BBG Watch Commentary
Recent attacks in Russian by Masha Gessen, the new head of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, on leaders of American human rights NGOs backfired by generating more negative media coverage in Russia about her role at the U.S. government-funded news station and the role its other American executives, particularly Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn.
In an interview with Russian media, Gessen spoke dismissively of Ann Noonan, executive director of the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) who at a meeting last Friday in Washington of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of RFE/RL, defended dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists who had been fired on orders of Steven Korn and replaced with Masha Gessen and her team.
Noonan made a special plea to the BBG to rehire the journalists, including two fully qualified staffers with disabilities, Bella Kaloeva and Aleksey Kuznetsov.
Gessen dismissed Noonan by describing her activities and those of other CUSIB members as “a trick with mirrors: they serve themselves illuminate themselves inflate scandal.”
Noonan spoke highly critically about decisions taken by RFE/RL president Steven Korn but did not mention Masha Gessen in her presentation to the BBG. During one of the BBG meetings in Washington last week, the head of Freedom House David Kramer also expressed his shock at the treatment of Radio Liberty journalists by RFE/RL executives.
Link to the video on YouTube: http://youtu.be/c1n5XEgQ66w
Gessen claims that she had no role in the dismissals, which came after her appointment was announced but before she came officially on board. Independent Russian journalists speculate, however, that as a consultant working in early 2012 for Mr. Korn, she knew about the dismissals in advance, may have suggested them or at least concurred so that she could bring on board her own associates. Gessen accused some of the journalists making these suggestions of slander, which was recently made a criminal offense in Russia by the Parliament and President Putin.
Nearly all major Russian human rights and opposition leaders protested against the firing of the journalists and believe that Korn and Gessen are destroying Radio Liberty and its effectiveness in Russia. Russian human rights leaders also blame RFE/RL Vice President for Content Julia Ragona and Vice President for Administration Dale Cohen who had planned the dismissals, including use of security guards to bar the journalists from entering the Moscow office and preventing them from saying good bye to their radio and online audience of many years.
Gessen’s media comments, including her claim that the Broadcasting Board of Governors did not order an inspection of Radio Liberty but merely a review of the situation in Russia brought a rebuke from BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe. In an interview with Lenta.ru, Ashe countered Gessen’s claims and confirmed that a review by the BBG will take place and will be focused on the circumstances of the firing of Radio Liberty staffers. According to Ashe, the decision to fire Radio Liberty journalists was made by Steven Korn without the sanction of the BBG. Victor Ashe refused to confirm previous reports concerning the imminent departure of Korn from RFE/RL. BBG Watch has learned that BBG members had agreed not to comment on this issue for the time being.
BBG Watch reported, quoting reliable sources at the BBG headquarters in Washington, that BBG members had given Korn 45 days to leave his post and stripped him of the authority to fire any more RFE/RL employees.
Lenta.ru reported that Ashe described Gessen’s comments as “stunning” and “totally untrue.” Ashe stressed that the Deputy Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Jeffrey Trimble was directed “to turn over all the rocks and get to the bottom of the events.” “If Ms. Gessen feels her actions are not part of the review then she is mistaken,” Ashe said, adding “as far as I am concerned, she is skating on thin ice.”
Despite Steven Korn’s assurances to the BBG last September that the whole controversy will blow over in a week or two, the list of mostly highly negative coverage in the Russian and international media keeps growing every day. New articles are appearing especially fast in December, including the last few days, because of Gessen’s comments to media. BBG Watch compiled links to 230 articles, but the list is far from complete.
Also reporting on the Radio Liberty crisis are newspapers and online media in Kazakhstan. Korn, Ragona and Cohen ordered the firing of four Radio Liberty Kazakh Service journalists in Prague (half of the service in Prague). RFE/RL ordered private contractors in Kazakhstan to produce videos, which turned out to be morally offensive with sexually suggestive content. A young Kazakh woman journalist, Nazira Darimbet, who challenged Mr. Korn and protested against the offensive videos (which were removed from the RFE/RL website after they produced a moral outrage in Kazakhstan) did not have her RFE/RL contract renewed. Ann Noonan mentioned Ms. Darimbet in her presentation to the BBG, which was reported one of the most popular websites in Kazakhstan, Zonakz and included a link to Noonan’s video: Уволенные сотрудники радио Свобода/Азаттык могут быть восстановлены. The article suggested that Russian and Kazakh journalists fired by Korn may be reinstated although the BBG and individual BBG members have not made any comments about such a possibility.
Novaya Gazeta a popular liberal Russian newspaper, owned partly by Mikhail Gorbachev, published Wednesday two new articles on Radio Liberty, a commentary by Aleksandr Panov and an interview with David Satter conducted by fired Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Sokolov, one of the best independent political reporters in Russia.
Wikipedia describes Novaya Gazeta as a Russian newspaper well known in the country for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs. Four Novaya Gazeta journalists were murdered between 2001 and 2009. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was critical of Russia’s actions in Chechnya, wrote for Novaya Gazeta until her assassination on October 7, 2006. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and State Duma Deputy Alexander Lebedev own 49% of the newspaper and the paper’s staff controls the remaining 51% of shares. Gorbachev has long been a friend of the paper. He used the money from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize to help set up Novaya Gazeta in 1993 and purchase its first computers.
Gorbachev was one of many Russian opposition political figures and human rights leaders who have issued statements or signed petitions protesting the firing of Radio Liberty journalists and the programming changes made by Korn, Ragona, and Gessen. Some of the petitions were sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the BBG, and members of the U.S. Congress. Korn’s deputies, Ragona and Cohen, continue to defend the firing of Radio Liberty journalists and attack their critics. See: RFE/RL executives claim strong BBG support, ignore reports of Steven Korn’s imminent departure. Cohen did not respond to BBG Watch’s offer to publish his answers and comments to the questions posed by BBG Watch. Despite receiving several requests, the BBG’s Office of Communications and External Affairs has not commented on Gessen’s attack on Ann Noonan and Gessen’s claim that the BBG-ordered review is not an inspection of Radio Liberty and her role.
Inspection of “Svoboda” (Radio Liberty)
by Aleksandr Panov
Federal agency of the Government of the United States (the Broadcasting Board of Governors – BBG), which controls U.S. broadcasting to foreign countries, intends to investigate the circumstances of the reorganization of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty.
As it became known, “reform,” accompanied by the appointment to the post of the head (of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty) of journalist Masha Gessen, mass layoffs of staffers, and the closing of radio broadcasting, were criticized at the BBG meeting by the executive director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting Anne Noonan and the head of Freedom House, David Kramer. The Broadcasting Board of Governors expressed concern about falling ratings: over the last two months the website traffic of the station fell by 50 percent. According to BBG Watch, at a closed meeting of the board, David Kramer rebuked the president of Radio Liberty Steven Korn that what he did to the radio station in Russia was “worse than (what) Putin (did).”
Anne Noonan called on the leadership to reinstate the staff of the Moscow office sacked in September. She stated that the new leadership of the station fired highly qualified and experienced staffers Bella Kaloyev and Alexei Kuznetsov, who are persons with disabilities, and instead hired less qualified and less experienced employees. The new chief editor of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty Masha Gessen claims that the decision to reform was made before her appointment. According to Gessen, this was due to the need to modernize and change the format. In November, laid-off employees in November launched their own website SvobodaNew.com – Radio Liberty In Exile.
At the meeting in Washington, BBG’s interim presiding governor Michael Lynton announced the intention to undertake a thorough analysis of the restructuring of the station, which occurred in the autumn of 2012. According to the official press release, the Board instructed the Deputy Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Jeffrey Trimble to review the situation in Russia. The study must be completed within six months. In addition, Board members will go to Russia in early 2013 to meet with officials and representatives of civil society and to explore options for broadcasting Voice of America and Radio Liberty programs.
In an interview with Lenta.ru Masha Gessen has denied media reports of an impending inspection. “A review of the situation,” in her opinion, is not , “an audit,” and her presentation of strategy at the meeting in Washington was perceived by the BBG as “very good.” BBG Watch, referenced by the Russian media, Gessen described as “slimy”. “All that they publish, is always based on anonymous sources who claim that they have reliable information about private meetings or unpublished BBG decisions BBG,” explained Gessen.
During the Cold War, Radio Liberty and Voice of America, by overcoming jammers, conveyed to Soviet listeners an alien ideology and American point of view on world politics. But not only. Top-notch jazz and rock music, reviews of banned books, conversations about religion, interviews with interesting people – listeners got what they have been demanding and what they could not get at home. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, this kind of Russia focus was, to say the least, minimized. This was a mistake, the fruits of which America is reaping today.
Love-candy period of a romantic relationship with America ended very quickly. Instead of a new “Marshall Plan,” Russians were offered frozen “Bush chicken legs.” Instead of a strategic partnership – NATO’s eastward expansion.
Foreign voices of the romantic era of the early 90s in Russia, which were received without interference, gradually returned to where they were “before perestroika and glasnost.” A place friendly to Americans of the late Gorbachev era became hostile. Every Russian citizen was told that America’s intrigues are the root of all our problems.
And now the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a congressional hearing noted with some surprise that America is losing the information war to Al-Jazeera, Russia Today and the Chinese channel CCTV. It should not be surprising, however, if we compare the forces and resources assigned to the production of these channels by the Arabs, the Kremlin and the Chinese Communist authorities with endless “reorganizations” conducted by U.S. broadcasters, poorly presented as to who and why they “reorganize” and generally what to do with the Russian audience .
At a time when the federal television channels and national media in Russia are under tight control of the Kremlin, it appears that Washington has neither the strength nor the ability to withstand the powerful wave of “anti-Americanism,” which will be effective as long as the majority of Russian citizens draws information and assessments from TV. There is no “better alternative” for them from the American information providers.
You have to understand what (Radio Liberty) means for Russia and for the post-communist space
David Satter worked for many years in the Soviet Union and Russia as a correspondent for The Financial Times, and then special correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. More than six months ago, he was seen as a potential candidate to head the Russian Service of Radio Liberty.
But as you know, in September, the president of (Radio Free Europe/) Radio Liberty Steven Korn appointed Masha Gessen as director of the Russian Service, firing about 40 employees of the Moscow office.
Sokolov – David, what do you think about what happened in the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty with the mass dismissal?
Satter – I think that after all this story is not over. I can say that I know people in Washington who do not accept what happened. There are various discussions which are underway about what to do to . Although they ( RFE / RL managers) are now hiring new people. And it will be very complicated. But I repeat that all who were fired, should return to work.
I think it was a mistake on the part of the BBG (U.S. federal agency in charge of international broadcasting). They found the man, Steven Korn, who does not know the history of Radio Liberty, does not speak Russian, has no experience, does not know the culture of Russia. He behaves like an ordinary American businessman who has employees who sell detergent …
Sokolov – He has a factory making shoes …
Satter – Oh, I see. Shoes. Here he sees that sales have fallen. What to do? Dismiss all. He acted like businessmen who wants to increase sales. And it did not work. Such errors happen in the United States: in corporations, in companies. The new man wants to show how smart he is …
Sokolov – “Sales” are still falling, and the traffic to the site of Radio Liberty has fallen substantially …
Satter – This is due to the fact that the reputation (of Radio Liberty) has been ruined. It was created over decades decades. One does not throw it away in of one minute. And this was done the moment they fired employees.
Inspection of “Svoboda” (Radio Liberty)
And besides, they instantly lose the level of expertise, identity and profile. It is obvious that the “new” Radio Liberty will be just a shadow of the old.
I think it’s not the end of the story. Although I can be mistaken. But what they do is very unacceptable, very unprofessional.
I saw a video of the roundtable with Lyudmila Alekseeva and other human rights defenders, representatives of laid-off staffers, and Korn. True, I saw only parts of the video. But it is quite clear that this man (Korn) is unqualified, he does not understand what he says when he talks about numbers. He does not understand the role of Radio Liberty, the tradition of this radio station, what it mean for Russia and for the post-communist space.
And I am not opposed to doing something to modernize. But betting only on the Internet is very risky. You can block it. During a crisis, the situation may arise when Radio Liberty will remain almost the only reliable source from which people can get information, as in 1991. Although Ekho Moskvy was working then to some degree.
This is a huge loss for American public diplomacy. These decisions can not be tolerated.
One needs to restore the old situation and then rationally think about some changes that should be made in the organization as a whole that could be justified. But not to purge the whole editorial staff.
Sokolov – And it could end badly. Through the deliberate lowering of (content) quality, it will become yellow press. Why the American taxpayers should pay for materials about sex shops?
Satter – I also don’t understand. I’ve seen sad examples. In Russia, there are those who talk more and better about such topics.
There will be hearings in the Senate, and, if I am invited, as promised, I will speak in detail about all this.
Mikhail Sokolov – special for Novaya Gazeta