repeated easily.
It’s all too sad.
And here’s to my American friends who possibly intend to continue
asking me questions about “what can they do” to help Russia’s
democratic transition: stop asking. I’ve told you for years and years:
Support Radio Liberty. Support Radio Liberty. Support Radio Liberty.
Don’t hang about much with your costly and questionably effective
“human rights support programs”. Do just that. Support Radio Liberty.
That’s very simple, easy, and really worth the effort.
You’ve completely ignored and disregarded the wise piece of advice.
So don’t ask anymore. You’ve seemingly done all you could so far,
demonstrating instead a stunning example of desperate political
idiocy. Thanks for making Putin’s life easier, and ours much harder.”
Read MORE: Desperate political idiocy, Блог Владимира Милова, October 2, 2012.
The Russian human rights group Memorial, which was co-founded by the late activist Andrei Sakharov, sent a letter to the U.S. Congress also protesting the firings and changes at Radio Liberty. Memorial wrote:
“In the present-day political conditions, when the authorities in Russia have started a wide-scale offensive on civil rights, when laws limiting freedom of speech, association and assembly have been adopted, this [firings of Radio Liberty journalists] would contribute to the weakening of the civil society depriving it of the few generally accessible sources of objective information.”
The Russian human rights organization has appeal to members of the U.S. Congress to do their “best to preserve a very important role Radio Liberty has been playing for decades.”