RFE/RL coverage of Holocaust video project raises questions
BBG Watch Commentary
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) coverage of the Holocaust video project by award-winning filmmaker Mumin Shakirov has raised questions of journalistic accuracy and objectivity because of its failure to mention that Shakirov was fired last September by the RFE/RL management, which had earlier ignored his request to allow him to undertake his now famous Auschwitz video project.
Sources told BBG Watch, however, that the journalist who wrote the report, “After Auschwitz Visit, Russian Sisters Know What ‘Holocaust’ Means,” took considerable risks vis-a-vis some RFE/RL executives to even suggest the story in the form that it was finally approved and did everything possible to get it posted on the RFE/RL English-language website.
The fact that the journalist could not report on all the controversial and material details suggests that fear still prevails at RFE/RL, but he showed a lot of courage to suggest and write the story in the first place, sources told BBG Watch. The newly-appointed RFE/RL president Kevin Klose, himself a distinguished journalist and professor of journalism, will have to deal with this problem left over from his predecessor Steven Korn. Klose has held his position for only a few days and has not yet arrived in Prague, the Czech Republic, where RFE/RL has its headquarters and where editorial decisions are still made by executives of the previous management team.
After Mumin Shakirov was dismissed in September 2012 along with dozens of other experienced journalists and multimedia professionals, whom the previous RFE/RL top management accused of being incapable of doing digital media, he filmed on his own a report on the two young Rusian women who became famous for admitting in a television program that they knew nothing about the Holocaust. One of them speculated that Holocaust may be a name of wallpaper paste.
RFE/RL English website reported Thursday that “In October 2012, with financial support from the Polish Cultural Center in Moscow, documentary filmmaker and former RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mumin Shakirov took the sisters on an emotional visit to the museum and memorial complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Polish town of Oswiecim. A film of the trip is currently in the works with the working title “Holocaust — Wallpaper Paste?” and Shakirov discusses the project in the latest issue of Sovershenno sekretno.”
The editor in chief of Sovershenno sekretno is Lyudmila Telen, who herself was fired by the previous RFE/RL management from her position as the leader of Radio Liberty’s Internet team.
The report on the RFE/RL English website failed to mention that Shakirov and dozens of other Radio Liberty journalists were fired by the management of the U.S.-funded media freedom station. The report also did not mention Shakirov’s claim that before he was fired he had asked RFE/RL Vice President of Content Julia Ragona to allow him to film the Holocaust project for Radio Liberty. Shakirov said that Ragona ignored his request.
It is widely assumed that if the RFE/RL journalist who wrote the story for the English-language website had included this additional information in his report, it would not have been published by his superiors in Prague. As it is, he already took considerable risks suggesting the story and mentioning that Shakirov was a former Radio Liberty reporter, sources told BBG Watch.
While Shakirov’s Holocaust video project was not approved, and he himself was fired, RFE/RL management approved production of videos with sexually suggested content, which were placed on the Radio Liberty Kazakh Service website. The videos were produced after RFE/RL management fired several experienced journalists in the Kazakh Service. The videos were later removed after creating an outrage among website visitors in Kazakhstan because of their offensive content.
The Russian Service of Radio Liberty, now run by Masha Gessen, failed to report on the success of Mumin Shakirov’s Auschwitz video, which is receiving wide attention from independent media in Russia.
Gessen had earlier refused to cover the Andrei Sakharov human rights journalism awards, one of which went to a former Radio Liberty web editor Elena Vlasenko who had resigned from Radio Liberty in protest against the firing of her colleagues. The award also recognized members of the Radio Liberty Internet team who were fired. The jury refused to hand over the award certificate to Gessen, which is the usual procedure when the award goes to a media outfit where the journalists work or had worked. Gessen in turn declared the Sakharov human rights journalism awards to be unfortunately “a low profile” media event in Russia and declined to cover them on the Radio Liberty website.
Instead, at about the time of the Andrei Sakharov human rights journalism awards ceremony, Gessen’s website featured on the home page for many days a story about online romantic adventures of a professor from the United States. The story was illustrated with images of attractive women in skimpy costumes in an apparent effort to appeal to a younger audience in Russia.
Mumin Shakirov’s Letter to Julia Ragona, RFE/RL Vice President for Content:
Four months ago the Radio Svoboda site featured the story about two students sisters Karatygin who were answering the question “What is Holocaust?” during a TV-show and the answer was: “It is a sort of a glue”.
Next day the show was an online blockbuster.
I found the girls and brought them to Radio Svoboda studio together with Alla Gerber, the “Holocaust” Foundation President. The story proved to be extremely important for the Radio Svoboda audience. I believe it deserves to be continued. The idea is to organize a trip to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp so that the girls could receive the most emotional impression of what Holocaust was. I have no doubts that the documentary that could result from this trip (Xenia and Evgenia Karatygin, Mumin Shakirov as the author and an operator) will be an important stuff for our audience. Please find the budget attached.
Shakirov says that he never received a response to his letter and was fired in September in a special operation organized in Moscow by RFE/RL Vice President of Administration Dale Cohen and Julia Ragona. RFE/RL executives used security guards against journalists and would not allow Shakirov and others to say good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years.
The estimated cost of the Auschwitz Holocaust project ignored by RFE/RL executives was $6,000, Shakirov told BBG Watch.
An online openDemocracy.net article The End of ‘Liberty’ by Mumin Shakirov describes how senior managers of the U.S. government-funded radio station engineered the firing of dozens of journalists at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau, causing a major scandal in Russia, especially among opposition leaders and opposition media figures. Former RFE/RL president Steven Korn insisted in media interviews that all journalists resigned voluntarily and were treated with great respect.
After Sovershenno sekretno reported on his Holocaust video project, Mumin Shakirov has been approached with requests for an interviews by numerous Russian media (NTV TV channel, colta.ru prestigious intellectual web site, newsru.com and lenta.ru reported on his work), prominent intellectuals sent him congratulations. Meanwhile, the Russian Service website of Radio Liberty, redesigned by Masha Gessen, remained silent on the story. Her website is being boycotted by nearly all major Russian human rights activists, democratic political leaders, and independent journalists and intellectuals.
Shakirov and other Radio Liberty journalists were dismissed on orders of the former RFE/RL president Steven Korn who was replaced on January 26 by a distinguished journalist Kevin Klose. RFE/RL staff is believed to be still fearful of some of Steven Korn’s deputies who remain in Prague. Klose, on the job for only a few days, has not yet announced what his plans are with regard to editorial and personnel issues. He is expected to address RFE/RL staff in Prague on Monday.
Despite hundreds of reports in the Russian and international media on the firings at Radio Liberty and protests from famous Russian democratic leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news websites have almost completely ignored the whole controversy. RFE/RL journalists have not covered the story in depth fearing reprisals from the Korn-Ragona-Cohen-Gessen management team, sources told BBG Watch. But a significant number of still-employed Russian Service journalists in Prague and in Moscow have recently signed a letter asking Kevin Klose to bring back their colleagues who were fired. They would not have dared to sign such a letter before Kevin Klose was appointed RFE/RL president, a source told BBG Watch. There is widespread hope that Klose will allow the fired journalists to return to Radio Liberty.
After the Auschwitz Holocaust video project story was posted with some details but also omitting others, outside journalists familiar with the Radio Liberty controversy have posted comments under the RFE/RL report and wrote emails to RFE/RL editors:
“I read with interest your little article on Mumin Shakirov’s film and article project, ‘Holocaust, a wallpaper paste?’
I wonder if you know that it is original Radio Liberty Moscow bureau project and several months ago Mumin produced a number of broadcasts about it. Alla Gerber, president of the Russian Holocaust Society took part in those broadcasts.
Congratulated personally by Julia Ragona for his outstanding professional achievements Shakirov was fired in Septemebr last year by Liberty together with nearly 40 other colleagues. This unprecedented purge damaged Radio Liberty’s reputation and credibility of the human rights champion and defender.
Few months later Shakirov had no choice but to send his article and film trailer to Sovershenno Sekretno magazine, where another fired journalist Ludmila Telen has been appointed editor-in-chief. All those details would make your article more interesting for the readers and would give your little piece extra publicity.”
“The kind of censored journalism on the Liberty English web site is an embarrassment. Liberty was a media institution to do the opposite, to fight lies. And now it is part of the cover-up operation unwilling to give the full picture of the scandal related to publication of Mumin’s trailer and article. What kind of journalism do they promote now?
On the other hand I have to say we have to notice some progress. My comment was not rejected and you can read it on the Liberty site.”
“This wonderful project is a work of Mumin Shakirov, a former Svoboda Radio (Radio Liberty) Moscow Bureau journalist. While working for the radio he produced some broadcasts covering the TV incident with Karatygina sisters. Few weeks later in unprecedented purge he was fired together with nearly 40 other colleagues. Managers of Liberty Radio tried to justify their mad decision by their attempt to improve the quality of Liberty operation. Instead they the ruined the radio and its long human rights defender tradition and reputation. Fortunately Steven Korn, former RFERL president responsible for the mad September firings was asked to resign, the new one Kevin Klose has begun his work earlier this week. It would be best if he rehired fired journalists including the author of Karatygina sisters and Holocaust project Mumin Shakirov. This would guarantee Svoboda audience to find more about this and other Shakirov’s projects directly from their author, and not via wire agencies or other Russian media.”
“It would have been decent and good journalism to at least mention that he was fired by the previous RFE/RL management rather than call him a former RFE/RL journalist. You could have even said that he wanted to do this project for Radio Liberty but was turned down.
I understand that people are still afraid of Julia Ragona, but the story is journalistically speaking a bit dishonest without mentioning the mass dismissals. The video project could have been a Radio Liberty project.”
Mumin Shakirov is also co-author with Zygmunt Dzieciolowski of the award winning documentary film “Contest” on the beauty pageant in a Russian labor camp. Mumin Shakirov, who reported for Radio Liberty on abuses of power, corruption, human rights, and the wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, was among the journalists who were suddenly and unexpectedly summoned by telephone to the Moscow office of an international law firm representing RFE/RL and fired last September.