According to an officials announcement on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) website, the BBG Strategy and Budget Committee will meet in a closed session on Thursday to discuss various topics, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s position in Russia after RFE/RL president Steven Korn was widely criticized by independent Russian politicians, human rights activists and media for firing dozens of Radio Liberty journalists and destroying the station’s traditional pro-human rights content.
In a meeting with Korn in Moscow on Monday, Russian human rights activists accused him of not answering any of their questions and demanded that the fired journalists be brought back and their programs resumed to avoid “disaster.”
The BBG Strategy and Budget Committee has currently only two members, Michael Meehan, who is the committee’s chairman and who has called the meeting, and Ambassador Victor Ashe.
Ashe has publicly expressed his strong disapproval of Korn’s performance at RFE/RL. BBG Watch has learned that Meehan is also highly critical of Korn’s actions in Russia. The Strategy and Budget Committee can recommend its decisions to the entire board for approval.
BBG Watch has also learned that U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is very anxious about what Korn is doing to Radio Liberty. Sources told us that Ambassador McFaul talked last week with a well-known former Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Sokholov who was fired by Korn and his deputy Julia Ragona. Both Korn and Ragona claimed during the meeting that they had nothing to do with the selection of those who were to be fired and put the entire responsibility on the Russian Service’s former management. At the panel discussion in Moscow Monday, Sokholov strongly confronted Korn, Ragona and their new director of the Russian Service Masha Gessen. Sokholov was supported by human rights activists, opposition politicians and scholars who also participated in the discussion.
During the discussion, Korn said that the Russian Service of Radio Liberty had twice as many staffers as it needed to cover news and report on human rights issues in Russia. The other participants strongly disagreed.
The public diplomacy crisis created by the mass firing and current chaos at Radio Liberty may also be a cause for alarm for the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who represents Secretary Clinton at BBG meetings.
Korn may still enjoy some support from the BBG’s interim presiding governor Michael Lynton and from Governor Dennis Mulhaupt, but it is not clear how long their support can last in the face of a growing crisis in Russia.
It was also reveled during the discussion that Korn has been firing journalists at other Radio Liberty language services, including the Kazakh Service in Prague, Czech Republic, where RFE/RL has its headquarters. BBG has learned that after Moscow, Korn is going to Almaty.
A former RFE/RL Kazakh journalist Saida Kalkulova, who was recently fired, has provided this account to BBG Watch:
“Greetings to all former and current journalists of Radio Liberty!
My name is Saida Kalkulova. I am a former employee of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service in Prague. Four months ago I (along with three colleagues) was dismissed in a few minutes just like journalists from Radio Svoboda and escorted by security guards out of the RFE/RL building. It is a half of the service. It was a terrible scene! Not for the faint-hearted.
I have worked at RFE/RL for seven and half years. At the beginning I worked as a broadcaster but later contributed to every platform of the service, including the bilingual website, developed multimedia projects and social media pages. I know the atmosphere inside the Radio very well. It was not easy one but became unbearable when Steve Korn joined the radio as president. Under his leadership it is impossible to solve issues in a civilized manner. Whenever a journalist raises an issue and if the management or the president himself does not like it, the whistleblower faces persecution. But if the journalist wants to find out about such kind of attitude, then he or she gets fired. For the benefit of the management, they have enough pretexts such as restructuring, budget cuts, the change of editorial policies and etc. And this kind of approaches are used against those journalists who have independent character.
I couldn’t understand why the management of RFE/RL acts with its journalists the same way as autocrats with their nations. Why don’t they try to determine the truth or at least talk to the journalist? I couldn’t find an answer. As some former journalists of the Russian service of RFE/RL point out neither Steve Korn nor Julia Ragona are journalists themselves. Maybe that is the reason why they solve issues in an unprofessional way. Perhaps they are afraid of us, professional journalists, because they can’t openly discuss the problems due to their insecurity? That is why, probably, it is easy for them to use coercive methods in order to cover their own failure?
Whatever the case, the senior management of RFE/RL avoids an honest discussion. Based on my own experience I can tell for sure that they are scared of freedom of speech. The comic situation is that these very people lead RFE/RL, the mission of which is to promote democratic values in the world. Absurd!”
BBG Official Announcement
The Broadcasting Board of Governors Strategy & Budget Committee will hold a closed meeting Nov. 1, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.