Renowned Russian-American scholar Vladimir Shlapentokh protests mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists
BBG Watch Commentary
Renowned Russian-American sociologist and Michigan State University professor Vladimir Shlapentokh, who launched objective social polling in the Soviet Union, emigrated to the United States and later studied world attitudes toward the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11, has written a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) protesting against the mass firing of Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists and broadcasters at the station’s bureau in Moscow. Radio Liberty was reporting on sociological research not covered by the Kremlin-controlled state media in Russia. Professor Shlapetokh described Radio Liberty, along with a private Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, as “the last bastions in the fight for vanishing freedom of speech in the country.”
Radio Liberty is financed by American taxpayers and managed from Prague, Czech Republic, by top executives of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), who in turn report to the BBG, a federal agency in Washington.
“My reaction [to the firings] was perfectly conveyed by Viktor Shenderovich, a leading liberal blogger in Russia, who stated that ‘the KGB and FSB, all ideological departments of the Central Committee of CPSU, all detractors of the West in Putin’s Russia, all of them together’ could not do what Washington did to Radio Liberty, Professor Shlapentokh wrote to members of the bipartisan BBG board in Washington.
The decision to fire almost the entire staff of the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau — about forty journalists, broadcasters, online content editors, video editors and technicians — was made by RFE/RL President Steven Korn. It is not clear how much he told BBG members who hired him about the scope of the mass dismissals, which produced a wave of negative media publicity in Russia, a statement of concern from Mikhail Gorbachev, and a letter of protest from a group of prominent Russian human rights activists led by Lyudmila Alexeeva.
Sources told BBG Watch that RFE/RL President Korn and his associates assured BBG members and BBG officials that Alexeeva and other human rights and opposition leaders were confused about the cause and the nature of the firings and that the Russian media is no longer interested in the story. Mr. Korn reportedly said that the whole controversy will die down completely in a week or two. One of the fired journalists was Radio Liberty’s highly respected human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik who on the day of her dismissal was interviewing Lyudmila Alexeeva.
Another fired journalist Veronica Bode hosted the program “Public Opinion” focusing on the protest movement in Russia. It was the only program in any form of media in Russia devoted entirely to reporting on and studying civil society. “However, on September 21, 2012 my project on the radio was silenced, and I, along with dozens of colleagues, – fired. The ‘updated’ Radio Liberty apparently doesn’t need this kind of reporting,” Ms. Bode wrote to BBG members. “How are we to survive in a country where many of our compatriots consider us enemies because we have worked for so many years for an American radio?,” she asked in her letter. Professor Shlapentokh made a similar point, “All people fired by Washington are already labeled ‘foreign agents’, who will have no chance to find the job under existing circumstances.” Ms. Bode also informed the BBG board that among those fired by Mr. Korn were journalists of pre-retirement age, single mothers with many children, and some who are physically disabled.
But according to inside sources, Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who is reportedly a personal friend of President Obama and acts as the interim BBG chairman, has been defending Mr. Korn’s personnel and other decisions as justified on strategic and business grounds and similar to what he is doing at SONY. Mr. Korn was previously accused of referring privately to some of his employees as “old white guys” and publicly to a student employed by the BBG as “cute high school intern.”
The sudden personnel action, described by some of the fired journalists as a “special operation,” which involved the use of guards to bar entry to the building and to escort fired employees, was overseen by RFE/RL Vice President Julia Ragona and the station’s law firm in Moscow.
The fired employees said they were subjected to intense psychological pressure to sign voluntary termination agreements. They condemned RFE/RL management’s actions as a violation of their personal dignity and rights, as well as a betrayal of the broadcaster’s image in Russia and its human rights mission. Some who have worked for Radio Liberty for twenty years were not allowed to say good bye to their radio listeners and website visitors. Guards prevented them from accessing their computers. One of the dismissed was a disabled employee, web editor Aleksey Kuznetsov, who after a stroke was allowed by the previous management to work mostly from home. He is the son of a Russian writer Anatoly Kuznetsov, also a former Radio Liberty journalist and author of a famous book, Babi Yar, which for the first time exposed the Holocaust of Soviet Jews to general readership in the Soviet Union and in the West.
One knowledgable Russia expert described the events in Moscow as a “crime aimed against Radio Liberty’s well-known brand and tradition as one of America’s most effective human rights, foreign policy and public diplomacy tools in Russia, and a crime against human decency.”
RFE/RL executives claim they went out of their way to treat the fired employees with respect and gave them generous severance pay. In a statement posted on the RFE/RL website, Mr. Korn attributed the firing to the loss of a medium wave (AM) frequency in Moscow and the need to transition to digital media. Some journalists who were not fired resigned in protest to show solidarity with their colleagues and described Mr. Korn’s statement as a “mockery.” Several sent letters to BBG members telling them that RFE/RL executives and the company’s lawyers had told them they had no choice but to sign separation agreements and would be fired anyway even if they did not.
The dismissed journalists point out that many of those fired were in fact responsible for Radio Liberty’s outstanding multimedia website and attribute the mass firing to Mr. Korn’s decision to hire Russian-American writer Masha Gessen to be the new director of the Russian Service and the move of the RFE/RL Moscow bureau to a new modern facility in a building which also houses former Soviet propagandist Vladimir Posner‘s television operation. Gessen accused Victor Shenderovich, a famous satirist whom Professor Shlapentokh mentions in his letter, of slandering her for suggesting a link between her and the firings of Radio Liberty journalists. She said it was not her decision, but some of the fired journalists point out that while working as an outside consultant for Mr. Korn, she authored an evaluation of the RFE/RL Moscow bureau with a focus on its Internet activities and social media outreach.
Since the new Radio Liberty facility in Moscow, which reportedly cost over one million dollars to construct, is co-located with Vladimir Posner’s School for Television Excellence («Школу телевизионного мастерства» — not in the same space but in the same building) to educate and promote young journalists, the firing of Radio Liberty journalists and moving the anti-Soviet pro-democracy station that was now deprived by Mr. Korn of its highly-respected staff and reputation to a building linked with a former Soviet propaganda master is a final twist of historical irony, one Russia expert told BBG Watch.
The person who will rejoice the most is President Putin, with whom Masha Gessen had a semi-private meeting shortly before Mr. Korn announced her appointment. He had recently signed a law that re-criminalized slander with fines of up to $150,000. Another Russia expert told BBG Watch that while Gessen was known as one of Putin’s critics and activist for gay rights and same-sex marriage in Russia, her accusation of slander and her somewhat murky account of her meeting with Putin raise serious questions. Former Radio Liberty journalists and others doubt her story and dismiss the RFE/RL management’s claims that the firings were necessary to transition to digital media.
Professor Shlapentokh told the BBG, “The fact that Washington fired almost everybody in Internet section of the radio, professionals with the highest journalistic qualification and the invaluable experience in the analysis of Russian society, is completely incompatible with the claim of shifting focus to the website.”
Vladimir Shlapentokh who wrote to the BBG that Russian liberals were in particular hurt by the “amoral nature” of the action of RFE/RL executives, was born, raised, and educated in the Soviet Union. Before emigrating to the United States in 1979, he worked as a Senior Fellow in the Sociological Institute in Moscow, and he conducted the first nationwide public opinion surveys in the USSR. In the Soviet Union he published ten books and many dozens of articles on various social issues, including the methodology of sociological studies.
Since emigrating to the U.S., Dr. Shlapentokh has published 18 books, dozens of professional articles about Soviet and contemporary Russian issues, and dozens of columns in periodicals such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Christian Science Monitor. In addition, he has organized several national and international conferences.
Since 1982, he has worked as a consultant to the United States government, regularly reporting on social processes, ideology, and public opinion in Russia and other post-Communist countries. He is currently a professor of sociology at Michigan State University.
“Despite my rich experience, a rare event flabbergasted me greatly: news about the dismissal of the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty, the closure of many programs, and future cessation of broadcasting on medium waves. My reaction was perfectly conveyed by Viktor Shenderovich, a leading liberal blogger in Russia, who stated that ‘the KGB and FSB, all ideological departments of the Central Committee of CPSU, all detractors of the West in Putin’s Russia, all of them together’ could not do what Washington did to Radio Liberty. Let us put aside the issue of foreign policy. No doubt, whatever were the intentions of the initiators of this deal, in the opinion of many Russian observers it suggests that Washington is trying to integrate with Putin, despite the radical deterioration of American-Russian relations. In the last months Moscow found many dozen ways to demonstrate its hostility to the USA. The humiliating treatment of American ambassador McFaul, who after his arrival to the Russian capital in January was harassed by the media and never received by Putin, as well as the ban on the activity of USAID, are only few examples.
However, more important is the impact the decision about Radio Liberty has on the attitudes of those Russians – about a quarter of the population – who come at the wake of anti Americanism fomented by the Kremlin on an every day basis. For them, Radio Liberty, along with Ekho Moskvy, was the last bastions in the fight for vanishing freedom of speech in the country. This part of the population, the most powerful hope for Russia’s democratization, does not accept the flimsy arguments of the destroyers of radio, claiming the dissemination of the station was about the new ways of work, in particular centering on the website. The fact that Washington fired almost everybody in Internet section of the radio, professionals with the highest journalistic qualification and the invaluable experience in the analysis of Russian society, is completely incompatible with the claim of shifting focus to the website. The mass firing of three dozen veterans of the radio communicated to Russian liberals particularly strong, irrefutable evidence that the leaders of the nefarious Perestroika plan to change the content of work and make it palatable to the sly and sophisticated ideological operators of Kremlin’s administration and offer the dismantling of Radio Liberty as a gift to Putin and a sacrifice for the cause of false Russian-American ‘reset’.
Russian liberals were in particular hurt by the amoral nature of the action, seeing these arguments only as an uncomfortable and weak cover of their capitulation with the Russian regime. Indeed, only recently has the Kremlin passed the law which again introduced the term “foreign agents” in Russia’s everyday life. All people fired by Washington are already labeled ‘foreign agents’, who will have no chance to find the job under existing circumstances. In this time of unrest, it is detrimental to the Russian public to cast out and dismiss these journalists who stood as innovators and protectors of human rights, freedom of speech, free media, and the democratic exchange of ideas.
Now is the time to correct this unwise and immoral action.
Dr. Vladimir Shlapentokh, Professor of Sociology, MSU.
Website: https://www.msu.edu/~shlapent ”
The director, Lev Gudkov — another renown sociologist — and staff of Russia’s independent social research institute Levada Center also sent a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors protesting against the firings of journalists at Radio Liberty.
Mikhail Gorbachev said:
“Glasnost is threatened in Russia and other countries. Journalists and press are being increasingly attacked. Glasnost helped break the resistance of conservative reactionary top bureaucracy, when its representatives attempted to turn back Russia’s development. Today, when people openly show their will to influence the government’s policy and participate in forming their destiny, glasnost’s importance grows.
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in this context. In times of severe censorship Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL Russian Service) made calls for democratization and glasnost a tenor of its programs. It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about turn.”
For the history of Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) see:
The Radio Station Known as Radio Liberty on the Cold War Radios blog by Richard H. Cummings, author of “Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950-1989” (2009) and “Radio Free Europe’s ‘Crusade for Freedom’: Rallying Americans Behind Cold War Broadcasting, 1950-1960” (2010). Both published by McFarland & Company, North Carolina.