BBG Watch Commentary
Several individual Russian protesters appeared Wednesday near the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with signs condemning the mass firing of Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) journalists and cancellation of many of the U.S. government-funded station’s human rights programs. A larger demonstration against the decisions of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s American management was held in front of the embassy Tuesday. RFE/RL executives report to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency that gets its funding from the U.S. Congress.
Acting without any warning and using security guards, RFE/RL executives suddenly prevented about 40 journalists, web editors and other staffers — almost the entire staff of the station’s Moscow bureau — from continuing their programs and posting reports online. They were called into a law firm office in Moscow and told they would either be fired or they could sign separation agreements and receive severance pay. Some journalists resigned in protest. They were prevented from saying good bye to their listeners and website visitors. Their firing brought a storm of protests from prominent Russian human rights leaders and opposition political figures like Mikhail Gorbachev.
Russian media is full of speculations that the mass firing and cancellation of human rights programs is linked to the Obama Administration’s attempts to pacify the Kremlin, although there is some evidence that the decision to dismiss almost the entire staff in Moscow may have been taken by two RFE/RL executives, RFE/RL President Steven Korn and Vice President Julia Ragona, who — according to some sources — failed to fully inform BBG members about their planned actions in Moscow.
The bipartisan BBG board is meeting Thursday in Washington and may discuss the crisis, but in the past BBG members ignored evidence of mismanagement and discriminatory treatment of foreign employees at Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. They did, however, according to sources, quietly reversed some of Mr. Korn’s minor, but not major, previous personnel decisions at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, after it was revealed that in an email to a BBG member or members, he referred to some of his senior staffers, some of whom were later fired or demoted, as “old while guys.”
At that time, several BBG members strongly defended Mr. Korn, while others, according to sources, wanted to have him fired. In the end, the majority of BBG members allowed him to keep his job, knowledgeable sources told BBG Watch. They predict that the same scenario may repeat itself at Thursday’s BBG meeting despite a major political and public diplomacy crisis for the United States in Russia and protests from Russian human rights leaders, democratic opposition politicians, and Radio Liberty listeners and web users. The Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine represents Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is an ex officio BBG member, at BBG meetings. She would be the most likely official to raise concerns about any damage to America’s reputation and public diplomacy in Russia. It is not known, however, whether she will be able to attend Thursday’s meeting, in which case one of her senior advisors at the State Department will likely represent her. The time of the Thursday’s meeting has been rescheduled at the last moment.
RFE/RL President Steven Korn issued a statement defending his actions as necessary for a transition to online media, but his critics point out that he fired the entire highly-praised Radio Liberty Internet team. Critics attribute the purge to his hiring of controversial Russian American writer and journalist Masha Gessen to be the new director of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty. She is best known in Russia not for her both critical and humanizing biography of Vladimir Putin, which was published in English in the West, but for interviews in Russian posted on the Internet about very private details of her personal life.
Prior to the announcement of her appointment at Radio Liberty, Gessen was suddenly called for a semi-private meeting with President Putin who ostensibly tried to help her get her previous job back from which she was fired for refusing to cover a propaganda news event featuring him. There are speculations, however, that being an ex-KGB officer who relies heavily of his security services, he knew about her job negotiations with RFE/RL and wanted to embarrass her, Radio Liberty and the U.S. government.
According to media reports, Gessen at first accepted Putin’s offer of help but later declined it and chose to work for Radio Liberty. The meeting with Putin raised a lot of eyebrows among anti-Kremlin journalists and opposition figures, but according to sources, RFE/RL president failed to inform BBG members about it before announcing his selection. Masha Gessen later accused two journalists of slander, one Radio Liberty editor who was fired and a famous Russian satirist who contributed programs, for suggesting a link between her accepting an offer of employment and the mass firing of Radio Liberty staff, which occurred before she officially came on board.
President Putin recently had signed a law re-criminalizing slander, with fines of up to $150,000, which was seen as a further attempt to stifle free speech in Russia. Gessen’s accusations of slander against fellow opposition journalists also raised a lot of eyebrows.
Russian media reported that before she became the new Radio Liberty director, Gessen worked for Mr. Korn as a consultant doing an evaluation of the Moscow bureau. Media reports have also focused on her spotty management record and conflicts with previous employers. Some reports speculate that Mr. Korn was so impressed with Ms. Gessen and her biography of President Putin that, without realizing the full implications of his actions, he decided to fire the team of well-known and highly-respected Radio Liberty broadcasters, online media experts and human rights reporters to allow her to chose her own staff.
The fired employees charge that Mr. Korn had earlier promised them medical insurance, a move to a new $1 million facility in the same building housing the TV journalism school of old Soviet propaganda master Vladimir Posner, and additional training. Some said that these promises were so convincing that the news of their sudden dismissal caught them completely by surprise. They could not believe that the U.S. government would abandon them in this fashion since anti-Kremlin journalists are not likely to find good employment in their profession in Putin’s Russia. Some of them are single mothers with many children and some are disabled but were able to work on the Internet team.
Some of these issues may be discussed Thursday even at the open BBG meeting because some BBG members, particularly Ambassador Victor Ashe, are said to be appalled by the treatment of Radio Liberty employees in Moscow and the public diplomacy crisis the mass firing and the cancellation of human rights programs have produced in Russia.
But since the time for the BBG open meeting on Thursday was suddenly changed at the last moment, some BBG members and interested members of the public may be prevented from attending. Among those considering attending the meeting, when it was scheduled for the afternoon instead of the early morning, were prominent Russian American scholars, BBG Watch has learned.
One of the concerned scholars is famous Russian American sociologist Dr. Vladimir Shlapentokh, a professor at Michigan State University. He has already sent his protest letter about the firings to the BBG. A similar letter was sent by sociologists in Russia whose independent work was featured in Radio Liberty radio programs and on the station’s website but is being ignored by Russian state-owned media. The BBG meeting is still expected to be streamed online on the BBG website.
One of the signs carried Wednesday in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said in English: “Americans! U.S. Government is Supporting Dictatorship in Russia.” Another sign said in Russian: “I Am for Liberty, To Think, To Speak, To Express.”
In an op-ed in The Washington Times, a former BBG member, talk radio personality Blanquita Cullum, strongly condemned the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the agency’s permanent executive staff — the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which includes senior BBG advisors, for “betray[ing] its mission to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
Blanquita Cullum commented on the mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow:
“Last month, staff members at Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau were sacked unceremoniously. The move was a crucial blow to the integrity of a free press, and those fired were some of the most respected reporters on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty staff. Silencing them via the actions of senior agency officials was a tremendous victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and its restriction of free speech. Not surprisingly, a number of widely respected Radio Liberty journalists resigned in protest.”
Read more: CULLUM: Stifling free speech abroad – Washington Times .