BBG Watch Commentary

Radio Liberty Journalist Streaming Video from a Demonstration
Radio Liberty journalist (who later resigned in protest) streaming live video from a demonstration

BBG Watch has learned that some of the fired Radio Liberty journalists are planning to file a class action lawsuit against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) American management for “wrongful termination, moral damages and defamation of character.”

Sources told us that in a letter addressed to members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who represents Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ex officio member, at BBG meetings, a group of fired Radio Liberty journalists informed these U.S. government officials of their intention to seek justice in court. Experts predict that a prolonged lawsuit of this type will give the pro-Kremlin media ammunition for engaging in anti-American propaganda.

The mass firings have already produced a storm of protests, negative media attention and speculations that the United States is ignoring the pro-democracy movement and human rights abuses in Russia. A class action lawsuit by Russian human rights reporters against their former American government-funded employer who claims to support freedom and democracy would intensify the public diplomacy crisis already created in Russia by RFE/RL and BBG officials.

The fired journalists at first considered but then rejected the idea of holding a demonstration in front of the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow after concluding that such an action would be exploited by the state-owned media and would harm the reputation of their station. But seeing that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has done nothing to come to their rescue, they may be reconsidering their strategy, sources told BBG Watch.

In a two-day operation, RFE/RL executives used specially-hired guards to prevent Radio Liberty journalists from entering their office building in Moscow, directed them to go to a law firm office, and told them there they would be fired or they could sign termination agreements and receive severance pay. The journalists said that this was done without any warning and that they were subjected to extreme psychological pressure by RFE/RL executives and lawyers.

Some young and older journalists who were not fired resigned in protest. They were prevented by RFE/RL managers and guards from saying good bye to their radio listeners or from posting farewell messages on their news site despite having a relationship with their audience lasting in some cases over two decades and being well-known and highly respected among pro-democracy Russians who listen to Radio Liberty and visit its website.

Those who were fired or resigned talk about being at first totally shocked and then outraged. They and many of their supporters in the human rights community in Russia speak of moral damages and a crime against human decency.

Being known for exposing human rights violations and official corruption and because they worked for an American institution, many of them may not be able to find jobs in their profession in Putin’s Russia, some of the fired journalists said.

The journalists also feel completely deceived by their American bosses. Senior RFE/RL American executives had assured the employees earlier that they will be receiving medical insurance, moving to a new facility, and be given additional training. Some of those fired were disabled and included single mothers raising large families.

An unrelated lawsuit against RFE/RL alleging discrimination against foreign-born employees at the RFE/RL headquarters in the Czech Republic is pending before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and has received a lot of negative publicity in the countries to which the station broadcasts, including Russia.

A reference to defamation of character may be linked to false claims of some RFE/RL executives that these journalists were not capable of working in a new multimedia environment. In fact, the entire Moscow bureau Internet team was dismissed and some of the journalists who were fired pioneered live video streaming from political demonstrations and political trails (photo).

The Radio Liberty website was considered to be one of the best multimedia platforms for serious political news and reporting in Russia and was highly praised by the BBG itself.

One of the Radio Liberty journalists who was fired was accused by the new director of the Russian Service of slander for suggesting a link between the dismissals and her appointment. The mass firing occurred after the director’s selection was announced but before she officially came on board. Slander is a serious offense in Russia, which was recently re-criminalized by President Putin. There is speculation that Radio Liberty journalists may want to defend their professional reputation from such accusations that also have a stifling effect on free speech in their country.