BBG Watch Commentary

Kirill Filimonov Detained by Police at U.S. Embassy Moscow
Kirill Filimonov Detained by Police at U.S. Embassy Moscow

A young Russian journalism student Kirill Filimonov, protesting against U.S. decision to stifle Radio Liberty broadcasts and to fire its journalists, was detained by the police but released and, with about 30 mostly young, Russian demonstrators, continued the picket Tuesday in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Russian and foreign media were on the scene, including a National Public Radio (NPR) reporter who interviewed one of the protestors.

Young Radio Liberty journalists, Dimirty Florin, Elena Vlasenko and Kristina Gorelik, who were fired by RFE/RL management or resigned in protest.

The demonstrators were protesting against the mass firing of Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) journalists, web editors, and other staffers in a two-day operation organized last month by the management of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Using specially hired guards, the management of the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasting station, RFE/RL executives based in Prague, prevented longtime Radio Liberty radio hosts and website editors from airing and posting their human rights programs and did not allow them to say good bye to their radio listeners and website visitors.

Protesters at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow included former radio listeners and visitors to Radio Liberty Russian website. They were demanding that Radio Liberty’s human rights and other programs be restored and the fired journalists given their jobs back. The journalists were fired on orders of RFE/RL President Steven Korn and the dismissals were overseen by RFE/RL Vice President Julia Ragona. They both report to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. federal agency in Washington, DC. It is not clear whether members of the bipartisan BBG board were aware of the scope and nature of the planned dismissals, but they so far have not responded to the crisis.

A U.S. Embassy official told the detained and later released protest organizer Kirill Filimonov that the Embassy will deliver a petition from Radio Liberty listeners to BBG interim chairman Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who represents Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at BBG meetings. Secretary of State Clinton is an ex officio member of the BBG board. Kirill Filimonov is studying journalism at a university in Moscow. He learned how to cover demonstrations while working as an intern with some of the fired Radio Liberty broadcasters, including human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik, whose program devoted to human rights issues and anti-Kremlin protests was taken off the air along with many others.

The purge of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow was condemned by former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev, and by famous Russian human rights activists, including Lyudmila Alexeeva and Tatiana Yankelevich, daughter of Yelena Bonner and stepdaughter of famous Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Major opposition politicians in Russia have also condemned the actions of the RFE/RL management and attributed them to President Obama’s “reset” of relations with the Kremlin.

Steven Korn, President and Chief Executive Officer, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty
Steven Korn, RFE/RL President

RFE/RL President Steven Korn justified the firings in a statement published on the RFE/RL website as needed for a transition to digital media, but he fired the entire Radio Liberty Moscow website team which has been highly praised for innovative multimedia coverage of anti-Putin protests.

Masha Gessen, Photo by Rodrigo Fernandez
Masha Gessen, Photo by Rodrigo Fernandez

Media reports speculate that Mr. Korn fired longtime journalists in order to clean house for the new director of Radio Liberty Russian Service Masha Gessen, a Russian American journalist, gay rights activist and author of President Putin’s biography, who despite her criticism of him was invited by Mr. Putin for a semi-private meeting in the Kremlin shortly before Mr. Korn announced her appointment.

According to sources, Mr. Korn did not inform BBG members of Masha Gessen’s meeting with Putin and about controversial interviews with her about her personal life circulating on the Internet. Ms. Gessen has accused a fired Radio Liberty journalist and a famous Russian comedian of slander for suggesting that there might have been a link between her selection for the job with Radio Liberty and the mass firing of journalists. President Putin has recently re-criminalized slander. If convicted, journalists and others can be hit with fines of up to $150,000.

Kirill Filimonov at U.S. Embassy Moscow