BBG Watch Commentary

It is being described as the Korn-Ragona special operation.

Some were called at home early in the morning by a receptionist. Others found out something was wrong when they reported for work at the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow. Newly hired guards stopped them. They were told to go to the Moscow law office of DLA Piper which does legal work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

Some 20 journalists and web editors would be fired that day and about the same number the next.

Sometime earlier, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Steve Korn promised employees they would finally be getting medical insurance, moving to a new, larger facility, and be trained in digital media. They had no idea what was coming.

Mr. Korn was looking for a new director of the Russian Service. He read a political biography of Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen, an American-Russian-Jewish expatriate. Earlier this year, she turned down a job offer from Radio Liberty and started to work for a Russian magazine instead. But she consulted for Mr. Korn on the side and told him how to reform the Moscow bureau. Then, she lost her Russian magazine job — a reportedly frequent event in her professional life — when she refused to cover a publicity stunt featuring President Putin. Putin found out about it and decided to act.

Even though she’s been calling him a dictator, he invited her for a semi-private meeting at the Kremlin. He apparently couldn’t stand the idea that a journalist, married to another woman and living with their children under his imperial protection in Russia, would lose her job because of him, or so we were led to believe.

More likely, Putin’s FSB snoopers told him about Masha’s job negotiations with the American broadcaster, and he may have decided to play mischief. Gessen wrote later that Putin barely knew who she was and that he gets most of his information from state TV. That was strange. She at first accepted his help and didn’t say anything about it, then said no to Putin and yes to Korn, to the latter’s great delight. Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow were doomed.

In Washington, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members, appointed by President Obama but representing both political parties, were not told about the meeting at the Kremlin. Mr. Korn assured them he found a terrific candidate to lead the Russian Service and had plans for restructuring the Moscow bureau. He was not specific.

Gessen’s selection was officially announced and she was to report for work on October 1. Several days later, about 40 journalists, the RL Moscow website team, and technical staffers, practically the entire bureau — some of whom worked for Radio Liberty for over 20 years — found themselves without jobs.

About five of these were not dismissed but chose to resign in protest and solidarity with their colleagues. Radio Liberty as it was known during the Cold War and during its long struggle against the assault on independent media under Putin was no more.

“This dismissal wasn’t voluntary – neither for me, nor for my colleagues,” one former Radio Liberty woman journalist wrote to BBG members. Hers is one of many letters the BBG received from Moscow, in addition to a statement of concern from President Gorbachev and a letter of protest sent to Secretary Clinton and members of Congress by a group of prominent Russian human rights activists led by Ludmila Alexeeva.

Letters to BBG members including striking details of the “special operation,” as some Radio Liberty journalists described their mass firing:

“We were subjected to serious psychological pressure. The administration of RFE/RL hid their intentions from us until the last day. Previously, President Steven Korn repeatedly stated that he would try to save all the positions, and colleagues who had been dismissed the day before us were forbidden to tell us about it.

We were given to understand that we would be dismissed under any circumstances, even if we did not sign these documents. We were given to understand that it was better to agree, otherwise we would be thrown out without any payment.

In the Moscow RFE/RL bureau, the guards of frightening appearance were especially hired for this purpose, and we were led from one floor to another, being under escort, and had only two hours to pack our personal belongings. The guards blocked the entrance to the building and blocked access to our computers.

We have been treated as enemies. We, who for so many years worked for the radio, who gave it so much strength and energy, who worked much more for the idea rather than money; we for whom the promotion of democratic values and human rights was the mission and the purpose in life, were treated by these RFERL American executives like common thieves.

In fact, the whole old team of the Moscow Bureau was fired — brave people, real human rights activists, who for many years led the fight for human dignity in the complicated (to put it mildly) conditions of Putin’s Russia. I do not understand why we deserved such treatment and who gave the RFE/RL Prague management the right to treat us in such a way.”

Mr. Korn told BBG members the fired employees, and especially the “seven Russians,” as he called them, who signed the protest letter were confused. The employees signed termination agreements. We went out of our way to treat them with respect, he said. Alexeeva and others didn’t understand that Radio Liberty lost an AM radio transmitter in Moscow and didn’t know they were criticizing Masha Gessen. If they knew it was her, they wouldn’t do it because they knew her since she was a child growing up in Russia, he was quoted as saying. She called to confront them and they said they didn’t know.

On the firing itself, former employees, including those who resigned in protest, tell a completely different story:

“Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona are saying that the dismissals were based “on the agreement of both parties.” This may be legally or technically true, but it is nevertheless simply at variance with facts and reality.

The truth is that RFE/RL management representatives forced the staff to sign dismissal agreements. What could these journalists do faced with blocked computers, canceled electronic passes, and prevented from accessing RFE/RL’s website publishing system? If an employee refused to take the offer to be fired, he or she would be dismissed anyway. RFE/RL management would have an opportunity to fire the employee, according to Article 81 of the Russian Labor Code.

The audio recording of the whole ugly dismissal scene is available and can be provided to the BBG or become evidence in court, if needed.

Such methods and style of management – bragging about a new multimedia concept and firing people who succeeded in its implementation and increased RFE/RL Russian Service web audience tenfold; dismissing all journalists, who throughout the last twenty years have become a part of RFE/RL’s brand – all this looks like the worst kind of mismanagement and a gross violation of moral and ethical values.

That is why I resigned in protest.

The Radio Liberty editorial office, which consisted of people who spent years risking their health and lives (RFE/RL didn’t provide its staff in Moscow and in other Russian cities with medical insurance) advocating for human rights and freedom of expression, was ruined not by our antagonists but by our own top management – at the expense of American taxpayers, whose money was used not for promoting democracy but for hiring guards to keep those doing the promoting from going on the air and posting human rights stories on the web.

Tens of professionals with irreproachable reputation, the second most popular Russian multimedia platform and the respected brand developed throughout years of hard work – became victims of such incredible bad judgement that it brought condemnation from some of the most famous Russian human rights activists and former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev.

I respectfully urge the honorable members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to find out for themselves what happened to this venerable public institution to restore what was lost before it is too late. I speak here on behalf of myself and my colleagues.”

Did Ludmila Alexeeva and other human rights activist know what was going on when they signed their protests letter? One fired journalist wrote to BBG that the famous Russian human rights activist was right in the middle of it:

“I was lucky in that I was able to say farewell to my listeners who have followed my human rights programs for 10 years. The majority of fired journalists were not afforded such an opportunity.

My own opportunity to say good bye was pure luck. On the day I was fired, I was recording an interview with the famous human rights activist and founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group Ludmila Alekseeva. Owing solely to this circumstance did my program eventually air. Alekseeva saw first hand what was happening in the bureau, and soon a letter was drafted by ten of Russia’s most prominent human rights activists. They were outraged by the destruction of the Moscow bureau. Most importantly, no one knew at the time, and no one knows now what the real reasons behind this decision were.

From a strictly legal standpoint, I have no qualms with RFE/RL’s management; I signed the papers I was asked to sign. But no one can silence my moral condemnation of what happened. I still have not heard a satisfactory explanation for why such an enormous percentage of our staff was fired, considering the fact that the BBG’s annual report named the Russian Language Service one of the best under its supervision.

RFE/RL’s management has stated on a number of occasions that our future is in multimedia. Why, then, were the first people fired those who staff our Internet division – the people who brought coverage of the protests in Russia to hundreds of thousands of online users? The number of our website visitors and social network subscribers has been growing unabatedly, and these figures were part of the BBG’s annual report.

RFE/RL’s management talked about convergence, but our journalists already wrote pieces for the station’s website, produced video materials, maintained personal pages and broadcast over the Internet. Many of them took the initiative and took multimedia training sessions in order to improve our mass-media outreach. Was this not a clear enough demonstration of our willingness and ability to adapt to new conditions?

RFE/RL’s management also talked about cutting costs, but due to the timing of the dismissals — not wanting to see these loyal employees for even one more day or to allow them even to say good bye — the company was forced to pay out hefty severance packages.”

Well-known former Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Sokholov who drafted the earlier decree that gave Radio Liberty legal right to broadcast in Russia took issue with RFE/RL executives’ claims that the firings were necessary because the station lost its AM frequency in Moscow. Former President Yeltsin personally handed the decree to Sokholov in recognition of his courageous on-the-scene reporting during the communist coup in 1991.

“The real story behind the AM frequency license, which was bound to be lost, and the inability to broadcast is very different from what RFE/RL management is saying. The truth is that RFE/RL Vice President Ms. Julia Ragona deliberately rejected and ignored the proposal of a joint project to rebroadcast radio transmissions in Russia together with the opposition media outlet “Novaya Gazeta.” RFE/RL executives did not even bother to respond to emails.

All other major Western broadcasters in Russia, including BBC, CNN and European media, have operated and will continue to operate under similar arrangements with other licensed Russian stations and networks. They are not affected at all by the new media law.

To suggest that the loss of a specific license or AM frequency — an event that was known for months in advance — required the sudden mass firings affecting almost the entire bureau, including the outstanding Internet team, and to say that while everybody knows that a much larger RFE/RL facility is being built in Moscow, or to suggest that the Russian Service did not already have a vigorous digital, multimedia outreach strategy, is ludicrous and misleading.

Prominent Russian political figures, including Mikhail Gorbachev, have emphasized that the self-created defeat for Radio Liberty in Russia occurred just at the time when the Russian authorities have stepped up their pressure on the independent media. The enemies of freedom and democracy certainly have good reasons to applaud RFE/RL President Mr. Steven Korn’s decision to dismiss the entire Russian team of journalists.”

Another fired Radio Liberty journalist wrote about Masha Gessen’s media notoriety in Russia:

“It is not good form to discuss other people’s private lives, so I was reluctant to bring up this issue, but numerous reports in Russian media have made it abundantly public. Now the head of up-to-now respected public American institution in Russia is a woman who has made her private life the subject of national gossip: among other things, she is notorious in the press for stories of her sexual adventures.

As a result, RFE/RL is incurring enormous reputational damage. The most widespread explanation circulating on the Internet is that it took Putin one day (the day he met with Masha Gessen) to accomplish what the KGB could not do in 30 years – to destroy Radio Liberty. I subscribe to this opinion.”

As for those Radio Liberty journalists who were fired or resigned, for some of them — especially the older ones — the future doesn’t look very bright. One woman journalist wrote:

“It seems that the President of  Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty Mr. Steven Korn and Vice-President  Ms. Julia Ragona have never thought for a moment about what  will happen to us who live in an authoritarian state, where anti-American feelings are very strong, where Radio Liberty is still called «hostile voice», as in Soviet times, and where for the large segment of the population we are perceived as enemies. 

Just one example: my colleagues and I have been regularly attacked by aggressive people while making polls on the streets Moscow. (Some individuals tried to beat us and to take away our recording equipment.) After a few such attacks we were given life insurance, but the RFE/RL management never provided us with medical insurance, which we would need if any of us suffered physical injuries or developed a serious illness. All these years we had been working without health insurance!  I wonder if BBG members were aware of this situation.

Now, when in Russia the attack on the rights and freedoms of its citizens is now in full swing, I’m sure, that no one from among us, journalists fired from RFERL, «foreign agents», «enemies of  Russia» will be hired. For example, I still have four years  remaining until retirement, and I risk staying unemployed these next years, and consequently I will get only a very small pension. 

My colleagues (about 40 people) were thrown out onto the street from Radio Liberty with the same “wolf ticket” (a Russian expression which applies to individuals under any kind of suspicion by the authorities or powerful employers, whom no one dares to hire or treat decently because it would offend or annoy those who have power and control). Among us, there are people of pre-retirement age, there are single mothers with many children, and some who are physically disabled. 

How  are they going to live now? How can they feed their children? How will they be treated by the Russian state authorities?  The answer to the last question is, at least, obvious.

If the  RFE/RL’s management decided to dismiss so many distinguished journalists, who because of their visibility in pro-democracy reporting have become tarnished goods in Putin’s Russia, they should have at least thought about pensions for them or, for example, whether to extend invitations and help them get a refugee status in the United States. But this was not done or even thought of. Mr. Korn just told us all “thanks” in a written statement posted on the website from Prague, and gave to understand that we are no longer needed.

All these years, working for Radio Liberty, we were sure, that behind us stood a strong organization, a powerful and fair country – the United States of America, and that we would always be under its protection and would get help and wouldn’t be left unprotected in case of threat or  dire need. And now we are threatened, and we won’t be defended. We were all thrown to the mercy of  fate. 

The new Director of the Russian Service Masha Gessen came to the radio with her new team, and the people who had been working  here for 20 years and more, became a used commodity for the management, things which can be safely dumped and not thought of anymore.

Dear Members of the BBG,  please tell me that I am not right. Tell me that there is at least one person among you who cares or even worries about my future and the future of my colleagues. Let me know the answer to the question which we are asking together with the leaders of the Russian human rights movement: will there be an investigation of the activity of the management of RFE/RL? And another question: what should we, the fired journalists, do now? How are we to survive in a country where many of our compatriots consider us enemies because we have worked for so many years for American radio?

What can we do if no one cares to answer these question? Some of us will appeal to the  Russian courts against the management of Radio Liberty or to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Among other things, we suffered a huge moral damage. And we are still in Russia and can’t leave.

Is all of this a political reset against traditional human rights reporting? A capitulation to Mr. Putin? Digital transformation? A special operation by clueless management? Mr. Korn’s gift to Putin, a gift to Masha Gessen, or both?

One thing is certain from a journalistic perspective. Masha Gessen, a journalist and media personality, denies any responsibility for the purge at Radio Liberty. To suggest such a thing would be slander.

She has indeed made accusations of slander against one former Radio Liberty journalist, the station’s former website editor-in-chief, as well as a former outside contributor, a famous Russian satirist, for suggesting a link between and her and the mass firing. She said she was not even on board and it wasn’t her decision.

President Putin, whom Gessen called a dictator, recently signed a law which re-criminalizes slander with fines of up to $150,000. Former Radio Liberty journalists and others say the law is designed to silence independent media and investigative reporting even more.

Gessen is now officially the director of Radio Liberty Russian Service. The journalists and the old programs are gone. The guards are still there. Only a handful of staffers in Moscow struggle to fill the broadcasts and the website. Masha Gessen will no doubt bring in her own people. But who is going to work for her? Presumably someone who doesn’t engage in slander. Mr. Putin will be watching.

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