'Special operation' at Radio Liberty Moscow – Part Two


“I remember guards at our beloved RFE/RL Moscow editorial office and frozen eyes of bureaucrats saying ‘Thank you, we no longer need your service. Here is your compensation, hope you are satisfied.'”

The following excerpts are from the letters to members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) from Radio Liberty Moscow bureau journalists and other staffers who were fired by RFE/RL managers or resigned in protest.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty executives did not seemed worried how the mass firings at the Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) office in Moscow are going to be viewed by the Russian public opinion, but Radio Liberty journalists did. You might be surprised to learn that they worried about the reputation of the station that was firing them and about America’s image in Russia. They were, in fact, engaging in pro-American public diplomacy. The RFE/RL management was not. Quite the opposite.

“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.”

Radio Liberty journalists and staffers were not only fired in a most brutal “special operation.” Before this action, they say they were mislead by the two top RFE/RL executives:

“RFE/RL officials prepared for their action very carefully. They told us that we would be fired anyway and suggested a “soft way.” We were so shocked and so loyal to our company, which we considered to be part of our family, that we one by one signed our dismissal agreements.
At the same time we were deeply pained that the company, for which we worked for many years with all our energy and dedication, was getting rid of us in this way. It seemed like an awful dream.
We had several meetings with Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona before. Every time, they were informing us that we will work in a new digital office. We asked about training on how to use the new equipment, and Mr. Korn promised that such training will be organized. He also informed us that we will have medical insurance at last. It seemed perfect.
Mr. Korn asked us to give him proposals on how to work in a new digital format of Radio Liberty. Because I follow closely developments in new media and participated in many seminars with experts in this field, I have written such proposals – how to produce multimedia news in a new Radio Liberty newsroom step by step. Ms. Gloushkova told me that she had sent this document to Prague. There was no answer.
At the same time, plans for the new office where made where there would be only 35 work stations. Somebody told us that half of the journalists would not need work stations because they would work remotely via Internet, doing on-site reporting on news events. There was not a word about any mass dismissals.
In retrospect, this whole situation was very strange, because until then RFE/RL always had a very open and honest atmosphere and good communications between management and employees.
If we were told that the station didn’t have enough money for our staff, I’m sure that my colleagues would be ready to work for less money, because money is not the main issue for us. We all felt that our work for the legendary Radio Liberty was our mission, our main purpose in our professional life.
We were already working very effectively on the new digital Radio Liberty. As an experienced and qualified specialist in this area, I was very interested and delighted to take part in this very challenging digital project. But on September 21, I was informed by the management – you are not needed in the New Russian Service together with many other very experienced and qualified journalists and new media specialists. Who can tell me, and us – why?”

Many Radio Liberty web team members found out for the first time that they were fired when the guards prevented them from entering the Moscow bureau. According to other accounts, they were then told to report to the offices of an international law firm representing RFE/RL where many of these employees claim they were subjected to extreme psychological pressure to sign their termination agreements. the author of this letter, was not fired. He resigned to protest RFE/RL management’s actions.

“September the 20th, almost all my colleagues from the Internet team of Moscow RFE/RL bureau were not allowed to enter the building. This was the first way to notify them of being suddenly and without any explanation fired from their jobs.
The next day almost all of the radio staff was fired too.
I was not on that list, but I decided to quit because to me this kind of behavior by the management is unconscionable.
The Internet team under Ludmila Telen’s leadership has reached significant results – Russian RFE/RL website became one of the most popular in the radio/news segment of the Russian web.
With the very significant help from our technical director Ilya Tochkin, we became one of the pioneers in live video streaming via Internet in Russia, covering such forbidden on Russian official TV themes, as court processes against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev and Pussy Riot, visiting Butyrskaya prison on the anniversary of Sergey Magnitsky’s death and gathering hundreds of thousands of visitors for live video coverage of protest actions in Moscow and so on.
We have made a significant progress and were regularly praised by our bosses in Prague and in Washington – there was not even one complain about our Internet and multimedia work. But suddenly all the fully organized process was destroyed.
The reorganization turned out to be the total annihilation of the Russian Service of RFE/RL.
These actions amount to violations of civil and ethical laws, journalistic standards, and human rights.
I was working at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau for almost 12 years – first as a freelance correspondent, then as the morning live radio show host and as video editor. We had a successful strategy of developing RFE/RL web, radio and video presence.
Our audience was shocked by the destruction of Radio Liberty, which was one of the last politically balanced media in Russia.”

Among those fired by RFE/RL management were single mothers with many children and disabled employees. Some have worked for Radio Liberty Moscow for many years.

“Firing a disabled but fully employable and well performing person is extraordinary in any civilized country. I became disabled after a strike, which happened in 2008. My schedule, created at that time by RFE/RL management, was very demanding. I spent more than ten hours a week doing live broadcasts, three days – early in the morning. My stroke didn’t happen at the work place, but it came just one hour after my exhausting morning shift. I didn’t demand that RFE/RL pay for my medical treatment, although it wouldn’t have been hard to prove in court that my work schedule was the principle reason for my stroke.
I’ve always thought that RFE/RL’s mission is more important than my health, and that we would always come to an agreement, if needed.
We did. In 2008, RFE/RL management arranged my schedule in a different way. I started working from home on the web team as an editor, coming to the editorial office just once a week. As a longtime disabled employee, I thought that I would never be thrown out on the street by an American publicly-funded and publicly-owned company. I did not think that given my employment record and the public nature of my employment, such a thing would be likely to happen to me if I were employed in the United States and that RFE/RL would treat its employees as if they were working in America. But I was employed in Russia and I was wrong.
The mass firings at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau were done so inappropriately and with the use of such strong psychological pressure, that many of my colleagues and I got a distressing impression that fighting for our rights would be fruitless and impossible.
When RFE/RL managers said I was fired, I reminded them that I was disabled. They suggested that I could work one more month as a freelancer, a prolongation of the suffering.
It will be quite impossible for me to find a job in Moscow. I’m 52, and I’m disabled.
It is worth mentioning something that the chief executive did to increase our torment and humiliate us even more. Shortly before the mass firings, Steve Korn told us that we would finally be getting medical insurance. We spent years fighting for it, and this apparent victory seemed especially valuable for me. But as it turned out, we were not the ones to see the fruits of our struggles. Medical insurance will be a bonus for some other people who didn’t become disabled working for RFE/RL. Not for someone like me.
The new RFE/RL management keeps bragging about Radio Svoboda’s transformation into as a multimedia platform, which doesn’t involve dividing staff into radio and Internet teams. I was one of the employees who worked exactly without such a division of functions as one of the website’s editors, sports columnist and radio correspondent.
I also did photos and videos while covering UEFA championship in Kiev. I think my experience could become an example of new, multimedia Radio Svoboda.
But instead I was fired without any warning whatsoever or anyone bothering to talk to me or seek my input. I was informed of the fact that my experience in an area which coincides with RFE/RL multimedia strategy, as well as my health, are of no concern to the RFE/RL management. Such an attitude on the part of RFE/RL’s top American executives is capricious, nonprofessional and disreputable at the same time.”

RFE/RL executives claim that the mass firing was designed to transform Radio Liberty to become a multimedia digital platform. These claims are disputed by many former Radio Liberty journalists, web editors, video producers and technicians who all point out that they were all deeply involved in online and social media activities and that the station was already part of the digital future.

“I worked as RFE/RL’s Russian Service Internet team editor-in-chief for only three and a half years. Throughout that time, in spite of obvious difficulties of trying to reform traditional media, the website svobodanews.ru has become a remarkable presence on the Russian Internet.
I was convinced that our website was already leading a transformation Radio Liberty’s Russian Service (known as Radio Svoboda) and in fact that this process was already advanced. The number of website’s visitors grew eight times during these three years. The number of constant visitors – 20 times.
Radio Svoboda’s quotation index reached the second place among all Russian radio stations.
It took us one year to create active and rapidly growing communities on Facebook (more than 17 thousand subscribers) and Twitter (more than 21 thousand followers). The number of comments on Radio Svoboda website increased hundredfold.
Radio Svoboda’s Russian Service website was the first one among all non-TV media in Russia to video-broadcast live from the places of politically important events – including protest rallies, some of which took place in the depths of Russia.
www.svobodanews.ru was the only website in Russia which broadcast live the latest plea from the nation’s most famous political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
These results were achieved not by me but by a great team of journalists, radio broadcasters, and online content editors working together as colleagues. Radio Liberty’s Russian Service website team and I, as its editor-in-chief, had a concept of turning the Service into a comprehensive multimedia platform with all deliberate speed, but not through a revolution that ignores the station’s reputation, discards its best human talent, and produces a scandal in the blogosphere and in traditional media, as well as among our audience, which may now be lost forever after the deluge of negative publicity.
I delivered my concept of team building and multimedia expansion to RFE/RL Vice President Julia Ragona when I applied to be a candidate for the post of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service director.
Unfortunately, on 20 September, we were informed that we did an excellent job, but that all of us are no longer needed by RFE/RL. I am sure that if our team of dedicated, highly experienced and highly respected radio and web journalists were allowed to implement fully all of our concepts and projects, Radio Liberty Russian Service could have become a modern multimedia platform, having saved all of its traditional brands that make this media outlet what it is, what it means to our audience, and what it wants to achieve as part of its noble mission, which all of us proudly served.”

Another journalist makes similar observations and points out how the actions of RFE/RL management have resulted in waste and inefficiency.

“Even if we put aside the debate over the role of radio and the Internet in contemporary Russia, it is impossible to ignore the fact that journalists in the Moscow Bureau acted as both radio and Internet broadcasters and online content producers. We prepared materials simultaneously for the air and for the web – two different versions (for each of which we did our own editing and preparation work). Many of us used time outside the office to learn how to produce and edit video materials. In other words, we were fully prepared for transitioning to the new platform. Nonetheless, the first people fired were those who produced professional video materials and even entire films for the station’s website. Moreover, some of these individuals had been recognized with awards for their work by RFE/RL’s management. What was the benefit of firing the very people who would have been instrumental in facilitating the transition to the so-called “multimedia platform”?
Ms. Ragona and Mr. Korn had several discussions with us about new equipment, new facilities, new furniture, but not once did they address the issue of how they envisioned broadcasting online. We posed this question on numerous occasions, but never received an answer. We were told where we would film our material, but not what our content would be like. If RFE/RL’s Mission Statement has significantly changed, then why is this fact being concealed from the employees? If the Mission Statement has not changed, then why has the Moscow Bureau been practically obliterated?
For many years, we have been reminded by the management about the importance of efficiency and doing more with less, and we accepted the loss of many important features of our work environment because we understood that the budget situation required these measures. Now we are being laid off, but others are being hired and a much larger facility is being built at a very high cost. By law, employees require at least two months’ notice before dismissal. This means that we could have worked for another two months and earned money for the work we actually performed. Instead, we are now being paid this money as compensation for agreeing to leave immediately, while others are being hired to fill some of our former positions. Where is efficiency in this? In the senseless spending of American taxpayers’ money?”

This last letter from a fired Radio Liberty sound editor and producer points out how difficult it will be for him and his colleagues to find a professional job in Russia because they are tainted by their fight with official censorship.

“I am exasperated and confused. I worked with RFE/RL Russian Service for 14 years, and witnessed such a notorious ending!
People, who gave years of hard work to popularize democracy and human rights activism, are caught unawares, and fired one by one in no time.
I remember guards at our beloved RFE/RL Moscow editorial office and frozen eyes of bureaucrats saying ‘Thank you, we no longer need your service. Here is your compensation, hope you are satisfied.’
As time goes by I begin to more fully realize what happened. Seizure, devastation? What will happen to the Radio, what will happen to my colleagues? Will everyone have a knack to stay healthy after such a strike?
Why did RFE/RL top management decide that we can’t and don’t want to work in a new – multimedia – format?
Everyone knew about the switch to multimedia, and was getting prepared for it. Everyone dreamed of working with new equipment on an updated radio station.
Why were we fired? Still no answer.
Our RFE/RL Moscow bureau team consisted of professionals, who were invited to Radio Svoboda by different directors. Directors changed, and my colleagues carried on doing their job with great talent and honesty.
Many of them, due to their political beliefs and censorship in Russia, will not be able to find jobs in Russian media. Training for a new profession and the unemployment office are awaiting most of us.”

Read ‘Special operation’ at Radio Liberty Moscow – Part One
Both parts represent BBG Watch Commentary on the events in Moscow.