Dr. Igor Sutyagin, former political prisoner in Putin's Russia, explains why serious news seekers stopped using Radio Liberty Russian website
BBG Watch Commentary
After the American management of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) headed by President and CEO Steven Korn fired without any warning dozens of Radio Liberty web editors and other journalists, cancelled their pro-human rights programs, and brought in a new team headed by Masha Gessen to change programming philosophy and redesign the website, the Russian Service has lost tens of thousands of monthly website visitors — about a 60 percent drop in just two months, according to some reports. There has been no public reaction so far from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, despite protests from nearly all Russian human rights leaders and major democratic opposition figures, including Lyudmila Alexeeva and Mikhail Gorbachev. Steven Korn said that he could not convince these leaders of anything and promised to continue with the changes.
My Loss of Radio Liberty
by Igor Sutyagin
Dr. Igor V. Sutyagin is a Russian arms control and nuclear weapons specialist who in 1999 was arrested for treason, although he had no access to classified documents as a civilian researcher. He spent ten years in Russian prisons before being released in 2010 and forced into exile in England. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International listed him as a political prisoner. His article was first published in Russian by the Radio Liberty in Exile website SvobodaNew.com.
I look with sadness not at our generation, but at the new Radio Liberty website. Sadness from a professional point-of-view.
It is not that the new staff are working poorly. These judgments are reserved for professionals in the field. I am a specialist in a different field, but for nearly two years the “Radio Liberty” button was second in my browser’s most-visited list – after my work e-mail, but ahead of my search engine. I don’t have a lot of free time. I read much faster than the overwhelming majority of people speak, so when I needed news about Russia and, more importantly, when I needed a competent analysis of the news, I would not turn on the radio, but would instead open the Radio Liberty website. This happened regularly, about twice a day. My job at the King’s Institute is categorized as Russian Studies.
The former layout of the RL website allowed me to 1) quickly and reliably find fresh news, 2) quickly skim the headlines with my eyes, without wasting time listening to entire programs which may or may not contain useful information, 3) quickly find relevant commentary (which, due to RL web guidelines, were very terse and to the point – a quality that distinguished RL from other websites), 4) skim the titles of fresh blog posts and access the ones most relevant to me by subject or authorship. Additionally, the “Liberty Bloggers” section archived posts by authors of interest to me, and I could easily access them from a list of names. (Now, I’m forced to sift through an endless stream of posts without knowing whether there will be anything of interest to me there).
Radio Liberty was second-most popular on my browser because its website structure was the most convenient for professional work with a news website – much more convenient than the layout of Grani, Ekho Moskvy, Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, TheNewTimes, Kommersant and Novaya gazeta. All these factors combined made Radio Liberty my go-to source of information – and all of this destroyed when the website was remodeled.
The purported attempt to make the RL website less of a news portal, and more of a forum for people to discuss that which others aren’t discussing was a success as far as killing the information value of a news agency is concerned. What does RL see itself as now, a pop music channel? I’m sure the intentions were good, but I’m afraid the previous work experience of the current director ended up playing a bad joke on the Russian Service. I, for one, have lost a convenient and valuable source of news. Who does RL management want me to go to now, RIA Novosti? Sorry, no.
And don’t tell me to “Listen to RL programming!” First of all, I don’t like it when somebody tells me where and how to do my job. Second of all, as I’ve said before, radio programs are more suitable for those who are used to working in a certain time mode, when receiving one new piece of news every thirty minutes or 2 hours is normal. However, if one’s task is to find a story, collect early commentary on it, and compose a preliminary analysis – and all of this in roughly 15 minutes (as the modern working environment often demands) – then a radio program is not the best medium for this, which is why RL has a website to begin with!
Unfortunately, I suspect, my position finds sympathy among a great number of people who have used the RL website for similar purposes. I also suspect that the current director doesn’t understand this because her previous work was in a completely different information setting – one where people use their free time to read interesting articles about fascinating places and objects. In other words, she only knows how to work with entertainment, and as far as I can see, Radio Liberty is turning into an entertainment medium.
Well, it’s a good start. Expect congratulations from Putin, who has been unambiguously and successfully pushing for the expulsion of all independent Russian media from the section of the Internet he is able to control. In this regard, the strategic servitude of RL’s Russian Service will be applauded by many – only not the many that RL prided itself on for its audience. I have no idea what purpose RL thinks it is serving when it restructures its information policy in such a way. The organization’s management is clearly unprepared to deal with a serious news organization. When Vladimir Churov, chairman of Russia’s Central Election Committee, said that American election laws are not up to par with international standards, the RL website published a story on… bedbugs on Polish trains. Is this what they mean by “discussing stories others aren’t discussing”?
Then again, there have been some weak signs of evolution in website structure – that is, back to what it was before. It is a positive sign, but then why did RL’s internet staff need to get fired if all the management is doing is realizing the fired employees were doing good work?
Forgive me for my critical attitude. I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t understand, and navigating the complexities of an editorial policy that is conducted from three (three!) capitals – Moscow, Prague and Washington – is not my cup of tea. However, I look with sadness almost every day at that button on my browser, which has become practically obsolete, and wonder what other website can compensate – even partially – my loss of Radio Liberty. The fact that I have lost it is absolutely clear. But whether I will ever regain it remains to be seen.
Watch Amnesty International video about Igor Sutyagin
Read 2010 Radio Liberty interview with Igor Sutyagin