Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has a new president and new senior managers, none of whom is a Russian scholar or a journalist with significant international reporting experience. Senior managers with this kind of background, whom RFE/RL president Steven Korn described as “old white guys,” have been pushed out, and the new managers he promoted want to recruit a new director for Radio Liberty’s Russian Service and they want to base him or her in Moscow rather than at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, in the Czech Republic.
The official RFE/RL job announcement says: “The successful candidate will be based in Moscow but will be required to travel regularly to Prague.” Keeping the new RL Russian Service director in Moscow will, of course, make the job of the FSB, the Russian secret police, much easier. The FSB is the successor of the KGB. President Putin is the KGB’s most famous ex-officer.
Those with even minimal knowledge of realities in Russia would know that the FSB is keeping close tabs on anyone working at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau and on its network of local reporters. They would also know that FSB officers will monitor all emails and listen in on any phone conversations the new Russian Service director might make from his/her office in Moscow or on his/her cell phone while in Russia. His or her Moscow office and home will almost certainly be bugged as well. Not only will the director’s communications be compromised, those of his or her news sources in Russia will be as well. The FSB will know with whom he or she meets and what they talk about. Getting the same type of information in Prague would be more difficult for the FSB.
The RFE/RL job announcement for Radio Liberty’s Russian Service director alludes to the effectiveness of FSB activities against the U.S. government-funded broadcaster. It points out that its Russian-language broadcasts are available on only one medium wave (AM) frequency in Moscow. It should not be too difficult to guess what had happened to all the FM radio stations and other media outlets in Russia that until a few years ago used to rebroadcast RL Russian programs. They were told by the FSB to cease and desist in using news from Radio Liberty. It is also not too difficult to guess who has the ultimate control over the AM frequency in Moscow on which Radio Liberty is “allowed” to stay.
The Putin government does not want to ban Radio Liberty completely in Russia because such a move could complicate Russia Today TV’s and Voice of Russia’s expansion onto cable systems and stations in the United States. An outright ban would also create bad press for the Kremlin in the West. But President Putin’s secret services compensate for tolerating the American-funded news operation by making sure that when push comes to shove they will be able to make Radio Liberty’s Russian Service ineffective in Russia.
So the AM frequency and the RFE/RL bureau in Moscow are allowed to stay for now. This gives the FSB the ability to monitor what Radio Liberty (Svoboda in Russian) is doing and to play their dirty tricks with more effectiveness. Mr. Korn could ask U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul about dirty tricks. A fake Twitter account was created and fake Tweets purportedly from the U.S. Ambassador posted during the recent presidential elections in Russia. Any new media initiatives the new Radio Svoboda director might undertake can be more easily countered by the FSB if they originate in Moscow. FSB operatives can plan their disinformation campaigns with the full knowledge of what RFE/RL is doing in Russia.
By proposing to keep Radio Svoboda new director in Russia, RFE/RL’s new president Steven Korn and his new team of senior managers will make the job of compromising RFE/RL journalists and their sources much easier for the FSB. As one former Radio Svoboda senior manager observed, even if the new director cannot be personally compromised, just having that individual within close reach of Putin’s secret police presents a very serious risk to a lot of people who try to overcome news censorship and expose corruption.
Mr. Korn, a former CNN executive, thinks he can manage RFE/RL like a private international media corporation. Having gotten rid of experts with years of experience broadcasting to countries ruled by dictatorships, he has no one to warn him how the FSB operates.