BBG Watch Commentary
From Radio Liberty to “Radio Gessen” – Milestones of the Road Map
An insider’s report from Prague by Alsou Taheri
For the outside world, U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which from Prague targets 21 countries in 28 languages, has many names: Azadliq, Svoboda, Azattyq, Mashaal, Azattyk, Ozodi, Tavisupleba, Azatutyun, Svaboda, Azatlyk, Azadi, Farda, Ozodlik… Recently, somebody added to that multilingual roster of official names an unofficial one — “Radio Gessen.”
The etymology of “Radio Gessen,” the name which immediately became popular with my colleagues at RFE/RL and in Russia, is traced to Masha Gessen, the new director of the RFE/RL Russian Service, which is known as Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty). Russian, a widely spoken language on the whole territory of the former Soviet Union, is along with English a lingua franca at the RFE/RL building in Prague.
Destruction and deception
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, one of the several institutions of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy, is over sixty years old. Since June of last year, it has been headed by Steven Korn, its President and CEO.
The publicly declared mission of RFE/RL is “to empower people in their struggle against violations of human rights,” “to promote democratic values and institutions,” “to strengthen civil societies by projecting democratic values,” “to provide a model for local media…” This mission is still to be fulfilled. But unlike RFE/RL as a whole, “Radio Gessen” can already boast practical results in less than two months. That’s because the declared goal of “Radio Gessen” is defined as “normalization” — the topics of “common interest” (communal services, kindergartens, public transportation, etc.) instead of sharply focused political broadcasts and online content.
(These longstanding and permanent social problems are no doubt being quickly resolved thanks to Radio Gessen because, as reported by former Radio Liberty Internet experts, the number of daily visitors to its Russian website has fallen precipitously from about 100,000 in September to about 40,000 now, and it continues to fall. That’s at least one practical result achieved by “Radio Gessen.”)
On September 13, Russian American journalist and writer Masha Gessen, who from last April reportedly consulted Steven Korn and suggested personnel and programming restructuring of Radio Svoboda, was hired as its director. She officially started to work on October 1. Ten days prior to that date, on September 20-21, under the pretext of reforms aimed at attracting young Internet users, Radio Svoboda fired 34 experienced staffers at its Moscow bureau, including members of its very efficient Internet team and a number of popular on-air personalities. The journalists were prevented by security guards from returning to their work places and even from saying farewell to their audience of many years. (They were later allowed to collect their personal belongings during a brief visit supervised by security guards.) Eight more long-term and more recently hired employees resigned to protest the degrading treatment of their colleagues.
By some miraculous logic (ridiculed mercilessly by Russian and foreign media), Ms. Gessen and Steven Korn maintain that she had nothing to do with the mass firing of journalists in Moscow. But within two weeks of assuming her directorial position, Masha Gessen hired a dozen new staffers, most of whom previously had worked with her in other media outlets. Radio Gessen was born.
Its achievements in attracting a new audience were summed up on November 16 by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an aggressively pro-government populist. Addressing the Russian State Duma (Parliament), he declared with evident satisfaction:
“Radio Svoboda stopped functioning.”
Unfortunately, he is right. On September 27, a group of Russian human rights leaders appealed to Hillary Clinton and members of the U.S. Congress to intervene to save Radio Liberty, its reputation and its mission. They asked for Congressional hearings and for the fired journalists to be reinstated and their cancelled pro-human rights programs to be restored. The list of prominent personalities who publicly protested the destruction of Radio Svoboda includes:
Lyudmila Alexeeva, Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group;
former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov;
former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov;
former Vice Speaker of the Duma (Parliament) Vladimir Ryzhkov;
former Duma member Sergey Mitrokhin and former presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, leaders of the Russian United Democratic Party “Yabloko”;
Sergey Kovalyov, Chairman of the Russian “Memorial” human rights group and the Public Commission for Preservation of the Heritage of Academician Sakharov — the Andrei Sakharov Foundation;
Vladimir Bukovsky, writer and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union;
Alexey Simonov, the President of the Glasnost Defense Foundation;
Lev Ponomarev, Executive Director of the Russian movement “For Human Rights”;
renowned sociologists Dr. Vladimir Shlapetokh and Dr. Lev Gudkov;
and many others.
Vladimir Milov, Chairman of the Russian opposition party Democratic Choice, called the purge at Radio Svoboda “a stunning example of desperate political idiocy… making Putin’s life easier, and ours much harder.”
By now, a petition to President Obama, demanding the return to work of the fired journalists and the reinstatement of their cancelled radio and online programs, has been signed by more than 2.800 persons, and counting.
“They were not going to believe a word if it was coming out of my mouth”
Steven Korn was quite right making that statement in Prague on November 5 to the assembled heads of RFE/RL language services. On October 29, he met at a hastily assembled roundtable in Moscow with several Russian democratic politicians and human rights activists to try to justify his destructive actions. By that time, however, his trustworthiness was thoroughly erased by his previous statements and the unusual brutality of the mass firings at the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty.
At the insistence of the invited participants, Steven Korn was forced to admit to the roundtable two of the fired Russian Service journalists, popular radio commentators Mikhail Sokolov and Marina Timasheva. During the roundtable, it became evident that the President and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had never met before a single employee whom he has fired.
But who suggested their names to him? President Korn — repeating that it was not Masha Gessen, who was also present — transferred that question to his Vice President for Content Julia Ragona who came with him from Prague. Ragona, in her turn, referred to the management of the Russian Service in Prague but refused to provide any names.
It was a stunning demonstration of collective irresponsibility, professional ignorance, and personal arrogance — all at the same time.
In Moscow, Steven Korn had to face relevant and pointed questions:
Why highly qualified and successful professional were fired?
Why Gessen’s team of inexperienced in matters radio and multimedia newcomers was preferable?
Why RFE/RL gave in to the Russian law limiting broadcasting rights of foreign entities, without even attempting to negotiate with the Russian authorities a reciprocal treatment of Radio Svoboda in view of the fact that the Russian state radio “Voice of Russia” and state TV ”Russia Today” are free to broadcast in the U.S.? (November 9 was the last day Radio Svoboda broadcast in Russian on AM, medium wave in Moscow. Its radio programs, full of repeats because most radio journalists were fired, are still broadcast to Russia on shortwave.)
Why Steven Korn keeps equating the new prohibitive Russian media law with the broadcast licensing laws in the United States and in other Western countries since they are not the same?
Why, prior to ravaging the Moscow bureau of Radio Svoboda and presenting it as an accomplished fact, he did not consult, say, with the journalists and actual members of Radio Liberty’s audience? (He claims that focus groups were held, but sources told us that they did not include radio listeners.)
At the conclusion of the roundtable, the Russian participants let Mr. Korn know that he did not answer a single one of their questions. Mr. Korn instructed them to come back and judge in about half a year, saying that their arguments did not change his position one bit. At the end, it became a puzzle why Steven Korn and his entourage even bothered to organize such an expensive undertaking in Moscow.
The Moscow roundtable was watched live in Prague by RFE/RL employees. Later, the video was placed on the Radio Svoboda website. It attracted a record number of negative comments in RFE/RL Internet history — all directed at Korn, Ragona, and Gessen. The video was then hastily pulled off the site. After a wave of angry protests, it was cut into five parts and restored without critical concluding remarks by the Russian participants. Clumsily executed censoring was immediately noted by irritated site visitors. The management blamed it on a technical error.
Many visitors to the Russian website declared that they were there for the last time and would not accept the replacement of Radio Svoboda by “Radio Gessen.” Steven Korn, however, is not convinced by their reaction. In no uncertain terms, with an open threat to those who don’t share his opinion, he presented “Radio Gessen” to the heads of RFE/RL language services — Azadliq, Azattyq, Azattyk, Ozodi, Svaboda, and so on — as a brilliant example of what is in store also for their own audiences:
“I am excited about what we are going to be doing. Masha and her team are working hard and diligently on planning what the new website will look like, how they’re going to cover things, what kind of programming there will be and it will be a work in progress. We will try things that will fail and we will try things that will succeed. When they fail we’ll try something else. That should be your approach to your services as well. I’m very excited about where we’re going. So, I’m done answering questions about this. We are doing the right thing and we are moving forward. So, those of you who are not reconciled to it — too bad …But we’re going forward, so you’re either on the train or off the train and I don’t care which but we’re going forward.”
Korn’s train is chugging along – to irrelevance
Indeed, Steven Korn has quite effective methods and very convincing arguments — suppression of any open discussion, threats to throw “off the train” those who dare to disagree, and actual power to do so any time of his own choosing. No wander, that Soviet-style samizdat and tamizdat became a regular feature at Korn’s RFE/RL.
These days, an appeal, “The RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service (Azatlyk — AT) is in Great Danger!,” is being passed from hand to hand among RFE/RL employees in Prague. Signed by Guljahan Atamuradova of the Moscow-based Society of Turkmen Culture, the appeal dated November 15, 2012, urges “the U.S. Congress and international human rights organizations to immediately intervene in order to save the only free media in the Turkmen language.”
It reads, in excerpts:
“…The Turkmen Service of RFE/RL is the only source of free information in the Turkmen language in the entire world. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan, as a target country, remains one of the most repressive countries in the world along with North Korea and Eritrea… But now we are witnessing how this service is being almost totally destroyed by… firing five Turkmen broadcasters out of eight within a couple of months, and eliminating almost all of the analytical genres from the Turkmen Service… The most disgusting thing is that the RFE/RL management calls such a situation ‘reforming the radio’s services’… Moreover, the Turkmen Service was recently given an order: ‘Do not analyze the problems of the Turkmenistan’s regime, just do news-reports on local issues, such as poor roads, lack of electricity, delayed salaries, etc.’ …Regardless of whatever the reason behind it is, we can say with certainty that these latest developments with the Turkmen Service do not serve the mission of the RFE/RL… The U.S. taxpayers’ money, thanks to which the RFE/RL exists, is being paid in order to support the Turkmenistan’s citizens, along with other nations, in their struggle for democratic values, by providing them uncensored free information.”
It is evident to the Radio’s insiders that, just as Amerigo Vespucci did not discover America, Masha Gessen did not invent the “normalized” radio which presently bears her name. It is the brainchild of Steven Korn, who apparently does not speak or understand a single broadcasting language of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and of his pick for RFE/RL Vice President for Content, Julia Ragona, whose own journalistic content is not to be found by any Internet search engine.
Another sam-/tamizdat text making rounds at RFE/RL in Prague came from Kazakhstan. It is written in Russian by a journalist who uses the pen name Marat Isqaq. He reports that the website of the RFE/RL Kazakh Service, Azattyk, has quickly turned into “an obscene, vulgar, racial tabloid media outlet” after Steve Korn had promised to attract a new audience with new program forms.
(In a move similar to what was done to the Russian Service in September, on June 25 RFE/RL executives fired four out of eight experienced journalists at the Kazakh Service in Prague, half of its Prague staff, presumably to pay contractors for video projects such as the one with Wi-Fi 25, which a Kazakh journalist Marat Isqaq describes below.)
“The first video-show is called “Shopaq” (which in slang has sexual connotations) and was published on the RFE/RL’s website on 2 August 2012.”
“Cynicism of the video project starts with the following warning caption: ‘Warning!!! There are dirty, swearing words in this video product. People with high morals and distinct culture are prohibited to watch it.’ RFE/RL also issues this kind of warning in other two video-shows, probably because it thinks that (with this warning) they somehow adhered (to) the corporation’s journalism ethics and laws of the United States and Kazakhstan.”
“On the left side corner of the video-show’s screen, one can see the name of the website of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, www.azattyq.org, and RFE/RL logo (the torch that is supposed to represent light to people and serve them by promoting democratic values).”
“There is also a propaganda of child violence. In those videos you can see a fight between children.”
“In its third video-show entitled “Agent” on 18 October 2012, RFE/RL promotes sexism even further by showing and focusing on intimate parts of beautiful girls’ seminude bodies…”
Marat Isqaq also reported that (apparently after receiving numerous protests from outraged viewers in Kazakhstan) Steven Korn and Julia Ragona, during their visit to Almaty in early November, cancelled the previously signed contract with these enthusiastic Kazakh normalizers of RFE/RL content and agreed to pay them for any new videos not yet produced. Out of own pockets? The question is rhetorical, of course.
These offensive videos pushing “human interest” stories were removed from Radio Liberty Azattyk’s website, but they are still readily available on the Internet. Somehow, the World Wide Web does not play by Steven Korn’s rules.
In the meantime, “Radio Gessen” keeps flexing its muscle in censorship. On November 12, Masha Gessen finally rolled out her concept of how to attract new young audience to share in the “new life” (her expression) of Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty). And again, under the storm of crushing responses from the site visitors, the outline of the “new life” was removed.
But new life goes on. “Radio Gessen” does not report anymore on current news events on any regular basis. One of my colleagues, who in 1995 came with RFE/RL from Munich to Prague, commented to me in German: “Das Leben ist hart, aber modern”. (“Life is hard but modern.”)
On November 19, Steven Korn demonstrated another “stunning example of desperate political idiocy,” to use the words of Vladimir Milov, the previously quoted Chairman of the Russian opposition party Democratic Choice. The website of Radio Liberty In Exile, SvobodaNew.com, established by our fired Moscow colleagues, was blocked by the management on work computers of RFE/RL employees.
What a pity for Mr. Korn that when his actions are reported by other media outlets he cannot also block access to those sites. And it must be an even greater disappointment for him that any of his disdainful subordinates can access SvobodaNew.com site and the Radio Liberty in Exile Facebook page from their home computers. And they will. The forbidden fruit is especially sweet.
How long will Steven Korn last?
That question is being asked and discussed openly at RFE/RL. Everyone here understands that the Radio’s President and CEO is a liability for the institution financed by the U.S. Congress as a tool of American public diplomacy. Politically, RFE/RL broadcasts are not to everyone’s liking in the target countries, but the station has its established niche and the reputation as a proponent of human rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human dignity. Democratic opposition to oppressive governments was always on the side of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and vice versa. It is not anymore in the case of “Radio Gessen” in Russia.
RFE/RL is subordinate to the U.S. federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which includes ex officio the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On November 15, BBG Governor Victor Ashe, a former U.S. Ambassador to Poland, made an unusual public statement in Washington:
“There is great distress and great angst throughout the community that follows these issues over what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty under the leadership of Steve Korn has done in terminating 41 people at the Radio in Moscow. And it is a self-inflicted wound by the organization that previously has been almost idealized by dissidents and by others… That’s not the way of a good manager… In my personal view, we have management issues at RFE/RL that have created additional problems in terms of our listenership, and the audience that we would often have appealed to in the past in Russia, now no longer sees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a friend but indeed as a foe. And it’s a sad set of circumstances that we have arrived at.”
The November meeting of the BBG Strategy and Budget Committee in Washington, during which Ambassador Ashe made these remarks, was watched online by RFE/RL employees in Prague. It is common knowledge here that the BBG has quite a load of its own problems. By perhaps the majority of BBG members, and especially by its entrenched executive bureaucrats, Victor Ashe is seen as a kind of a feared dissident. But he is admired for his outspokenness by RFE/RL journalists and other employees. After the online transmission of Ashe’s remarks about Steven Korn, one of the viewers, formerly a lawyer in her native country, had this comment:
“You know, if what Korn did in Moscow was a criminal offence, he’ll be acquitted as being legally incompetent, I mean not answerable for his actions. He is simply unable to foresee their immediate consequences. What a great quality for the President of RFE/RL! How lucky he is that it’s not a commercial company.”
We laughed. But how lucky are American taxpayers to finance RFE/RL turned “Radio Gessen”?
The mood at RFE/RL is ugly. People here are convinced that Steven Korn’s problem as the Radio’s President and CEO has only one possible solution: for him to get out. There is absolutely no chance he will get any personal respect from the staff. People at the Radio don’t sympathize with his managerial problems. Instead, they are ashamed to be his subordinates. But does he feel it? Does he know it? Would it bother him if he knew? Would he then resign on his own — to save what is left of the morale of his subordinates and of RFE/RL’s reputation?
“Prague and Moscow are links of the same chain”
However, it would be very shortsighted to reduce the reputational damage suffered by Radio Free Europe/Liberty at the hands of its current President — alas, already the fifth since the Radio moved to Prague — to the scandal raging presently in Russia around “Radio Gessen.” On October 8, the Czech Helsinki Committee (CHC) appealed to the American Helsinki Commission with an open letter, “Violations of Human Rights and Disregard of Moral Principles by American Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague Should Not Go On.”
Headed by Anna Sabatova, a winner of the United Nations Human Rights Prize, the CHC is asking its counterpart in Washington to use its influence in order to settle the employee discrimination lawsuits which are damaging international reputation of the Czech Republic, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as the United States. The lawsuits against RFE/RL were brought by an Armenian journalist Anna Karapetian — her case is now in the Czech Supreme Court — and a Croatian national Snjezana Pelivan against the Czech Republic as a country hosting RFE/RL — her lawsuit is in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. These lawsuits, writes the CHC, are caused by degrading and illegal treatment of RFE/RL foreign employees. The Czech Helsinki Committee describes RFE/RL labor policies and actions as “deceptive” and representing “an act of fraud”.
“Already three times Czech Parliament heard the interpellations concerning RFE/RL policies and actions in the Czech Republic. (…) Mrs. Pelivan has officially requested the government of Croatia to support her claim against the Czech Republic in the European Court of Human Rights. The Czech Helsinki Committee is also aware of Pelivan’s and Karapetian’s intention to appeal against the Czech Republic and the United States to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It means further internationalization of the scandal already caused by RFE/RL actions and policies (…) We consider deplorable RFE/RL’s activities in Prague and presently in Moscow to be the links of the same chain.”
There is hardly anyone among my colleagues, all foreigners in Prague, who does not know about these court cases. Their ultimate outcome will affect most of them – it may change their present status as mercenaries deprived of their rights to the position of legally protected employees.
It is an axiom at RFE/RL that its President could not care less about human dignity and legal standing of his subordinates. But should not he be alarmed by a very realistic prospect of exposing his country, the United States, to shameful accusations in the UN Human Rights Council? Should he not alert to that prospect his employer, the Broadcasting Board of Governors?
But then comes the same problem: Is he able to see that far, or even that close?
The author of this commentary, Alsou Taheri, is the pen name of a journalist working at RFE/RL.
Her previous articles, “Radio Free Europe/Liberty: ‘Immoral,’ ‘Indecent,’ ‘Unfair,’ ‘Cynical,’ ‘Hypocritical’”, “’Prague Winter’ for USA’s Radio Free Europe/Liberty”, “At Radio Free Europe/Liberty, Most of Discriminated Employees are Muslims”, appeared in News.Az, Baku, Azerbaijan.