BBG Watch Commentary
During a highly emotional meeting in Moscow on Tuesday that lasted nearly five hours, newly-appointed acting Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Kevin Klose met with representatives of journalists fired from Radio Liberty by his predecessor Steven Korn. Some journalists who had resigned in protest over the actions of the previous RFE/RL management team were also present at the meeting.
Kevin Klose also met Tuesday with Russia’s leading human rights activists and democratic political leaders, including Lyudmila Alexeeva, one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize nominees and a strong supporter of Radio Liberty’s fired journalists.
RFE/RL’s new chief executive listened carefully, took notes, and appeared deeply moved by comments from human rights leaders and fired journalists, according to some of those who were present. But in his comments to both group, he said that discussing any specific decisions or plans regarding future personnel changes at Radio Liberty would not be appropriate or ethical at this time. According to witnesses, journalists meeting with Klose could hardly control their emotions, some nearly wept, and one speaker’s hands were shaking. Their deep emotional commitment to the station that discarded them in such a cruel fashion was unmistakable, one witness said.
The meetings are seen as an attempt by Klose to resolve an ongoing crisis at the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster providing uncensored news to Russia and other countries with restricted media. There were no public statements from Klose, opposition leaders or former Radio Liberty journalists after the meetings.
The fired journalists and their colleagues who resigned had formed a group called Radio Liberty in Exile and launched their own news website, Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty), and a Facebook page. The group may issue a statement on Wednesday, sources told BBG Watch. Several sources described the meetings as part of an information gathering process before Klose makes his decisions.
Before the meeting with fired Radio Liberty journalists, Klose had a long meeting with Russia’s leading human rights activists and opposition political leaders who are strongly opposed to the dismissals and programming policy changes at the station. Both meetings were held at the Memorial human rights group headquarters in Moscow. In addition to Alexeeva, several prominent political and human rights leaders participated in the meeting, including former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, a former World Chess Champion and opposition politician Garry Kasparov and Olga Zdravomyslova, a representative of Mikhail Gorbachev. Former President Gorbachev had earlier issued a statement questioning changes at Radio Liberty, as did a few days ago prominent members of Russia’s Opposition Coordination Council.
The other participants were: sociologist Dr. Lev Gudkov (Levada Center), Sergey Kovalev, Alexander Cherkasov (Memorial), Dr. Lilia Shevtsova (Carnegie Moscow Center), Galina Mikhaleva (Yabloko Party), Lilia Shibanova (Golos).
On Monday, Klose visited the RFE/RL Moscow bureau where he met RFE/RL local staff, including Radio Liberty’s new Russian Service director Masha Gessen who had been selected by Steven Korn. It was soon after announcing Gessen’s appointment last September that Steven Korn and his top deputies, Julia Ragona and Dale Cohen, had fired dozens of longtime Radio Liberty journalists and members of the Russian Internet team in Moscow and replaced them with Gessen’s associates.
Korn claimed at the time that the dismissed team was no longer needed because the Russian Service was overstaffed, lacked digital skills, and the station lost an AM radio license in Moscow. Many of the fired journalists and their colleagues who resigned were highly skilled in multimedia reporting and some received prestigious journalistic awards specifically for their online coverage.
The fired team wrote earlier to Kevin Klose “We, the journalists and multimedia professionals forced out from Radio Liberty, claim that we are not the grotesque caricature painted by Mr. Korn, Ms. Gessen, and Ms. Ragona.” Fired journalists have received support from leaders of U.S. based human rights and media freedom organizations as well as from former RFE/RL executives. Speaking of the previous RFE/RL management team, Freedom House president David Kramer said that “nothing short of major change is required, meaning a complete housecleaning of the top leadership. The damage they have done is immeasurable,” Kramer concluded.
In contrast with today’s meetings with human rights leaders and fired journalists, the staff meeting at Radio Liberty on Monday lasted less than an hour and lacked emotional content. Kevin Klose gave an impressive speech on journalism and his experience as a Washington Post correspondent in the Soviet Union, but members of Masha Gessen’s team appeared disengaged and did not ask any questions, one witness said. The only questions directed to Klose came from two Radio Liberty journalists among the few ones who were not fired last September. They pointed out several problems in the Moscow bureau, such as not posting of significant radio news reports on the station’s website.
The Russian Service site has lost visitors after it was redesigned by Masha Gessen to emphasize feature stories at the expense of news and political analysis. Most members of the Gessen’s team have no substantive political news reporting or multimedia experience and do not seem to share the fired team’s emotional commitment to the station. Most of them were switching between jobs at various feature magazines, sources told BBG Watch.
Kevin Klose stressed the importance of fact-based, objective and skeptical journalism, as well as the importance political analysis and commentary tied to news reporting. He emphasized the importance of all media, including radio, which he described as being an especially powerful medium. He also stressed the importance of presenting news, including radio reports, on Radio Liberty’s website and through social media platforms. He described how National Public Radio (NPR), where served as CEO, managed to merge its outstanding radio production with a modern website that expanded the radio’s audience.
With Masha Gessen looking tensely at him, Klose told Radio Liberty staffers on Monday that he will be consulting with their former colleagues, other journalists, diplomats and human rights leaders.
“We’ll be talking to former colleagues of yours, and we’ll be talking as well to various personalities, leaders and figures that go way back in my past. In my time here, in the 1970s, there was the rise of the activities on behalf of individual human rights, human freedoms, and the basic guarantees of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was rising, as you know, and many of the people of that time, figures of that time, I reported on. Actually, people we knew, and therefore I have a long, long history of associations, and regard and respect for these people. Their opinions on how we do our work here at Radio Liberty are very important to me, as I’m sure, they are to you.”
Before he resigned, Klose’s predecessor Steven Korn had also met in Moscow with Russian human rights leaders, but he dismissed their concerns and told his senior staff, “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.”
Many of these human rights leaders, as well as younger Russian politicians, have signed letters to the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress demanding the return of the fired Radio Liberty journalists and protesting against programming changes introduced by Masha Gessen and Steven Korn’s program content manager Julia Ragona. Lyudmila Alexeeva had written a letter to Kevin Klose, in which she said that these managers do not understand Radio Liberty mission and in her opinion should leave their posts.
It took the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, several months to absorb the news of widespread protests in Russia against Steven Korn’s actions at Radio Liberty. Alarms were raised at first by BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe who later welcomed the resignation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Steven Korn as necessary for RFE/RL to survive.
Eventually, the board asked Korn to resign–reports he denies, claiming he had left on his own for personal reasons–and selected Kevin Klose to deal with the crisis. Steven Korn said that the changes he initiated were needed and blasted his critics in a Prague Post interview shortly before he left his post.
Kevin Klose has traveled to Moscow with BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) deputy director Jeff Trimble who previously had held top executive posts at RFE/RL and is now a member of the BBG’s executive staff. Klose, who already served as RFE/RL president in the mid-1990s, had hired Trimble before leaving the station. Trimble also participated in the meetings in Moscow.
Most of Broadcasting Board of Governors members at first supported Steven Korn but later became alarmed and changed their mind as Russian and U.S. media continued to report on the crisis at RFE/RL. Some of them are said to be upset with their executive staff for not alerting them earlier to the problems in Moscow and at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, where Korn had also fired experienced journalists at other broadcasting services.
BBG members have scheduled a meeting in Washington on Friday, during which Kevin Klose may present his findings and recommendations to the board, most likely in a closed session.