BBG Watch Commentary
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members Susan McCue and Michael Meehan were in Moscow from Friday through Monday to assess damage to Radio Liberty’s operations caused by the previous Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) management and to discuss reforms with fired Russian Service journalists and human rights and civil society activists.
The trip was organized by newly-appointed acting RFE/RL president Kevin Klose who accompanied BBG members to their meetings in Moscow.
Sources told BBG Watch that both Michael Meehan and Susan McCue, who also serves as the chairwoman of the RFE/RL corporate board, concluded during their trip that BBG’s decision to initiate extensive management reforms at RFE/RL with the appointment of Kevin Klose was critical for securing the future of the U.S. taxpayer-supported media freedom outlet and free media in Russia in general.
BBG members visiting Moscow were astounded by what they heard from their Russian hosts about the damage to the station’s reputation and vowed to work to repair the damage, sources said. Another BBG member Victor Ashe said earlier that the former RFE/RL management did not fully inform the board about the extent and the nature of the dismissals and programming changes. According to sources, BBG members also feel let down my the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives in Washington, DC who failed to alert them to the developing crisis. Part of the proposed solution is to return to Radio Liberty as many fired journalists as the budget permits, sources also told BBG Watch, but they did not know how fast it will be done and how many journalists will get their old jobs back.
McCue, Meehan and Klose spent part of Orthodox Easter Sunday at the Moscow apartment of preeminent human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva. Fired Radio Liberty human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik was also present. Gorelik was interviewing Alexeeva at the Radio Liberty Moscow office on the day she was fired. Alexeeva later said that even “wild capitalists in Russia whom the whole world finds repugnant” treat their employees better than the previous RFE/RL president Steven Korn treated fired Radio Liberty journalists. Korn denies that they were mistreated in any way and claims that all of them had resigned voluntarily.
McCue and Meehan also met with fired Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Sokolov who is considered one of the best political reporters in Russia. BBG governors also participated in a roundtable discussion in Moscow at the office of the Memorial human rights group.
Alexeeva and other human rights activists briefed BBG members about the new Russian law requiring registration of “foreign agents.” The law is widely seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to put pressure human rights organizations in Russia.
Alexeeva said that in today’s Russia, Radio Liberty plays a crucial role. But she has been boycotting the station since the firing of the journalists last September and the appointment of Masha Gessen to run the Russian Service.
Gessen denies that she had anything to do with the firing of the journalists, which happened shortly after her appointment was announced but before she officially came on board. Shortly before joining Radio Liberty, she had worked as a private management consultant for RFE/RL. Her associates took some of the jobs left vacant by fired Radio Liberty staffers.
At the Memorial meeting, human rights activist Sergei Kovalev supported Alexeeva’s view that despite the recent crisis Radio Liberty has the status of being the only truly independent media outlet in Russia. He said it was neccesary to protect this media institution and use the talent and experience of the fired team.
Gessen resigned last week and former RFE/RL president Steven Korn who had selected her for that position resigned in January and was replaced by Kevin Klose. In an open letter to Kevin Klose sent several weeks ago, Alexeeva wrote that Masha Gessen does not understand Radio Liberty’s mission in Russia and suggested that she should leave her post.
In announcing her resignation, Gessen said that she was leaving Radio Liberty voluntarily to write a book about the Boston terror bombings suspects whose family is from Chechnya.
With Gessen gone, Lyudmila Alexeeva and other Russian pro-democracy leaders are expected to end their boycott of Radio Liberty and some have already resumed contributing to the station’s programs. Russian media reported that during the last seven months Radio Liberty has lost a significant portion of its former online and radio audience. The former Radio Liberty management had accused the fired journalists of being unable to do digital media even though about half of them worked on the highly successful Internet team. They later created their own website which provided multimedia coverage of news events which were either ignored or not fully covered by the Gessen team.
It is not clear at this point how many of the fired Radio Liberty journalists and their colleagues who resigned in protest will be able to return to the station. Sources told BBG Watch that the previous RFE/RL management spent large sums of money on Masha Gessen, her team, new office in Moscow and new equipment. Most members of Gessen’s team have now also resigned.
One of the managers involved in reintegrating fired Radio Liberty journalists is believed to be a Radio Liberty Russian Service broadcaster Irina Lagunina, sources told BBG Watch. She was present during some of the meetings BBG governors had in Moscow.
Participants in the Moscow meetings have described BBG members as being very friendly and trying to learn all the details and understand the issues with regard to Radio Liberty and media situation in Russia.
While in Moscow, the governors also met with U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, Voice of America (VOA) Moscow Bureau Chief Jim Brooke, Marilyn Murray of The Moscow Times, and Corey Flintoff of National Public Radio (NPR).
Lyudmila Alexeeva and other human rights activists spoke very highly to BBG governors and Kevin Klose about various members of the old team of Radio Liberty journalists, sources told BBG Watch. Russian civil society leaders with whom the governors spoke hope that all fired journalists will be asked to return.
The meeting was a major step toward reconciliation between the Broadcasting Board of Governors and leaders of civil society and human rights organizations in Russia. After former RFE/RL president Steven Korn had met last November with some of their representatives, he declared: “I did not think that we would convince any of the people in the room of anything. I don’t think I could have convinced them of what day it was, if it was coming out of my mouth they were not going to believe a word of it.”
While BBG Watch does not yet have all the details, we have learned that Susan McCue and Michael Meehan asked Kristina Gorelik whether she could resume her human rights program on Radio Liberty. Gorelik thanked them for their efforts to restore Radio Liberty’s brand and reputation, but no specific details about her return or the return of other journalists to Radio Liberty were discussed or announced, sources informed BBG Watch.
Before leaving Lyudmila Alexeeva’s appartment all her visitors received gifts from the famous human rights defender – an Easter cake and colored eggs.
BBG Press Release
Governors Susan McCue and Michael Meehan were in Moscow this week to consider matters relevant to U.S. international media in Russia.
Governor McCue, who chairs the board of directors of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Governor Meehan, who chairs the BBG’s Strategy and Budget Committee and also serves on the RFE/RL board, met with Mikhail Sokolov and other Radio Liberty veterans to strategize on how best to expand the reach of BBG broadcasters inside Russia. RFE/RL Acting President Kevin Klose hosted the discussion, which included other Russia and media experts. The meeting focused on how to involve U.S. international media in the Russian civil discourse and engage Russia’s civil society.
While in Moscow, the governors also met with Ambassador Michael McFaul, as well as human rights activists – among them, Lyudmila Alekseyeva — and journalists, including VOA Moscow Bureau Chief Jim Brooke.