At the October 11 meeting of the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Steve Korn said that “there has been a lot of inaccurate information circulating here in the U.S. and in Russia about the future of our Russian service, Radio Svoboda [Liberty].”
Let’s look more closely at what Mr. Korn’s critics have said, including human-rights leaders such as Lyudmila Alexeeva, politicians such as former president Mikhail Gorbachev and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and renowned Russian scholars. Their testimony, which Korn might describe “inaccurate information,” consists of basically two parts. First, that Korn, together with the BBG, did away with the ideals and mission of Radio Liberty in Russia. And second, that excellent professionals have been unceremoniously sacked in a secretly planned two-day special operation that, as one journalist observed, will likely become for President Vladimir Putin a new model of taking over independent media.
This is what happened: Out of the blue, on September 20 and 21, Radio Liberty journalists were prevented from entering their offices in Moscow and redirected by specially hired guards to a law firm’s office, where they were told that they could either sign immediate termination agreements and receive severance pay or else try to sue RFE/RL in Russian courts and lose. They would, in any case, be prevented from even saying goodbye to their audience of many years.
Korn said that the employees were treated with extreme generosity and fairness by Russian standards. The employees didn’t think so. “This dismissal wasn’t voluntary — neither for me nor for my colleagues . . . ,” one fired journalist, Veronika Bode, wrote to the BBG. “We were treated by these RFE/RL American executives like common thieves. . . . The whole old team of the Moscow bureau was fired — brave people, real human-rights activists who for many years led the fight for human dignity. . . . We suffered a huge moral[e] damage.” Some journalists resigned in protest.
Korn is telling people in Washington that RFE/RL’s ownership of a radio license in Moscow will soon become unlawful (which is true), and therefore RL radio broadcasting in Russia had to cease. But the Voice of America (VOA) will continue to broadcast on an AM radio station in Moscow despite the new law. Why couldn’t the BBG, which controls both entities, put RL programs on the same transmitter? Did Korn ask for it? Would the Kremlin object and possibly put at risk the expansion of its own propaganda (Russia Today TV and Voice of Russia radio) in the U.S.? Shouldn’t the Obama administration have put up a fight to demand equal treatment instead of silently capitulating?
The point is that Korn wanted to do away with radio no matter what, and the BBG and the rest of the U.S. administration didn’t care enough to tell him otherwise. The issue is not the specific medium used for program delivery but the loss of talent and associated damage to Radio Liberty’s content as well as to its reputation for integrity.
Streaming and podcasting were already well established on Radio Liberty’s hybrid text-sound-video website, considered by far the best among all BBG-managed entities. If the budget is not being cut, as Korn himself admits, there is no model that requires cutting loose the journalists who have won Radio Liberty a distinguished reputation and loyal audience for radio and the Internet.
If the future is digital, why did RL’s entire Moscow Internet team and its video reporters also have to go? Was it to allow Masha Gessen, the newly hired Russian Service director, to bring in her own people? We could not find in that group evidence of substantive experience in managing radio and new-media platforms, or indeed in sustained successful management of any kind. What sane public broadcaster would discard in one sweep nearly all the popular on-air talent and journalists, the brain and soul of Radio Liberty, while Mr. Putin is increasing restrictions on free expression?
It appears to us that this whole exercise is not about digital transformation but about Korn, his professed fascination with Masha Gessen’s abilities as a writer, and his desire to transform Radio Liberty according to his wishes and hers. But should Korn and Gessen have the power to make such weighty decisions at a public, U.S.-funded institution without submitting them to a sufficiently long and open debate, at least within the BBG?
Korn says that he will never give up on Radio Liberty’s traditions. Whatever the intent is, in light of the Russian government’s intimidation of journalists, a wholesale purge of Radio Liberty’s journalistic staff looks very much like a bow to government pressure, and that’s how it is perceived in Russia.