BBG Watch Commentary

Former Radio Liberty journalists,   Dimitry Florin, Elena Vlasenko (center) and Kristina Gorelik  (with camera), who were fired by RFE/RL management or resigned in protest. They received journalism prizes for their human rights reporting.
Former Radio Liberty journalists, Dimitry Florin, Elena Vlasenko (center) and Kristina Gorelik (with camera), who were fired by RFE/RL management or resigned in protest. They received journalism prizes for their human rights reporting.

Radio Liberty Internet team fired last September by American executives of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) received last Saturday in Moscow a prestigious Sakharov human rights journalism prize along with its star young reporter and web editor Elena Vlasenko who had resigned from RFE/RL in protest against the dismissal of her colleagues.

Elena Vlasenko received the 2nd Sakharov Prize “For Journalism as an Act of Conscience,” which is distributed among four journalists. She was awarded for articles published in 2012 on the old Radio Liberty Russian website before the site was completely changed by the new service director Masha Gessen and her team.

Sakharov Journalism Prize for Vlasenko and the Fired Radio Liberty Website Team
Sakharov Journalism Prize for Vlasenko and the Fired Radio Liberty Website Team

Rather than work for Gessen, who was hired by RFE/RL president Steven Korn, Vlasenko resigned in protest against the brutal firing of her colleagues who were told to leave without any warning and not allowed by RFE/RL-hired security guards to say good bye to their online and radio audience.

Normally, the Sakharov journalism prize is given to the nominee and the editorial office, but the jury did not want to present the prize to the new management of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service.

The ceremony was held at the Glasnost Defense Foundation. Its leaders Boris Timoshenko and Alexey Simonov said the jury did not want to recognize in any way Masha Gessen and the new team that replaced Vlasenko and her colleagues.

Simonov was one of the human rights activists, who, together with Lyudmila Alexeeva of the Helsinki Watch Group and others signed a letter to the U.S. Congress requesting an investigation into the mass firings at Radio Liberty, which became a subject of their great concern. Vlasenko described the brutal firing of Radio Liberty journalists in an English-language article written for the Index on Censorship blog UNCUT.

During the ceremony, Vlasenko and the former Radio Liberty web team were introduced by the former director of the Sakharov Museum Yuri Samodurov. Read: Organizers of Art Show Convicted in Moscow, The New York Times, July 12, 2010

Neither Vlasenko nor her former boss at Radio Liberty Lyudmila Telen, who would have accepted the prize on behalf of the fired web team which she led at RFE/RL, could attend the ceremony. They were both covering the protest action near the KGB building for Online-TV. Dmitry Florin, a former Radio Liberty cameraman, who resigned in protest with Vlasenko, received the prize on behalf of the fired team. Read: Former editor Lyudmila Telen pained by catastrophic audience drop for Radio Liberty’s Russian website

The new Radio Liberty website, redesigned by Masha Gessen, places less emphasis on news and human rights and more on feature stories, sometimes accompanied by photos of young sexy women. One such story that stayed on the home page of new Radio Liberty website for many days described the plight of a professor from the United States who flew to Argentina to meet an attractive woman he met online and was later arrested and charged with smuggling drugs. The new Radio Liberty site often misses important news stories or reports on them with considerable delay.

Gessen’s Radio Liberty website did not report on Vlasenko and the Sakharov journalism prize ceremony, according to several sources who did a site search. It is not known whether the Sakharov journalism prize was covered in a radio program on Radio Liberty.

BBG Watch has learned that the Sakharov Prizes were not covered by the new Masha Gessen team because they concluded that these prizes are now of low importance in Russia. Using this logic, nearly all democratic opposition actions in Russia are also of low importance because they are not covered by the state media. We wonder then why American taxpayers are paying Gessen’s high salary if she refuses to cover democratic opposition events in Russia because they are of low importance. Or did she refuse to cover the Sakharov Prizes because the old Radio Liberty Internet team, which was fired by RFE/RL and replaced with Gessen’s new team, was recognized for its achievements..

According to Russian media reports, Masha Gessen’s website is boycotted by many independent journalists, human rights activists, opposition political leaders and former Radio Liberty supporters and has lost much of its former audience. Russian news website reported that open online statistics service Rambler Top 100 shows that the number of page views for Radio Liberty for November fell from 180,000 to 80,000 per day (2.25 times), and the number of unique visitors – from 83 to 33 thousand a day (in 2.4 times). RFE/RL executives who fired the old award-winning Internet team and other highly popular journalists, Vice President for Content Julia Ragona and Vice President for Administration Dale Cohen, deny that the new Masha Gessen site is losing visitors.

Vlasenko is the second member of the Radio Liberty in Exile group ( to be recognized recently for outstanding journalism at the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), from which they were fired or resigned in protest. Her colleague, human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik, who was fired, has received the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for “journalistic activity aimed at promoting human rights values.”

The Sakharov Award  “Journalism as an Act of Conscience” was instituted in 2001 by Peter Vins, an American-Russian businessman who emigrated to the United States in the late 1970s and returned to Russia in 1993. He is a former member of the human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group. The Award is conferred on journalists for highly professional work and for defending the values championed by Dr. Andrei D. Sakharov. One of the members of the jury in the past was murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. One of the finalists in 2011 was Mikhail Khodorkovsky for his articles published in Novaya Gazeta.