BBG Watch Commentary
Anastasia Kirilenko, 28-year-old web editor, investigative reporter and radio broadcaster, has resigned in protest from Radio Liberty after less than three weeks of working under the new Russian Service director Masha Gessen. Kirilenko, who joined the American-funded broadcaster four years earlier, stated that there is nothing left of the old free media institution in Russia and compared the “new” Radio Liberty to a sinking Titanic.
Several of her colleagues had resigned earlier, even before Gessen came on board, to protest the mass dismissal in September of more than 30 journalists, web editors and other media professionals. Without any warning, Radio Liberty staff was prevented by guards from entering the Moscow bureau and forced to sign termination agreements at an international law firm representing the American management of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). At that time, about 30 staffers were fired, including almost all members of the Internet team, and several more resigned in protest. Kirilenko, who studied digital media and journalism in Russia and in France, was one of the few employees who were not dismissed or resigned in September.
Kirilenko wrote in a blog that after two staff meetings with Gessen, it became obvious to her that Radio Liberty now “resembles an American Titanic going under at full speed.” She stated that she could not in good conscience as a journalist stay at the “new” Radio Liberty. 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.”
“‘Normality’ can be understood in different ways. For example, as journalistic objectivity. But it seems that it was not enough that Mikhail Sokholov [legendary Radio Liberty journalist who was fired] used to have on the air Isayev [pro-Kremlin politician] from United Russia [pro-Kremlin party] along with Kasyanov [opposition politician, former prime minister fired by Putin] and Nemtsov [opposition politician, former reform-minded deputy prime minister]. Normal –it turns out — are stories about kindergartens,” Kirilenko wrote.
Both former prime minister Kasyanov and former deputy prime minister Nemtsov had signed a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in Washington which oversees RFE/RL, in which they denounced the firing of Radio Liberty journalists and the cancellation of their programs. A similar statement against the decisions of the RFE/RL management was issued by former president Mikhail Gorbachev and other democratic politicians and scholars.
The actions of RFE/RL president Korn and his deputy Julia Ragona were also strongly denounced by a group of human rights leaders lead by Lyudmila Alexeeva who witnessed the “special operation” because at the time of the firings she was being interviewed by Radio Liberty’s human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik. The well known and highly respected human rights reporter was also fired and her program eliminated. The BBG ignored these protests and numerous other appeals to rehire the dismissed journalists.
“Korn either decided that Putin is angry with Radio Liberty and under the pretext of “normality” [Korn] is making sure that the journalists do not rock the boat, or as a sign of mediocrity really believes that the majority of Russians like the dictatorship, and it’s time to start talking about kindergartens and funerals,” Kirilenko wrote.
Kirilenko described staff meetings at which the new management discussed such ideas as posting about weddings and funerals (“approved”), “moving away from the news” — a comment Kirilenko attributed to Gessen, “the concept of regularly scheduled programs on specific topics [human rights] — cancelled,” and “looking for stories that are less sensational.” Kirilenko interprets the last comment to mean that Radio Liberty journalists will no longer be able to do investigative reporting. “Are we journalists, or what?,” Kirilenko asked in her blog post.
Kirilenko quotes Gessen as saying “We need to figure out what to do for the next six months. Then things will change.” She reports that most new members of Gessen’s team only know how to work with online text and have no experience with posting video or audio, which the fired Internet team was doing on a regular basis.
Kirilenko blames the current crisis at Radio Liberty on Korn’s personality and management style. “Instead of reforming the station (improvements are always needed), the management simply sank her and created a scandal it completely failed to anticipate,” Kirilenko wrote.
Kirilenko accuses Korn of misleading the BBG and American public with reported statements that the fired Radio Liberty team was not doing digital media, was resistant to change, stuck in the 1980s, that the station had too many journalists reporting in Russia, and that Masha Gessen was the best possible candidate lead the digital transformation. BBG Watch reported earlier that a study done by former Radio Liberty staffers shows that Masha Gessen actually lost web visitors for her previous employer and that we could find no evidence of substantive experience on her part in new media, radio, video, television or successful leadership and management.
Kirilenko noted that Gessen has accused some independent journalists of slander for suggesting a link between her appointment and the mass dismissals, which happened shortly after her appointment was announced but a few days before she officially came on board. Before her appointment, Gessen worked as a consultant for Mr. Korn.
“Are Ms. Gessen’s accusations of slander against anti-Putin journalists worthy of an executive editor at a freedom-supporting, American-financed broadcaster? What kind of manager would accept a leadership position knowing about the purge of some of the bravest and best independent journalists in Russia?,” Kirilenko asked in another article prepared for publication.
Kirilenko reports that some of the new employees brought on board by Masha Gessen were already telling friends last summer that they will soon work for Radio Liberty. Kirilenko also reported that new team members not only lack multimedia experience but were asking whether Radio Liberty journalists used Twitter. They did, as well as Facebook and all other social and digital media, including posting for mobile devices, Kirilenko pointed out. Radio Liberty had one of the best hybrid news websites in Russia and was constantly increasing numbers of visitors. The fired employees now have a Facebook group “Radio Liberty-in-exile.”
Commenting on Korn’s skills as a manager, Kirilenko observed that his radio career began when he summoned RFE/RL’s former human resources director and fired him in five minutes. The former HR director thought he was going to a get acquainted meeting with the new RFE/RL president, but — according to sources — Korn had already issued instructions to have the HR director’s office computer disconnected and to have him escorted out of the building.
The same model, in an even more drastic form, was used against Radio Liberty journalists, recent hires and those who have worked for the station for many years, including Mikhail Sokholov whom former President Yeltsin personally handed a decree [which Sokholov drafted for Yeltsin] to allow Radio Liberty to broadcast in Russia because of his outstanding reporting during the 1991 communist coup. Some staffers were told by phone or text messages not to come to work but to report to a law firm and some were stopped by guards from entering the Moscow bureau. After they were fired, they were prevented from saying good bye to their audience of many years.
Kirilenko also reported that everyone who had asked Korn a question at an earlier meeting he had with the staff in Moscow was later sacked. One staffer asked whether Korn could describe a typical day at Radio Liberty’s new office being under construction. Korn reportedly did not like the question and the staffer was fired. Steven Korn’s nickname at Radio Liberty is Genghis-Korn, Kirilenko wrote.
In her post, Kirilenko points out that President Putin personally expressed his distaste for the “old” Radio Liberty in a public statement last year. Kirilenko wonders what else Mr. Putin talked about with Gessen, other than what she reported, when he invited her to a meeting shortly before her job at Radio Liberty was announced. She also points out that while Masha Gessen merely alluded in her biography of Putin to his corrupt financial dealings in St. Petersburg but did not include any documents to prove it, the “old” Radio Liberty that “supposedly did not know how to use Twitter and knows nothing about digital future” had them posted online already in 2010.
Kirilenko also pointed out that the old Radio Liberty team created a correspondent network covering 83 regions and reporting on abuses of power and corruption at a local and regional level. After the dismissal of the person who created the network, Vladimir Abarbanell, former private station owner and former president of the Association of Independent Russian Broadcasters, many of these regional correspondents have been either discarded or they refuse to work with the “new” Radio Liberty.
In addition to her work as web editor, Kirilenko was also doing investigative reports. She wrote:
“While people in some regions are dying from drinking, and… many local lads have already died from using hard drugs, the police fail to investigate murders of local mayors and acts of arson aimed at independent legislators, they [the new Radio Liberty] will talk about kindergartens.”
In another article Kirilenko wrote:
“Mr. Korn and his deputy Julia Ragona, who personally oversaw the dismissals of staff in Moscow, have not only destroyed Radio Liberty, they have defamed us by telling Americans that we were outdated and lacked digital skills. On the contrary, we were the second most quoted radio station in Russia with a popular multimedia website. It is these American executives endorsed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in Washington who have failed to secure new broadcasting arrangements in response to a new media law. They did not push Russian officials to treat Radio Liberty the same way Voice of Russia is treated in the United States. They capitulated to the Kremlin and put the blame on us. They used security guards and their lawyers against us. They prevented us from even saying good bye to our audience of many years. They cancelled our human rights programs without any notice to radio listeners and website visitors. They mislead the American public and their bosses at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
These American executives have no support left in Russia, other than the laughter heard from Mr. Putin’s office in the Kremlin and from his supporters. I will be doing investigative reporting at some other independent media outlet in Russia. There are not too many of them left. Staying at the new Radio Liberty would have been a betrayal of the ideals that made the old Radio Liberty a great news organization, free of censorship, a stronghold of freedom of speech in a country that still desperately needs it. I fervently hope that the U.S. administration and the U.S. Congress will move quickly to undo this terrible bureaucratic mistake before it is too late. But I’m afraid it is already too late.”
In her spare time, Kirilenko and her friends are producing videos such this one showing them removing pro-Putin graffiti in Moscow.
BBG Watch thinks that Anastasia Kirilenko is exactly the kind of young journalist the Broadcasting Board of Governors should tried to keep at all cost. She has shown far more integrity, good judgment, intelligence and journalistic courage than Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty executives whose misguided decisions forced her to submit her resignation in protest. Other talented young journalists like Elena Vlasenko, who reported on the firings for the Index on Censorship, have also resigned in protest, as did renowned media expert Anna Kachkaeva, dean of the Communications School at the Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE) who hosted a talk show and other programs on Radio Liberty.
How long is it going to take for BBG members to realize that what Steven Korn and Julia Ragona have done in Moscow was a blunder of monumental proportions?
How long is it going to take them to realize that no new respectable journalist will want to work for Ms. Gessen after seeing what had happened to their Radio Liberty colleagues?
How long is it going to take them to realize that Radio Liberty no longer exists and that no respectable democratic politician and human rights leader in Russia will want to have her or his name associated with the “new station?
How long before they realize that Mr. Korn, Ms. Ragona and Ms. Gessen have ruined the station’s and America’s reputation and created a public diplomacy scandal in Russia.
How long before they realize that these executives, as well as the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) bureaucrats in Washington who defend them, have absolutely no clue about what they are doing?