BBG Watch Commentary

March 2013 BBG Photo: Then RFE/RL President Kevin Klose, flanked by Russian human rights leader Lyudmila Alekseyeva (left) and journalist and author David Satter (right) at a Washington, D.C., reception to mark the 60th anniversary of Radio Liberty's first broadcast to Russia on March 1, 1953.

Supporters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), including a preeminent Russian human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeeva, are becoming more and more frustrated by the slow pace of addressing the management crisis at the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster. While newly-appointed acting president Kevin Klose is expected to announce soon major changes at top level managerial positions at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, pro-democracy activists in Russia are anxious to hear his plans about rehiring Radio Liberty journalists who had been fired from the Moscow bureau.

Exactly six months ago, on September 20 and 21, 2012, the former American management of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty dismissed without any warning dozens of Radio Liberty reporters and multimedia professionals in Russia. RFE/RL managers used security guards to bar journalists from entering their office in Moscow and to prevent them from saying good bye to their audience.

[aside]“RFE/RL’s management has stated on a number of occasions that our future is in multimedia. Why then the first people fired were those who staff our Internet division – the people who brought coverage of the protests in Russia to hundreds of thousands of online users?” — Fired RFE/RL human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik.[/aside]

The firing operation was observed first hand by a preeminent Russian human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeeva who at the time was being interviewed at the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty by human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik, an award-winning journalist who was among those who were fired. Some Russian Service journalists resigned in protest to show solidarity with their fired colleagues. They also did not want to work for the new Russian Service director Masha Gessen who had been appointed by Steven Korn. The dismissed journalists launched their own news website, New Liberty, and a Facebook page, Radio Liberty in Exile.

Radio Liberty Human Rights Reporter Kristina Gorelik RFERL Photo

Six months later, Lyudmila Alexeeva told Kristina Gorelik in a new interview for the Radio Liberty in Exile website New Liberty that to save Radio Liberty’s reputation in Russia, the re-hiring of fired journalists “should have been done yesterday or the day before yesterday.”

Людмила Алексеева: Спасать репутацию Радио Свобода нужно было еще позавчера,” New Liberty, Interview with Lyudmila Alexeeva by Kristina Gorelik, March 20, 2013.

The first part of Kristina Gorelik’s interview with Lyudmila Alexeeva, which dealt with general political and human rights situation in Russia, was published online by a popular Russian magazine devoted to investigative journalism, Sovershenno Sekretno. In the first part of the interview, Lyudmila Alexeeva said that despite claims of the Putin propaganda machine, human rights activists in Russia are not “foreign agents.”

Людмила Алексеева: «Иностранными агентами себя не считаем», Sovershenno Sekretno, Interview with Lyudmila Alexeeva by Kristina Gorelik, March 20, 2013.

Lyudmila Alexeeva had joined other Russian human rights leaders and political opposition figures, including former President Mikhail Gorbachev, former reformist Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and former Deputy Primister Boris Nemtsov, who have condemned the mass firing and editorial policy changes at Radio Liberty.

[aside] “Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in this context (attacks on glasnost).” “It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about-turn.” — Former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev.[/aside]

Former RFE/RL president Steven Korn dismissed Alexeeva’s concerns and later resigned, reportedly under pressure from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). He denies that he was forced to leave RFE/RL or that he mistreated Radio Liberty journalists in any way during the firing process. He also insisted that they all had resigned voluntarily.

The BBG had appointed new acting president Kevin Klose who met in Moscow with Alexeeva and other Russian human rights activists. He later invited Alexeeva to participate in a ceremony in Washington, DC to mark the 60th anniversary of Radio Liberty broadcasts in Russia. Alexeeva accepted his invitation. Alexeeva had invited Kristina Gorelik to accompany her to the RFE/RL anniversary celebration in Washington, but a family emergency forced Gorelik to return to Moscow.

At the the event in Washington, Alexeeva met with BBG member Susan McCue and with Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who has represented at BBG meetings former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current Secretary of State John Kerry.

Alexeeva still believes that Kevin Klose plans to make the necessary changes at RFE/RL, but like many pro-democracy Russians, not to mention the fired journalists whom she strongly supports, she is becoming increasingly impatient and worried that Radio Liberty continues to lose its reputation and its audience in Russia. The personal tragedy of the fired staff remains unresolved. Meanwhile, President Putin increases his grip on power and media.

With some of Steven Korn’s top aides still occupying their former positions, “people are just losing their patience. They are waiting and waiting for … positive decisions. Everyone is so tired of waiting —
no news at all,” one former RFE/RL journalist wrote to BBG Watch.

Ludmila Alexeeva – To Save The Reputation of Radio Liberty, It Should Have Been Done The Day Before Yesterday

Interview for Radio Liberty in Exile website New Liberty by fired Radio Liberty human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik

Lyudmila Alexeeva, a premier human rights leader in Russia, is a nominee for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She was nominated by U.S. Senator  Ben Cardin (D – MD), Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

KRISTINA GORELIK: You said that there is a desire in Russia to destroy all human rights activists. How could it happen that, against this background, American management of Radio Liberty has decided to destroy a human rights’ radio? In September of last year, tens of Russian Service staffers have been fired, many left in protest, human rights programs were shut down, including one with you participation, many other programs were closed that had an influence on the public opinion.

[aside]“You know, even in conditions of our wild capitalism, which the whole world finds repugnant, people are not treated the way you treated the people at Radio Liberty.” — Lyudmila Alexeeva addressing former RFE/RL president Steven Korn.[/aside]

I was at Radio Liberty on that day. I don’t go there too often. It was a shock for everybody and for me too.

LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: It is difficult for me to answer why the American management has done this, I am not the American management. But this move is in line with the policy pursued by our (Russian) government. There is no doubt about it, and that’s why human rights activists including myself have joined the protests against the destruction of Radio Liberty.

[aside]“I did not think that we would convince any of the people in the room of anything. I don’t think I could have convinced them of what day it was, if it was coming out of my mouth they were not going to believe a word of it.” — former RFE/RL president Steven Korn speaking about Lyudmila Alexeeva and other Russian human rights and democratic opposition leaders.[/aside]

KRISTINA GORELIK: Thanks to those protests, the former RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) president (Steven Korn) who was responsible for the Radio Liberty crisis, left his position and a new president (Kevin Klose) was appointed. What can now the new president  do to reduce to a minimum the political damage that was inflicted on the radio?

LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: When the new president of RFE/RL (Kevin Klose) visited Russia, he met with human rights activists. That was a stormy meeting, during which all participants came to a shared conclusion that it is necessary to restore the unique team that came together at Radio Liberty over many years and to work with them. Of course, considering the changes that have taken place all over the world and the dramatic growth of civil society in Russia, certain adjustments should be made, but they must be discussed with the radio’s team and the audience. 

[aside]“Actually, people we knew, and therefore I have a long, long history of associations, and regard and respect for these people. Their opinions on how we do our work here at Radio Liberty are very important to me, as I’m sure, they are to you.” — Acting RFE/RL president Kevin Klose speaking about Russian human rights leaders.[/aside]

KRISTINA GORELIK: How much time does the new president have considering the continuing loss of audience?

LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: It should have been done yesterday or the day before yesterday. But it is not clear how much time the process will take, because to undo this tragic error is not easy. Radio Liberty has suffered an irreparable damage, but it is never too late to correct mistakes, even knowing that the the damage that was done is enormous.

KRISTINA GORELIK: You are not only the chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, but also an old Radio Liberty on air guest. March 1 was the 60th anniversary of the radio…

LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: And I had an invitation to celebrate the anniversary in the Washington office of RFE/RL, which I gladly accepted. There were two of us that day. David Satter, also an old contributor to Radio Liberty, and I. David is a journalists and a writer who was correspondent in the USSR, has learned Russian well. He does not only write about our country, he loves it and tries to figure out with empathy and concern about what’s going on here. It was very nice to be there in a duet. 

Of course, wherever I was, wherever I met with members of the U.S. Congress, State Department officials, American civic organizations, everywhere the conversation was about Radio Liberty. And I must say that I was very pleased to see that the anxiety about what had happened to Radio Liberty, a radio so important for us, is also widespread in the United States. And because one can feel this concern in Congress, among government officials, in civic organizations, I am confident that the problem is being solved and it will be solved.

KRISTINA GORELIK: I want to fill a gap here, because in an interview with you that was published of the official site of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as in other publications, there was little mention about the current crisis at Radio Liberty. So I want to report in our site Novaya Svoboda (New Liberty) that for the first time since 1977, you have no program on Radio Liberty…

[aside]“Like in the Soviet era, Radio Liberty is becoming the principal source of alternative information; however, the new management in Moscow, headed by M. Gessen, and Vice-President J. Ragona seem to be in cahoots with our oppressors. They insist on making our programming more entertainment-oriented. We are more than adequately entertained by government-owned television networks and radio stations. Human rights reportage and cogent political analysis is what we are lacking. The demand for coverage of these issues by the progressive part of our citizenry is not even closely satisfied by what is currently available. It is Radio Liberty’s responsibility to fulfill this role. Gessen and Ragona do not understand the organization’s mission, and, in my opinion, should leave their posts.” — from Lyudmila Alexeeva’s letter to RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose.[/aside]

LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: I was so proud that since 1977 I had not missed a single week. Well, I was not a staff member of Radio Liberty. I have never been a staff member. I was a freelancer, I was an outside contributor. But I contributed no less than once a week since 1977. Last September I stopped doing this. I must say that I got two or three calls since then from some of the new staffers seeking my comments, but that, of course, is not the same as it was before. It is not a regular contribution.

KRISTINA GORELIK: What must be done at the Russian Service in order to restore programs on human right with your participation.

LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: I wrote about this an open letter to the new President of RFE/RL giving my suggestions. Namely, that the best opportunity to do this would be the restoration of the  the former team of Radio Liberty that was so imprudently discarded.

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