Russian human rights leaders issue a second letter denouncing RFE/RL president Korn, ask Secretary Clinton and Congress to intervene

BBG Watch Commentary

Lyudmila Alexeeva

Lyudmila Alexeeva

In a second letter sent in the last two months to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Benjamin Cardin, Russian human rights leaders again ask that Radio Liberty journalists fired on orders of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn be returned to their jobs and their “highly-rated programs” restored. (Senator Cardin, D-MD, is a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which also is referred to as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.)

Lyudmila Alexeeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, was joined by eight other prominent human rights leaders and social research scholar Dr. Lev Gudkov in declaring that due to actions by Mr. Korn, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has found itself in “a deplorable state.”

The letter says that Mr. Korn has not provided satisfactory answers to their question during a meeting with some of them in Moscow on October 29. “Instead of talking about the nature of recent reforms, President Korn talked about new facilities; and instead of talking about what the fired employees had done wrong, he talked about new equipment,” the activists said. In later remarks to senior staff at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, Korn dismissively said that that he would not have been able to convince this group of Russian human rights activists of anything, including what day it was.

The Russian leaders pointed out that the RFE/RL management fired the entire Internet team responsible for live webcasts of the trial against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the election protests of last winter, and other important events whose coverage has been suppressed by Russia’s overwhelmingly state-controlled media. To further counter Korn’s assertion that the purge at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau was designed to facilitate transition to digital media, the letter also points out that more than 10 highly-rated programs, which used to be published online and disseminated via mobile devices, have been cancelled.

In their second letter, Russian human rights leaders again denounced the methods used to fire Radio Liberty journalists as “heavy-handed and debasing.” The journalists were prevented by guards from entering their news bureau in Moscow, directed to a law firm where they were fired, and not allowed to say good bye to their radio and online audience of many years.

After Russian human rights leaders published their first letter to Secretary Clinton and members of Congress in September, Steven Korn reportedly assured the Broadcasting Board of Governors that the whole controversy will blow over in a week or two. He also denied that the journalists were mistreated in any way and claimed that he and other executives bent over backward to treat them generously and with great respect.

Alexeeva was being interviewed at the RFE/RL bureau and witnessed the dismissals, including the use of guards against journalists. She subsequently told Korn during a roundtable discussion in Moscow that “even in conditions of our wild (Russian) capitalism, which the whole world finds repugnant, people are not treated the way you treated the people at Radio Liberty.”

Earlier, Korn reportedly assured BBG members that if the signatories of the first letter are persons of integrity they would issue timely retractions after they realize that they had been fed inaccurate information. Contrary to his predictions, however, the controversy only intensified as other Russian opposition leaders, including former president Mikhail Gorbachev and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, also expressed their shock and disapproval in statements and appeals sent to the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress. The fired journalists formed Radio Liberty in Exile and launched a news website SvobodaNew.com, which the RFE/RL management promptly blocked on computers of their reporters and other employees.

The Russian media continues to publish critical reports about the decline of Radio Liberty’s popularity and credibility under Masha Gessen, Korn’s personal choice to lead the Russian Service. He described her as a great journalist, editor and leader far more successful and acclaimed than any other service director in the history of RFE/RL, but according to reports, website visits at her former employer declined under her leadership and her new inexperienced team at Radio Liberty has missed many important news stories, including the Obama-Putin phone conversation. The fired Internet team increased Radio Liberty web traffic multiple times.

Dr. Gudkov, Lyudmila Alexeeva, and other human rights and political leaders who participated in the meeting in Moscow in October were not convinced by Korn’s or Gessen’s explanations, which they said did not answer any of their questions.

Other signatories of the second letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress are: 
Sergei Kovalyov, Chairman of the Russian “Memorial” human rights organization; Vladimir Bukovsky, a writer and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union; 
Alexander Cherkasov, Chairman of the “Memorial” Human Rights Centre; 
Pavel Litvinov, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union; 
Alexei Simonov, the President of the Glasnost Defense Foundation; 
Lev Ponomarev, Executive Director of the Russian movement “For Human Rights,”
 Valeriy Borzshov, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group; and 
Svetlana Gannushkina, Chairwoman of the group Citizen’s Assistance (Grazhdanskoe Sodeistvie).

BBG Watch has learned that while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the Middle East, the letter was forwarded Tuesday to Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who represents Clinton at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) meetings. The bipartisan BBG board, of which Secretary Clinton is an ex officio member, is managing U.S. international broadcasting. Some BBG members, including former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, have expressed their strong disapproval of Korn’s actions in Russia. Korn has also reportedly refused to provide information about Masha Gessen’s salary and his trip to Moscow requested by the BBG Strategy and Budget Committee, which is chaired by BBG member Michael Meehan, and declined to answer some of Meehan’s questions. The whole BBG board is scheduled to meet in December.

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To the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

To the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

To the Senator Benjamin Cardin


November 19, 2012

Dear Sirs, 
Dear Mrs. Clinton, 
Dear Mr. Cardin,

In October, we appealed to you to address the situation pertaining to recent events at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In response, we were offered a meeting with RFE/RL’s management, whose actions we had criticized in our appeal. The meeting took place on October 29th, but we did not receive a satisfactory answer to our questions, specifically: what is the concept behind RFE/RL’s restructuring, and what issues did the management have with the journalists it fired to accommodate said restructuring?

Instead of talking about the nature of recent reforms, President Korn talked about new facilities; and instead of talking about what the fired employees had done wrong, he talked about new equipment.

Of the 55 journalists previously employed by the Moscow Bureau, to their own dismay and the dismay of their listeners, 35 were fired and 8 left as a sign of protest. The process was heavy-handed and debasing. It tainted RFE/RL’s image in a country where it had spent years earning the respect of citizens with its service to democracy and freedom.

When it comes to non-state media, it is difficult to imagine a worse time for this kind of ‘restructuring.” The Russian government is staging a massive attack on NGOs and media, and signing into law new regulations that curtail civil liberties. In these conditions, the Russian public has interpreted the destruction of the Moscow Bureau as a conspiracy between the US and Russian governments against the free press.

At the moment, RFE/RL is in a deplorable state. Our broadcasts consist primarily of re-runs. More than 10 highly-rated programs, which used to be published online and disseminated via mobile devices, have been cancelled.

Shutting down our AM broadcasts and transitioning to a multimedia platform in no way explains why RFE/RL management decided to liquidate the journalistic collective in Moscow, including the entire internet division – the division responsible for live webcasts of the trial against Mikhail Khodorkovskii and Platon Lebedev, the election protests of last winter, and other important events whose coverage has been suppressed by Russia’s overwhelmingly state-controlled media.

It would be in the organization’s best interest to restore the unique journalistic collective that was destroyed by the “restructuring” process. It would also be a financially seamless procedure, since their severance pay is still being covered by the RFE/RL budget.

Only then will it be appropriate to have a public discussion of how RFE/RL ought to be restructured. The conceptual basis for this must be founded on respect towards our audience, towards American taxpayers and towards the journalists who, despite increasing pressure from the government and its curtailing of civil liberties, bravely carried on the noble mission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Sincerely,

Lyudmila Alexeeva, Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group


Sergei Kovalyov, Chairman of the Russian “Memorial”, the chairman of the Public Commission for the Preservation of the Heritage of Academician Sakharov — Andrei Sakharov Foundation


Vladimir Bukovsky, Writer, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union


Lev Gudkov, Sociologist, the chairman of the “Levada” Analytical Center


Alexander Cherkasov, Chairman of the “Memorial” Human Rights Centre


Pavel Litvinov, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union


Alexei Simonov, the President of the Glasnost Defense Foundation


Lev Ponomarev, Executive Director of the Russian movement “For Human Rights”


Valeriy Borzshov, the rights advocate, the member of the Moscow Helsinki Group


Svetlana Gannushkina, the human rights activist, who was reported to have been a serious contender for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Chairwoman of the group Citizen’s Assistance (Grazhdanskoe Sodeistvie)

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