BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Watch has learned that a Polish journalist, Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, co-editor of Russian coverage for the UK-based openDemocracy NGO website (www.opendemocracy.net), has written to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) protesting the firing of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow. The English-language Moscow Times newspaper reported that about 40-50 journalists and editors were let go last week in a major purge amid speculation that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was clearing house ahead of the arrival of new director of its Russian Service, Masha Gessen, a well-known opposition columnist and gay rights activist.
Prior to the public announcement of her selection to be Radio Liberty director to be based in Moscow rather than Prague, where RFE/RL has its headquarters, Gessen had a private meeting with President Putin at his request, reportedly in response to her firing from a previous job for refusing to cover one of his publicity stunts. Putin reportedly tried to get her old job back, but some analysts speculate that he knew about her intention to work for Radio Liberty and used the meeting to embarrass her and the U.S. broadcaster while showing his human side. He may have also had read her earlier report to the BBG in which she suggested major changes at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau. Some analysts found it strange that Gessen described Putin as being very poorly informed about who she was. President Putin is an ex-KGB officer and Radio Liberty’s Russian Service is believed to be kept under close surveillance by the KGB’s successor, the FSB.
Several days after Gessen met with Putin, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Steven Korn announced that she was selected to lead Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, starting October 1, and that she will be based in Moscow. Several days later, RFE/RL managers fired dozens of journalists and broadcasters in the Moscow bureau.
Reacting to the mass firing of experienced human rights reporters, Polish journalist Zygmunt Dzieciolowski reportedly wrote to RFE/RL president Steven Korn and received a response, which the East European journalist described to one of our sources as “purely formal” and “disturbing.” After reading Korn’s email, Dzieciolowski sent an email to the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington, DC.
The source who has seen a copy of the email to the BBG told us that it refers to “the lack of understanding of the present political situation in Russia” and “the lack of appreciation” on the part of RFE/RL’s top management for “Radio Svoboda’s historical achievements and heritage.”
Dzieciolowski reportedly described the mass firing in Moscow as showing a complete disregard for such iconic Radio Liberty journalists as Mikhail Sokolov, whose courageous covering of the Russian White House defense during the communist coup in 1991 prompted President Yeltsin to grant RFE/RL the license to broadcast in Russia, which under the new Russian media law is no longer possible. The Polish journalist and Russia expert is said to have written to the BBG: “Imagine CBS TV firing Walter Cronkite…in a nasty corporate move.” RFE/RL management “did it to Sokolov and his colleagues,” the journalist wrote.
One of the most prominent journalists at the Radio Liberty Moscow office Anna Kachkaeva, the dean of the Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE) Media Communications School, who had not been forced to leave, resigned in protest to show solidarity with her colleagues who were fired. She wrote on her Facebook page that she cannot tolerate anymore being in lockout situations, reminding her of well shaved people dressed in black standing at the door of the kitchen of the Radio Liberty the Moscow bureau and at the entrance to the building. “Нет больше ‘Свободы'” No More “Liberty” by Anna Kachkaeva (in Russian).
According to our source, Dzieciolowski said that by sanctioning the firing of experienced journalists specializing in human rights reporting, who were not afraid to cover Chechen wars, terror in Beslan and Dubrovka, Khodorkovsky trial, Magnitsky and Pussy Riot cases, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. government agency in charge of RFE/RL, has become a Putin’s ally in destroying Russia’s most independent media.
BBG Watch has learned that Dzieciolowski’s email — which was sent to BBG member Victor Ashe, a former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and the only BBG member who published his email address on the BBG website — was circulated among other BBG members. In his email, Dzieciolowski reportedly also referred to RFE/RL president Steven Korn’s official statement on the mass firings at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau and called it an “example of unashamed hypocrisy.” In his statement, Korn said: “Though we have said good-bye to some of our journalists and other colleagues, we are thankful to have had the benefit of their creativity and dedication over the years and hope they will continue to contribute their voices and ideas to the public forum.”
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski has covered Russia and other post Soviet republics for European media since 1989 and in 2005 published Planet Russia, a study of Russian society and politics. He is also co-author with Mumin Schakirov of the award winning documentary film “Contest” on the beauty pageant in a Russian labor camp. Mumin Shakirov, who reported for Radio Liberty on abuses of power, corruption, human rights, and the wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, was among the journalists who were suddenly and unexpectedly summoned by telephone to the Moscow office of an international law firm representing RFE/RL and fired.