BBG Watch Commentary
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Ambassador Victor Ashe has issued a statement today to the media criticizing the direction in which Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn is taking Radio Liberty in Russia. “There appears to be a meltdown at Radio Liberty in Moscow,” Ashe told journalists and called for a Congressional hearing to shine the light on what happened to Radio Liberty. He is the only member of the BBG’s bipartisan board who has spoken up publicly against Korn’s management decisions. Other BBG members have been either silent or still support Korn. The BBG’s interim chairman Michael Lynton expressed confidence in Korn’s leadership on behalf of the board. That statement was later removed from the BBG official website after Ashe objected to its wording. Some BBG members say now privately that they also have serious reservations about Korn’s actions in Moscow.
“There is considerable unrest with the direction Steve Korn is taking Radio Liberty. He seldom consults with the full Board. The Board is failing in its responsibility to check out all the issues. The so called briefing we had was inadequate and we have not had independent outside checks on what is really happening in Moscow. Morale at RFE/RL in Prague is at an all time low. It pains me to say these things as Radio Liberty has had such a wonderful history in the past.” Ashe added.
Steven Korn fired dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in a special operation that saw guards barring their entrance to the RFE/RL Moscow bureau and directing them to a law firm, where they were forced to sign their termination agreements. Radio Liberty journalists were prevented from saying good bye to their audience of many years. Russian human rights leaders and democratic opposition figures, including Lyudmila Alexeeva and Mikhail Gorbachev, have condemned the mass firings and appealed to the broadcasting Board of Governors to bring back the fired journalists and restore their programs on politics and human rights. One young anti-Putin politician called RFE/RL management’s actions “political idiocy.”
Korn and his deputy Julia Ragona said that the dismissals were necessary to transition to digital media, but they did not explain why they also fired almost the entire Radio Liberty Internet team which has created one of the best and most cited multimedia news platforms in Russia.
Critical reports in Russian media have attributed the mass firings to Korn’s desire to clean house for his new director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, Russian American writer Masha Gessen. A controversial figure in Russia, Gessen had met shortly before the announcement of her Radio Liberty appointment with President Putin, whom she had criticized in a book published in the United States. She later accused independent journalists of slander for suggesting a link between her new job and the dismissals of Radio Liberty staffers. Accusations of slander are often used by Kremlin officials to stifle independent journalism in Russia.
In an op-ed in The Moscow Times, Korn wrote that new Radio Liberty will carry out its old mission. “Anyone who thinks that we are retreating or shrinking in the face of a hostile Russian administration should look no further than to the hiring of our new director, Masha Gessen, who holds both Russian and U.S. citizenship. She is widely recognized as a pre-eminent journalist, editor, author and leader,” Korn wrote. The problem is that Mr. Korn is so disconnected from reality of Russia that he does not grasp that no one there believes a word he says.
Victor Ashe clearly does not believe BBG members are getting a full account of what happened in Moscow and he is calling for Congressional hearings.
“Congress needs to hold hearings on this so the daylight will shine in on it and the truth will emerge. RFE/RL audit committee has not met in months,” Ashe, who is one of BBG’s Republican members, told reporters.
In an earlier statement to the media, asked about what he would like to say to Radio Liberty journalists fired in Moscow, Ashe said:
“I feel terrible about it. My heart goes out to them. It’s a terrible tragedy. I completely understand their sense of betrayal, but I don’t have have the support of the rest of the Board members to reverse these decisions.”
In his statement to the media, Ashe referred to reports that another Radio Liberty journalist in Moscow has resigned from the station in protest against the new management. 28-year-old web editor, investigative reporter and radio broadcaster Anastasia Kirilenko has announced her resignation and called the “new” Radio Liberty “a sinking Titanic.” Seven other Radio Liberty journalists and online media professionals have also resigned in addition to more than thirty who were fired.
Kirilenko reported that most of Gessen’s new team members by their own admission lack experience in posting video and audio. Kirilenko also reported Kirilenko reported that the new management told journalists to become more “normal” and cover stories such as conditions in kindergartens in Russia. Kirilenko interprets these directives as telling Radio Liberty reporters “not to dwell on the political opposition.” She stated that she could not in good conscience as a journalist stay at the “new” Radio Liberty.
“But for BBG Watch we would not know that Anastasia Kirilenko has quit Radio Liberty. Who knows what the public justification for this will be from management. There appears to be a meltdown at Radio Liberty in Moscow. This is tragic and a loss for American foreign policy.” Ashe said in his statement to the media.
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Ashe had previously publicly questioned RFE/RL president Korn’s leadership. During a BBG open board meeting earlier this month, Ashe has expressed his concerns about the direction Korn is taking Radio Liberty and the manner in which journalists were fired. He also questioned Korn’s plans to fire journalists working for the Russian Service at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic. Korn admitted that between five and 20 Russian Service staffers in Prague will also be fired.
“When people say we’ve acted according to the Russian law in terms of termination, my initial thought is what a low bar that is. You certainly wouldn’t want to follow Russian election laws as a model of democracy in terms of Putin’s Russia. It’s simply an updated version of Stalin, in my view, under a kinder, gentler facade, but it’s only a facade, not reality. And Putin’s Russia today is frankly a danger to democracy, a danger to the world. I suspect his ultimate motive to to throw RFE totally out of Russia. He just did it to USAID. And I think it’s only a matter of time before we are effectively barred from being in Moscow in any way and that we will have to regroup and re-establish ourselves outside of the territorial limits of the Russian Federation. I’d like to be wrong about that, but we’ll see. But in terms of — but while I respect everyone’s differing points of view, at least one Board member has major concerns, misgivings about the way things are moving. I view it with great concern and I’d like to be wrong. We’ll see how it goes. But I think people should know that the Board has had robust discussions internally about this and we move forward.”
One U.S. international broadcasting and Russia expert told BBG Watch that Victor Ashe is absolutely right about Mr. Putin’s ultimate intentions, but added that Putin, being a very smart leader and ex-KGB spy, knows that it is better from public relations point of view and for his propaganda outreach with TV and radio programs in the West to neutralize Radio Liberty using various methods of compromise and relying on the naiveté of RFE/RL’s top officials for as long as possible. He is certainly not as manipulated by his aides, misinformed by his own media and simplistic as Ms. Gessen presented him in her recent article about their meeting.
“If his current brilliant strategy fails, Mr. Putin will resort to more drastic measures, as Ambassador Ashe predicts, but it appears that at least for the time being Mr. Korn and Ms. Gessen will do the job for him. His meeting with Ms. Gessen was probably part of that plan. He had to know beforehand from his security services about Ms. Gessen’s consulting work for RFE/RL and Mr. Korn’s plans to hire her and fire some of the best journalists Radio Liberty had. Radio Liberty will no longer have any credibility in Russia or be able to attract talented independent reporters, commentators and major democratic leaders. That suits Mr. Putin just fine. What RFE/RL executives did to these brave journalists who for many years have served the cause of democracy and carried the burden imposed on them by themselves, the American people, and champions of freedom everywhere is a crime against human decency and a monumental political and public diplomacy blunder on the part of the Obama administration and the United States,” the expert told BBG Watch.