As Russian authorities raid human rights NGOs, RFE/RL websites were out of commission, offered minimal coverage
BBG Watch Commentary
Big changes may soon be announced at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), but for now this once premier media freedom news organization, which has been nearly destroyed by the previous management team, remains incapable of timely and comprehensive coverage of human rights stories in Russia, with some of the discredited managers still in charge. They may not be there much longer, but for now the damage continues. While major personnel and programming changes are soon expected, unfortunately, they did not come quickly enough to insure adequate coverage of the latest human rights crisis in Russia. Nobel Peace Prize nominee, preeminent Russian human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeeva, was right in saying that in order to save Radio Liberty, action should have been taken “the day before yesterday.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty websites have been sporadically out of commission during the night and Saturday morning Moscow time, as independent media in Russia and abroad were reporting extensively on raids by the Russian authorities on human rights NGOs. It is not known whether the outages were due to regular maintenance or some other problems.
Even when it was accessible, the Russian Service website has not updated the text of the NGO raids story for many hours and did not highlight it on its homepage. Other human rights related stories are often not updated by the service for days or are not covered at all due to poor leadership and shortage of experienced personnel.
One Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member who used to defend the news reduction and the firing of experienced human rights reporters was quoted as saying that ignoring some news, including the post-U.S. election phone call from President Obama to President Putin was “no big deal.” Since then, however, the BBG became concerned and members changed their position after realizing that they had been mislead by the previous RFE/RL management. Governors Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan have been especially forceful in demanding immediate reforms. The pressure from the Board may soon be translated into concrete actions, but for now the coverage of human rights news stories in Russia is still haphazard and far from what audiences and pro-democracy activists have come to expect from Radio Liberty.
Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice
For Immediate Release
March 22, 2013 Contact: Denise L. Perron
Russia Accelerates Its Retreat from Democracy
The past several years have witnessed a disturbing and accelerating retreat from democracy and human rights on the part of the Putin government. This trend was on clear display yesterday in the raid of one of Russia’s oldest and most respected human rights organizations – Memorial.
Last July, in apparent retaliation for widespread protests by democracy and human rights activists, the Russian government introduced legislation requiring NGOs that receive any support from abroad to register as “foreign agents”. In the Russian context this is tantamount to requiring them to self-identify as spies and traitors.
Memorial, an organization dedicated to documenting the human rights abuses of Russia’s communist past and to advocating for democracy and rule of law, is widely respected both in Russia and abroad.
According to Lantos Foundation President, Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, targeting such a high profile organization is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation throughout the Russian human rights NGO community.
“Putin has reverted to type as an unreformed KGB operative, and is attempting to stifle and intimidate reformers in Russia. Since the recent corrupt elections, we have seen a raft of anti-democratic moves by the Putin regime of which this is just the latest example.”
The Lantos Foundation has been in the forefront of advocating for democracy and rule of law in Russia and has condemned the unjust trial and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as well as the suspicious death of the whistle blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, while in Russian government custody.
Lantos Swett called on the U.S. State Department to condemn the raid on Memorial’s offices; “The American government must not sideline our human rights concerns with Russia. As important as the various economic and security issues on the Russian/American agenda are, we cannot afford to ignore Russia’s retreat from democracy, and we owe it to the people of Russia to let them know that we stand with them in their struggle to protect their freedoms.”[/aside]
Once a leader of human rights coverage in Russia, the Russian Service website has significantly downplayed news reporting under the guidance of its Moscow-based service director Masha Gessen and Prague-based RFE/RL vice president for content and marketing Julia Ragona. Dozens of experienced journalists, many of whom specialized in human rights reporting, were fired last September by the previous RFE/RL management team and replaced with Gessen’s associates.
The new hires were given a two-month instead of the usual six-month probationary period, making it difficult to make quick changes once the new RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose took over with a mandate from the BBG to undo the damage.
The previous management apparently wanted to make these programming changes as permanent as possible and to make sure that the fired journalists would never be invited to return. News coverage on both English and Russian websites has been reduced and the number of images and feature stories, some of dubious taste, greatly increased. The number of visitors to the Russian Service website took a big dive, as well as the number of citations by other media outlets in Russia. RFE/RL has had an almost unprecedented distinction among serious news organizations of having the same person in charge of both programming and marketing without any significant previous journalistic experience.
As the organization still struggles with management issues, the NGOs inspections story is being covered far more extensively by the remaining independent media in Russia, Russian services of the BBC and the Voice of America, and other Western media.
It is also being covered by Radio Liberty in Exile journalists on their Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty) website.
The raids were a home page story for both VOA Russian and BBC Russian services. Not too long ago, Radio Liberty would have led with such coverage. It may do so again, but for now its traditional media freedom role in Russia has been effectively ruined.
The problems are not limited to the Russian Service. Parts of the English-language RFE/RL website were also at times out of commission during the night and Saturday morning in Moscow. (Russia has multiple timezones.) When they could be seen, both RFE/RL websites offered minimal coverage of the raids. At other times, visitors were directed to pages in Russian and English with notices that the sites are under maintenance and should be back to normal shortly.
The home page of the RFE/RL English-language news website did not highlight a single news item on the raids against human rights NGOs. When it was functioning, there was an outdated report within the site with a reference to the inspections “reportedly” taking place.
Other Western news organizations did much better, covering not only the raids, but also reactions to them in the West. The Voice of America English website reported that rights groups in the West were condemning Russia’s NGO inspections. London-based Amnesty International, New York-based Human Rights Watch and Dublin-based Front Line Defenders said in a joint statement Friday that officials from various Russian government agencies have inspected at least 30 NGOs in the past two weeks in Moscow, and many more in at least 13 other Russian regions.
The three groups described the inspections as “part of an intensifying crackdown on the country’s embattled human rights community since the adoption of a series of restrictive laws last year,” VOA reported.
The U.S.-based Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice issued a press release calling on the U.S. State Department to condemn the raid on the offices of “Memorial” Russian human rights group. The head of the Lantos Foundation, Mrs. Annette Lantos, had called earlier on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) not to reduce human rights news coverage in China and Russia.
While Mrs. Lantos’ plea was initially ignored, the BBG eventually took steps to follow her advice. The BBG Board reportedly forced former RFE/RL president Steven Korn to resign and appointed distinguished journalist Kevin Klose as acting president. (Korn claims that he resigned without any pressure and left for purely personal reasons.)
Reporting on the RFE/RL websites on the raids has been minimal over the last few days, even when the websites could be seen, because some of the members of the former management team were still in charge. There are, however, signs that major changes are underway. Important personnel announcements that may radically transform the organization and its news reporting are expected any day, sources told BBG Watch, and more announcements will follow. The initial announcement will deal with the management team in Prague, sources told BBG Watch.
Ironically, journalists discarded last fall by the former RFE/RL management are now filling the gap. A comprehensive coverage of the anti-rights raids was provided by fired Radio Liberty award-winning human rights journalist Kristina Gorelik in an interview with Russia’s preeminent human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva, the chairwoman of the Helsinki Moscow Group. The first part of the interview was published on the website of Sovershenno Sekretno, a Russian magazine devoted to investigative journalism.
The second part of Gorelik’s interview, in which Alexeeva called for the immediate return to work of fired Radio Liberty journalists, was published on the Radio Liberty in Exile website, Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty). The website was launched by the fired journalists and their colleagues who had resigned in protest. Kevin Klose had met in Moscow with their representatives. Radio Liberty in Exile journalists hope that he will soon invite them to return to work.
On March 21, 2013 the officers from the Ministry of Justice, the City Prosecutor’s Office, and the Tax & Revenue Service came to inspect the Moscow office of the international human rights NGO Memorial. A large-scale wave of inspections by the Prosecutor’s Office and other agencies swept all over Russian NGOs.
Here is an incomplete list of inspected NGOs:
Southern Regional Resource Center in Krasnodarsky Krai, Levados in Krasnodarsky Krai, Environmental Education Center in Novorossiysk, Golos, the Voting Rights Protection Association (Samara branch), Committee Against Torture (Orenburg branch), Union of Don Women in Rostov, Perm Human Rights Center, International Anti-Crisis Center Russian Office, Civic Union, the Penza Regional Community Charity Foundation, Soldiers’ Mothers in St. Petersburg, Moscow School of Political Studies, Center for Prison Reform in Moscow, Social Partnership Foundation in Moscow, Russian Human Rights Research Center…
This list could go on and on. Chuvash NGO Shield and Sword even volunteered to be registered in MoJ as “foreign agent”, however, it was also warned of an imminent inspection.
Most NGOs on the list do work on issues pertaining to human rights.
An emergency meeting of the Presidential Council for human rights was hastily assembled. It is expected to issue an official statement and appeal to the General Prosecutor’s Office.
One of the inspected NGOs is the Moscow Helsinki Group. Kristina Gorelik asked Lyudmila ALEXEEVA, MHG Chairwoman about these Government actions:
— We were expecting a large-scale attack. It was preceded by the following developments: the Duma approved the NGO Law, under which every human rights organization by default is deemed to be a “foreign nations’ agent”. The law provided the deadline: by November 30, 2012, we were supposed to register in this capacity. I think, they (the authorities) expected us to comply sheepishly and apply for the new registration. They were quite surprised to see that only one NGO, Cheboksary Shield and Sword, applied for the registration by November 30; others didn’t move a finger.
Back in September, the MHG assembled most of its regional partners in order to work out our response to the new law. Our decision was unanimous: we are not going to register as “foreign agents” because we are not foreign agents. There is another law that states that no person or organization may give false information regarding itself. By claiming to be a “foreign agent” we would indeed be giving such false information. We are not going to violate the law and will not make such a claim.
True, some of us receive foreign grants. But the “Foreign Agents” law, in addition to the foreign funding clause, has one more provision: in order to be classified as a foreign agent one should be involved in political activities. Human rights activists were never involved in political activities. We protect human rights, our work is lawful under the Russian Constitution. In fact, the Constitution encourages our activity. The Duma legislators offered a very broad interpretation of the term “political activity”, namely to include “influencing public opinion” in the definition. Indeed, we influence public opinion, but we don’t consider it a political activity, since anybody who speaks publicly influences public opinion or at least attempts to do so.
Once they realized that we were not going to register by November 30, they started to look for new approaches.
Their weapon of choice has been inspections and audits. Though they [the authorities] claimed that these were regular procedures, it was a simultaneous joint effort: tax audit, fire safety inspection, sanitary and epidemiological inspection, and Lord knows what else… MHG was also inspected. Actually, the inspection continues as we speak. I am not concerned, since we have everything in order.
I don’t know what is going to be next, but the issue is not the inspections results, but the political orders coming from the very top. And the very top has only one goal: to destroy us, human rights activists. Given the nature of the current Russian Government that is trying to eradicate all sources of independent thinking and especially independent activity, I would be really concerned if the Government didn’t try to destroy us. It would imply that we make no difference. But the fact is – we do make a difference. The ideas of the protection of human rights are now deeply rooted in the Russian society. This is a fact.
Given that the political opposition in Russia, is, unfortunately, very weak, the human rights activists and environmentalists are the real force which has an impact on the majority of thinking citizens. This is the reason why the new law is aimed against them, why the Government wants to destroy them.
I should admit that the Government can make us less efficient; in fact, it has already happened. In our huge country no public activity is cost-free. For example, MHG has run very popular educational human rights programs. Once the funding for these programs is cut, we will not be able to afford them any more: airline tickets, hotels, rooms for classes, invited trainers and other things cost money. MHG is the oldest human rights organization in Russia. It was founded in 1976 with no office space nor funding. Our first grant came in 1993 when we received international recognition, and we made it without any money.
— What can MHG and other human rights organizations do without funding?
– We can influence public opinion. This is exactly what this law intends to stop. But they’ll fail in this endeavor. OK, under some pretext they might take away our registration, our offices, and our bank accounts. That means that we’ll continue working without offices and without bank accounts, the way we used to work before 1993, and will continue to influence public opinion.Ludmila Alexeeva – «To Save The Reputation of Radio Liberty, It Should Have Been Done The Day Before Yesterday»Interview for Radio Liberty in Exile website New Liberty by fired Radio Liberty award-winning human rights reporter Kristina GorelikLyudmila Alexeeva, a premier human rights leader in Russia, is a nominee for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She was nominated by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D – MD), Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.KRISTINA GORELIK: You said that there is a desire in Russia to destroy all human rights activists. How could it happen that, against this background, American management of Radio Liberty has decided to destroy a human rights’ radio? In September of last year, tens of Russian Service staffers have been fired, many left in protest, human rights programs were shut down, including one with you participation, many other programs were closed that had an influence on the public opinion.LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: It is difficult for me to answer why the American management has done this, I am not the American management. But this move is in line with the policy pursued by our (Russian) government. There is no doubt about it, and that’s why human rights activists including myself have joined the protests against the destruction of Radio Liberty.KRISTINA GORELIK: Thanks to those protests, the former RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) president (Steven Korn) who was responsible for the Radio Liberty crisis, left his position and a new president (Kevin Klose) was appointed. What can now the new president do to reduce to a minimum the political damage that was inflicted on the radio?LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: When the new president of RFE/RL (Kevin Klose) visited Russia, he met with human rights activists. That was a stormy meeting, during which all participants came to a shared conclusion that it is necessary to restore the unique team that came together at Radio Liberty over many years and to work with them. Of course, considering the changes that have taken place all over the world and the dramatic growth of civil society in Russia, certain adjustments should be made, but they must be discussed with the radio’s team and the audience.KRISTINA GORELIK: How much time does the new president have considering the continuing loss of audience?LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: It should have been done yesterday or the day before yesterday. But it is not clear how much time the process will take, because to undo this tragic error is not easy. Radio Liberty has suffered an irreparable damage, but it is never too late to correct mistakes, even knowing that the the damage that was done is enormous.KRISTINA GORELIK: You are not only the chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, but also an old Radio Liberty on air guest. March 1 was the 60th anniversary of the radio…LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: And I had an invitation to celebrate the anniversary in the Washington office of RFE/RL, which I gladly accepted. There were two of us that day. David Satter, also an old contributor to Radio Liberty, and I. David is a journalists and a writer who was correspondent in the USSR, has learned Russian well. He does not only write about our country, he loves it and tries to figure out with empathy and concern about what’s going on here. It was very nice to be there in a duet.Of course, wherever I was, wherever I met with members of the U.S. Congress, State Department officials, American civic organizations, everywhere the conversation was about Radio Liberty. And I must say that I was very pleased to see that the anxiety about what had happened to Radio Liberty, a radio so important for us, is also widespread in the United States. And because one can feel this concern in Congress, among government officials, in civic organizations, I am confident that the problem is being solved and it will be solved.KRISTINA GORELIK: I want to fill a gap here, because in an interview with you that was published of the official site of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as in other publications, there was little mention about the current crisis at Radio Liberty. So I want to report in our site Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty) that for the first time since 1977, you have no program on Radio Liberty…LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: I was so proud that since 1977 I had not missed a single week. Well, I was not a staff member of Radio Liberty. I have never been a staff member. I was a freelancer, I was an outside contributor. But I contributed no less than once a week since 1977. Last September I stopped doing this. I must say that I got two or three calls since then from some of the new staffers seeking my comments, but that, of course, is not the same as it was before. It is not a regular contribution.KRISTINA GORELIK: What must be done at the Russian Service in order to restore programs on human right with your participation.[aside]“Like in the Soviet era, Radio Liberty is becoming the principal source of alternative information; however, the new management in Moscow, headed by M. Gessen, and Vice-President J. Ragona seem to be in cahoots with our oppressors. They insist on making our programming more entertainment-oriented. We are more than adequately entertained by government-owned television networks and radio stations. Human rights reportage and cogent political analysis is what we are lacking. The demand for coverage of these issues by the progressive part of our citizenry is not even closely satisfied by what is currently available. It is Radio Liberty’s responsibility to fulfill this role. Gessen and Ragona do not understand the organization’s mission, and, in my opinion, should leave their posts.” — from Lyudmila Alexeeva’s letter to RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose.[/aside]LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: I wrote about this an open letter to the new President of RFE/RL giving my suggestions. Namely, that the best opportunity to do this would be the restoration of the the former team of Radio Liberty that was so imprudently discarded.