Open letter of Radio Liberty Chechnya war reporter Andrei Babitsky to RFE/RL president Steven Korn
BBG Watch Commentary
In an open letter to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President and CEO Steven Korn, Andrei Babitsky, one of the most famous among Radio Liberty investigative journalists and war reporters still employed by the U.S. taxpayer-supported media freedom station, describes scenes of great joy among RFE/RL employees upon hearing the news of Korn’s resignation. Babitsky told Korn, who submitted his resignation on December 31, that his attempts to modernize Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were not successful because he instilled hatred in people who worked for him.
Babitsky, who himself practiced TV and video journalism in Chechnya, also said in his letter to Steven Korn that, considering the limited budget the organization has, video and television formats are not as powerful and effective as text in conveying meaning and achieving Radio Liberty’s mission goals in countries ruled by dictators. An image does not inspire people as effectively as text to keep their own dignity, love freedom, give up cruelty, and search for peace, Babitsky told Korn. He also asked Korn to take with him “dangerous and incompetent managers” from his entourage. Under Korn’s leadership, internal dissent at RFE/RL has been nearly completely eliminated and critics silenced. Employees who disagreed with Korn and his two top aides, Julia Ragona and Dale Cohen, were fired, forced out, or saw their employment contracts terminated.
Babitsky is viewed as one of Radio Liberty’s most courageous reporters. Wikipedia article on Andrei Babitsky (Russian: Андрей Маратович Бабицкий, born September 26, 1964, in Moscow) describes him as “a Russian journalist and war reporter, who has worked for Radio Liberty since 1989, covering the 1991 August Coup, Civil War in Tajikistan and, most notably, both Chechen Wars from behind Chechen lines. Babitsky is most famous for his kidnapping by the Russian forces in January–February 2000 during the Second Chechen War and his 2005 video interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.”
The interview with Basayev was first broadcast on ABC and incurred the wrath of Russian officials.
The Putin government’s shameful treatment of journalist Andrei Babitsky was part of a worrying authoritarian trend, argued Russian-media expert Robert Coalson, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists reported. Putin himself told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that he saw nothing wrong with exchanging Babitsky for prisoners of war.
Babitsky has been interviewed by CNN, Wall Street Journal and many other international media. He is the 2001 winner of the BBG’s David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award.
Russian government officials have tried for years to put pressure behind the scenes on members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), its senior staff, RFE/RL executives and U.S. diplomats in Moscow to get Babitsky silenced, sidelined or fired from Radio Liberty.
Babitsky’s open letter to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President and CEO Steven Korn has been posted on the Radio Liberty in Exile Facebook page and the New Liberty (Новая Свобода) multimedia website SvobodaNew.com, even though Babitsky is still employed by RFE/RL. Андрей Бабицкий: модернизация не может быть успешной, если, проводя ее, вы внушаете такую ненависть людям
Radio Liberty in Exile was formed by journalists fired by Korn and their colleagues who resigned in protest. Several among them have received prestigious journalism awards for their radio and online human rights reporting while still at Radio Liberty. The fired multimedia Internet team was recognized with Dr. Andrei Sakharov human rights journalism award for their Radio Liberty website prior to the firings. The group enjoys support of all major Russian human rights activists and anti-Putin political figures. As a current RFE/RL employee, Babitsky is not a member of the group.
Korn has announced his resignation effective January 25. It was immediately accepted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which had hired him to lead RFE/RL, but according to recent media reports, grew deeply disillusioned with his management of the organization and asked him to resign. The BBG reportedly also stripped Korn of his authority to fire employees while he is waiting for his departure, but Masha Gessen, Korn’s pick to lead the Russian Service, has tried to fire a longtime human rights reporter in Moscow just before New Year and Russian Orthodox Christmas. She later modified her decision due to inquiries from the BBG, but the reporter, Elena Polyakovskaya, faces an uncertain future.
Babitsky’s future at RFE/RL is also uncertain as long as Ragona, Cohen, and Gessen remain in charge. Universally respected and well known Russian journalists like Mikhail Sokolov, Marina Timasheva, Kristina Gorelik and many others were fired by the Korn management team and replaced with individuals almost completely unknown in Russia.
Korn is accused by critics of creating the greatest crisis in the history of U.S. international broadcasting with his decision to fire dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow, including the Internet team, and replacing them with Masha Gessen and her team of feature magazine web editors. Korn’s deputies, Julia Ragona and Dale Cohen, used guards to bar longtime journalists from entering their office in Moscow and prevented them from saying good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years. Korn, Ragona, and Cohen insist that all journalists resigned voluntarily and were treated with great respect. Lyudmila Alexeeva, the chairwoman of the human rights Moscow Helsinki Group who had witnessed the dismissals first hand while being interviewed at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau, accused Korn of treating his employees worse than even “repugnant wild Russian capitalists” treat theirs.
Sources told BBG Watch that prior to writing his letter to Steven Korn, Babitsky publicly rebuked Masha Gessen several times and posted texts critical of her programming changes. His critical texts were later removed by the management.
In one of the best investigative journalism reports on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair Judy Bachrach described in an article for World Affairs journal the complete disintegration of the taxpayer-funded Radio Liberty. In her article, Bachrach also revealed that Babitsky criticized Gessen, accusing her of poor management of the Russian Service:
“Just last week, after the board told Korn his services would no longer be needed, Andrei Babitsky—a renowned war correspondent who was captured and tortured by Russian soldiers during the Chechnya atrocities—was ordered to apologize to Masha Gessen. Babitsky had written that the new Internet director was a poor manager and had an incomplete grasp of Russian. Babitsky refused, adding that if he was forced to apologize he would, but nothing would change his opinion…
Andrei Babitsky’s Open Letter to RFE/RL President and CEO Steven Korn (unofficial translation)
“Dear Mr. Korn,
I really would not want you to resign being assured that your activity has brought even a minimal benefit to the corporation you headed in the course of a year. I shall describe to you a scene so that you could understand how you are regarded by your employees. Before the New Year, many rank-and-file journalists employed in different services gathered with their families on Wenceslas Square in Prague to watch the fireworks. An hour before midnight the announcement came of your retirement. You should have seen the joy of these people, how they embraced each other, how loudly they expressed their exultation. In that moment, their life was truly transformed into a festivity.
You write that the results of your activity will be appreciated later, when the passions have settled. But, believe me, no modernization can be successful, if, while implementing it, you instill so much hatred in people. You have made the only right decision, you left them in peace. Yes, these so un-modern people – incapable of appreciating your efforts, yearning only for comfort, steeped in prejudices – did not support you because you treated them as animal creatures devoid of reason. May be, and with good reason. You are the good one, they are the bad ones. I am more than ready to admit this. But reforms cannot be carried out despising people, because these people are the only people you have. It’s a good thing that you are not here anymore. If somebody else comes, who is able to win their love and respect – you had neither one, nor the other – than any change will be possible. I have worked for the Radio more than twenty years. No president, as far as I can remember, inspired so much hatred.
Please, do not multiply the damage that you have already done. Take with you those managers on whom you relied. Your resignation was a good deed that has brought much joy to the people. But they are still afraid of those dangerous and incompetent employees who were part of your entourage. You must break this circle of fear and hatred. This would be a serious act worthy of a decent person, albeit a person who has made a mistake.
Let me say a few words concerning those false and stupid myths, with which you tried to deceive others and by which you were fascinated yourself. There are no multimedia technologies that could help the corporation become more effective in promoting its mission. We are not in a position to become a TV station, because we don’t have enough financial resources for that. People talking in front of a camera do not make TV. A shot out from the crowd is not TV, even radio broadcasts hastily transformed into video format are not TV. TV is a very expensive technological process, difficult to produce. That does not mean however that we must fold our hands. The media by which you deliver information are important, but they are not a must. Yes, TV has more impact on the masses, this is obvious. A picture always attracts a preponderant audience, because the image does not require such a difficult processing as text does. A picture requires minimal interpretation. It delivers immediately an enormous amount of information – people, atmosphere, landscape, color, motion, and so on. But as far as its capacity to deeply penetrate into the essence of something is concerned, it is often difficult for an image to compete with text. We are not Hollywood after all. We don’t have to earn millions on a successful visual story. We promote ideas, something the rulers of those countries to which we broadcast do not want to accept, as well as their societies, which is more unpleasant. And an image is not always the best vehicle to deliver these ideas.
Picture does not call up for keeping one’s own dignity, love of freedom, giving up cruelty, searching for peace. As the history of culture shows it was the text, not spectacles, that serves as the most efficient reminder of the truth. This is exactly why we still value the Holy Scriptures in their narrative form, not as a TV picture.
Mr. Korn, God created this world through his word and through meaning. Logos is a concept that has different interpretations. Had he created the world though pictures, we would live today in a giant comic book.
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This letter is important. Not only does it lay bare the inexplicable and nearly fatal developments with one of the most important news agencies in our world, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, but Babitsky addresses another issue that is critical for our times.
He explains with a unique clarity the difference between communication conveyed by video and images as distinct from the depth that words and metaphor provide for the human psyche and heart. Babitsky speaks the truth – with compassion!
In the 21st century, we need to broadcast more of this wisdom…
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