BBG Watch Commentary
www.Kremlin.ru 2006 Photo of President Putin
Radio Svoboda Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 5:38 PM ET
English-language newspaper published in Russia, The Moscow Times, reported that Radio Svoboda — which is the Russian name of Radio Liberty, the Russian service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) funded by U.S. taxpayers through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — “removed from its website an interview citing a former St. Petersburg businessman as claiming that in the 1990s he bribed President Vladimir Putin, who at that time was serving as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg.”
In an online article, tiled “Radio Svoboda Deletes Interview Accusing Putin of Graft,” The Moscow Times reported that “‘The publication was removed upon a request by Radio Svoboda’s interviewee [Maxim Freidson], who is concerned about his safety’,” said a message published in place of the interview on Sunday.
READ MORE: Radio Svoboda Deletes Interview Accusing Putin of Graft, The Moscow Times, May 24, 2015.
The Moscow Times reported that Freidson currently lives in Israel. During the Cold War, both Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty also went to great lengths to protect individuals who provided sensitive information about communist officials and had reasons to fear for their own safety or the safety of their families and close friends and associates. In this case, the interviewee’s name and what he had told RFE/RL has been already made public, but there may be other reasons for his apparent fear of some kind of a possible new retaliation against him by the Kremlin or its agents. While his name is no longer on Radio Liberty’s website, the title of the post, which still remains online, leaves little doubt as to the nature of his allegation against President Putin.
The original Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) article was titled “Он просто писал сумму во время беседы” (“He just wrote the amount during a conversation.”)
According to The Moscow Times, in the interview, published by Radio Liberty on Saturday, Maxim Freidson claimed that he had worked with Putin in the 1990s in St. Petersburg on the establishment of a joint Russian-American venture to manufacture police and hunting weapons. “Freidson claimed that after Putin wrote the sum of $10,000 on a piece of paper during one of their meetings, he paid the funds to then-Putin aide Alexei Miller, who currently serves as the head of Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant,” The Moscow Times reported.
The Moscow Times also reported that President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the TASS news agency that the Kremlin has been targeted recently by a foreign media offensive, complaining of active efforts to discredit the president.
In the early 1990s, Marina Salye, a Russian politician and former Soviet dissident, led a thwarted inquiry into corruption in the office of Vladimir Putin when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. “Ms. Salye dropped out of public life and moved to a remote village after Mr. Putin was elected president in 2000, saying she felt threatened by his power,” The New York Times reported after her death from a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 77. But in 2010, she gave an interview to Radio Liberty’s investigative reporters Anastasia Kirilenko and Yuri Timofeev in which she commented on graft allegations against Vladimir Putin. The 2010 Radio Liberty interview with Marina Salye is still available online, “Почему Марина Салье молчала о Путине 10 лет?” (Why Marina Salye kept silence about Putin for 10 years). Marina Salye unsuccessfully sought Vladimir Putin’s resignation from the city government. A 2012 RFE/RL video report in English, based on the 2010 interview, is also accessible online on rferl.org website.
Marina Salye interview and other Radio Liberty reports alleging corruption by Vladimir Putin were not deleted.
In an English language version of the 2010 RFE/RL interview, “Putin’s Old Nemesis Speaks Out After Decade Of Silence,” Marina Salye was quoted as saying that she “went into hiding 10 years ago because she feared for her life.” “‘I have everything in my files’, Salye says, adding that she thought to herself, ‘They’re going to kill me.’ [My sister] Natasha was very frightened about this’,” RFE/RL reported.
The 2015 Radio Liberty interviewee Maxim Freidson who also made allegations of corruption against Vladimir Putin may have had the same fears after granting the interview and asked that it be deleted.
Deleting an already published interview at interviewee’s request because of interviewee’s concerns about his safety is a rare occurrence in journalistic practice and points to a growing fear among journalists and critics of President Putin, both in Russia and abroad. As of Wednesday, May 27, 2015, 7:30 PM ET, the Radio Liberty online post shows large numbers of Tweets (1,928) and Facebook Likes/Shares (over 20,000). We could not determine whether most of social media shares occurred before or after the interview was removed.
RFE/RL’s Russian service and RFE/RL English news website have reported frequently on allegations of corruption leveled against President Putin. These reports, such as, “Kremlin Whistle-Blower: ‘Putin Has No Option But To Stay In Power’” and “Report Says Luxury Perks Pile Up For Putin,” have not been deleted by RFE/RL.
It appears that no other RFE/RL online report dealing with government corruption in Russia has been removed and that the interview with Maxim Freidson was reluctantly deleted by Radio Liberty at his request because he now fears that his life may be in danger. It does not appear to be a case of censorship initiated by the management of Radio Liberty or RFE/RL management, but it is nevertheless a blow against media freedom. We could not determine at what level of management within RFE/RL in Moscow, Prague or Washington the decision to delete the interview was made or whether it was discussed or cleared with broad members or other top officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington.
In a directly unrelated development, but one which also points to widespread fears and suspicions among Russian democratic leaders and independent journalists, Russian media and international media, including RFE/RL, reported that Vladimir Kara-Murza, Jr., a prominent Russian journalist and opposition activist has been hospitalized in Moscow after suddenly falling ill. Kara-Murza’s father, also named Vladimir, is a journalist with RFE/RL’s Russian Service. He was quoted by Russian news agency RBC as saying that doctors said his son’s kidneys had been impacted and that the illness could have resulted from food poisoning. There have been unconfirmed speculations in media reports in Russia and in the West that he may have been intentionally poisoned. Many Russian opposition leaders and independent journalists have been assassinated in recent years.
“Together with former Russian prime minster and current Kremlin opponent Mikhail Kasyanov, Kara-Murza Jr. last month lobbied U.S. lawmakers in Washington to impose sanctions on Russian television “propagandists” they accuse of spearheading a media vilification campaign that they say helped lead to Nemtsov’s assassination near the Kremlin on February 27,” RFE/RL reported.
READ MORE: Prominent Kremlin Critic Hospitalized In Moscow, RFE/RL, May 27, 2015.
To the surprise of some, the Russian government under the presidency of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin still allows Radio Liberty news bureau and its journalists to operate in Russia. Some of Radio Liberty’s programs are prepared by RFE/RL reporters in Moscow and in other locations in Russia, but its website is controlled from RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic, where Radio Liberty programs are also originated.
In a separate move which also puzzled supporters of media freedom in Russia, Radio Liberty’s top and well-respected human rights reporter in Russia who often exposed human rights violations and official corruption was recently laid off by RFE/RL due to what the Russian Service management described as necessary staff reductions. Leading human rights activists in Russia were unconvinced by Radio Liberty management’s explanations and sent a letter of protest to members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors about the dismissal of a reporter whose human rights program was canceled, a source well-connected with the Russian democratic opposition told BBG Watch. They are reportedly planning to send another protest letter to BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and other BBG members, including ex officio member, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Some Radio Liberty journalists have complained privately to their friends in the West of poor management and poor employee morale in the Russian service.
Radio Liberty’s online article, “Он просто писал сумму во время беседы” which included an interview with Maxim Freidson, who had accused Vladimir Putin of graft, now shows only the following statement:
Публикация удалена по просьбе собеседника Радио Свобода, опасающегося за свою безопасность. Приносим извинения.
Publication was removed at the request of Radio Liberty’s interlocutor who fears for his safety. We apologize.
“Он просто писал сумму во время беседы”
Публикация удалена по просьбе собеседника Радио Свобода, опасающегося за свою безопасность. Приносим извинения.
Читайте новые публикации Радио Свобода:
Neither Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty nor the Broadcasting Board of Governors has issued any press releases about this incident which may indicate this is a sensitive issue for the American management of the U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet.
President Putin signed a law on Sunday, May 24, 2015, that allows for foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or firms deemed “undesirable” on national security grounds to be sanctioned and banned from operation within the country. RFE/RL Moscow bureau may fall under this category as it is registered in Russia as a legal entity.
JURIST (http://jurist.org), a web-based legal news and real-time legal research service at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reported that “the term undesirable is open to interpretation and not specifically defined within the statute” and that under the new law, “Russian authorities would essentially be allowed to prosecute organizations they believe pose a threat to Russia’s Constitutional order, defensive capacity and national security.” These organizations could face up to six years in prison as well as fines.
In October 2006, shortly after the assassination in Moscow of prominent investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, some Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian service managers at that time still expressed hope that the Kremlin will allow them to report and broadcast in Russia despite President Putin’s’ crackdown on local independent media and international broadcasters. RFE/RL Moscow bureau chief said in an on-air Radio Liberty discussion in 2006 that her optimism is based on her belief in “common sense of the current Russian leadership.” A Russian service manager at the RFE/RL home office in Prague also expressed confidence shortly after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder that Radio Liberty’s future in Russia looks good.
In 2012, RFE/RL’s American management fired dozens of Radio Liberty journalists, many of them specializing in human rights reporting. A few more Radio Liberty journalists, including Anastasia Kirilenko who had interviewed Marina Salye about Vladimir Putin, resigned to protest the firing of their colleagues. The then RFE/RL’s American management justified the 2012 dismissals as necessary staff reductions, the same justification used for the recent laying off of Radio Liberty’s human rights reporter.
In 2012, some of Russian service managers tried unsuccessfully to discourage human rights and media freedom advocates from coming to the fired journalists’ defense. A few of these Radio Liberty managers kept their positions or were promoted. Some of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials who allowed the 2012 RFE/RL management crisis to develop also held on to their positions. RFE/RL’s broadcasts to Russia and other countries in the region are funded by the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers expect Radio Liberty to focus on human rights and other developments not reported on or distorted by the Kremlin’s official media.
Comments by Radio Liberty managers in 2006 and the dismissal of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in 2012 surprised and offended many pro-democracy activists in Russia who were mourning the killing of Anna Politkovskaya. Her death further intensified fear among independent journalists in Russia about their safety and concerns about their ability to continue any kind of investigative reporting. After a BBG-intitiated management change at RFE/RL, many of the Radio Liberty journalists fired in 2012 were rehired in 2013.
Other independent Russian journalists and democratic opposition leaders were assassinated since Politkovskaya’s murder in 2006. A new report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent international NGO, found that 56 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992. Boris Nemtsov, former First Deputy Prime Minister and an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, was assassinated on February 27, 2015 on a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow. Nemtsov was one of many prominent Russian democratic opposition leaders and human rights activists who in 2012-2013 had signed letters protesting the firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia.
Subsequent management reforms in 2013, instituted by RFE/RL president Kevin Klose, have improved working conditions, employee morale and RFE/RL’s effectiveness, but according to critics some problems remain unresolved after Klose retired. Since Kevin Klose’s departure on March 1, 2014, RFE/RL has been without a full-time permanent president and CEO for over a year.
The Russian service of the Voice of America (VOA), another media outlet funded by U.S. taxpayers and overseen by the BBG, appears to face even greater challenges. In 2012, VOA Russian service posted online an interview with a leading Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny which, according to NPR, he later described as “100 percent fake” and complained that VOA “went nuts.” The fake interview may have been created by Kremlin supporters who have been known to hijack email accounts of anti-Putin opposition leaders. It could have been a provocation by the Russian security service. In 2011, an independent Russian journalist and new media scholar Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy, who evaluated the VOA Russian website for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, concluded that it had a “pro-Putin bias” and downplayed human rights reporting and American viewpoints. There have been some improvements in VOA Russian service online output since 2011, but according to critics significant problems still remain unresolved within the Russian service and the entire Voice of America.
In 2014 and in 2015, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and the committee’s Ranking Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), introduced bipartisan legislation, H.R. 4490 and H.R. 2323, to carry out management reforms at the Broadcasting Board of Governors which would affect how both RFE/RL and VOA carry out their missions. H.R. 2323 reiterates the reforms proposed in H.R. 4490, legislation Royce and Engel introduced in April 2014. The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed H.R. 4490 in April 2014; the House passed H.R. 4490 in July 2014; the Senate never considered H.R. 4490.
On May 21, 2015, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015. It will now be up to the full House and the Senate to pass the legislation and it has to be signed by President Obama before it becomes law. In introducing H.R. 2323, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, said that “there is widespread agreement that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency charged with guiding U.S. international broadcasting, is practically defunct, and this is not good news for our U.S. government effort to counter the propaganda of both terrorists and dictators.” Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel said that “this bill brings much needed overhaul to the Broadcasting Board of Governors.”