Politics & Policy

Silenced by Washington

Mass firings have ended the distinguished history of Radio Liberty in Russia.

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.

Korn also said that Radio Liberty was overstaffed with journalists, and he was going to reduce staff and use the money for something else. Too many independent journalists at Radio Liberty in Putin’s Russia? Really, Mr. Korn?

In his report to the BBG, Korn asked for “some time to transform and retool” and for critics to “withhold . . . judgment until [the Russian Service] transformation has been put in place and has had a chance to take root.” How much time do Korn and Gessen need? And why didn’t Korn make sure that normal operations could continue smoothly while he and Gessen are still working on implementing their plans? What does this say about Korn’s abilities as a manager?

According to Korn, “some . . . critics claim, quite incorrectly, that [RL is] withdrawing or retrenching in Russia.” Yes, this is exactly the picture Gorbachev, Alexeeva, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, and many others see at this point, while the astounding new toy that Korn and Gessen have promised to bring about still needs to be produced.

Are these and other Russian critics of the move, including the famous Michigan State sociologist Vladimir Shlapentokh, so naïve as to be misled by misinformation? Korn expected them to issue retractions. They didn’t. Instead, many more signed letters of protest, which were then ignored by the BBG. Is it perhaps because they know Russia better and realize that what Korn and the Obama administration have done is a political and human tragedy?

Lyudmila Alexeeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said (along with a group of human-rights leaders) that “reorganization of Radio Liberty work was carried out in a form of ‘special operation’ that was shameful and abusive for its employees. The KGB could not harm the image of the radio and the United States in Russia as did U.S. managers — the President of Radio Liberty Steven Korn and the Vice President Julia Ragona.”

Gorbachev, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote, “Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in [the] context [of recent attacks on glasnost]. It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about-turn.”

Former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov called this “a stunning example of desperate political idiocy.” “Thanks for making Putin’s life easier, and ours much harder,” he added.

Steve Korn and Masha Gessen are not launching a digital revolution. Instead, they have created a weapon of mass destruction that has vaporized Radio Liberty in Russia and damaged America’s reputation everywhere.

— Mario Corti, an Italian journalist and writer, is a former director of Radio Liberty Russian Service. Ted Lipien, an American journalist and writer, is a former Voice of America acting associate director.


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