BBG Watch Commentary

Radio Liberty — A Unique Medium

By Mario Corti

Radio Liberty is a unique phenomenon in the media landscape, and there should be no doubt that it is very much needed in Russia. It will not be needed anymore only if it becomes like any other medium.

Radio Liberty is unique because, as many of its listeners can attest, it is relatively independent from whatever internal pressures or circumstances predominate in Russia at any given time, whether they are political, social or originating from individual politicians and oligarchs. At the same time, Radio Liberty is definitely not the Voice of America, just as Voice of America could never be a Russian media outlet offering freedom of expression and be seen as such by the audience. This, I think, answers the question concerning duplication of broadcast services which is being raised from time to time in the United States.

Why do we need both Radio Liberty and Voice of America?

There is a widespread opinion that Radio Liberty “contributed a great deal to the dissolution of Soviet society”, that it was a very effective tool, even a weapon of the “Cold War.”

That is not, however, what the Russian Communist Party says. It still fears Radio Liberty, as I read lately on the site of “Ekho Moskvy.”

Even one former President of RFE/RL said once that “our business is to get out of business.” It was one of those overly optimistic assessments, as though with the fall of communism in Russia the history would end as well. History did not end in Russia and in many other countries formerly under Soviet influence. Radio Liberty has not become obsolete. The current propaganda offensive by the Kremlin makes that point quite clear.

Even during the Cold War, however, the station’s intellectual focus has always been constructive. It never wanted to destroy, but wanted instead to offer an alternative. Its goal has always been dissemination of reliable news, promotion of positive values, respect for other peoples’ opinions and conveyance of positive emotions through a powerful broadcast medium.

No objective observer can say now that Russia has become so advanced that there is no need to worry about reliable information being delivered to those who need it. No one can say anymore that there is no need to pay attention to the numerous examples of abuse of power.

No one can claim that the bridge bringing together different cultures and worldviews that has been built over the years by Radio Liberty with such painstaking labor is not needed anymore, and that we can say farewell to each other and to our audience.

Does Radio Liberty need reforms? Yes, of course. The world is always changing, and together with it Radio Liberty has been changing as well. Of course, Radio Liberty needs to use whatever opportunities become available as new technologies develop, including modern and more efficient ways of producing and delivering news and opinions.

But at the same time, Radio Liberty must be aware that the so called media convergence carries with it the danger of making all media uniform. It is very important that in addition to using other program delivery methods, Radio Liberty be preserved as a radio program. Not only because radio has a great advantage over other media, as a listener can always follow it while doing other things, including surfing the web, but also because radio establishes a direct contact with the audience. Radio journalism also offers great flexibility, efficiency, and economy in providing content for any other platform a news media organization may try to use in a country like Russia. Economy is important for the U.S. Congress and American taxpayers who support this great organization. There is no doubt that program delivery methods will keep changing due to advances in technology and changing political conditions. Radio Liberty must learn to adjust with them. It has been doing this already for many years.

But in doing all these things, Radio Liberty should not lose its unique image merely in the pursuit of fashion — a temptation that emerges from time to time — or be seduced by calls to focus only on attracting “a younger audience.” The latter focus is commendable per se. But both fashion and youth quickly pass away, while the need to meet Radio Liberty’s mission remains among all segments of society.

Of course, there is still a lot to be done in Russia in terms of program distribution. Radio Liberty has clearly lost the competition with Russia’s media outlets for external audiences. For instance, the Voice of Russia and RT (Russia Today) are easily accessible all over the world, particularly in the U.S., but also in some of the former Soviet republics and regions, including Crimea. That’s not the case for Radio Liberty in Russia and in most other countries. Even if we ignore politically motivated restrictions, program distribution, especially where such programs are viewed with great suspicion and hostility by the local governments, can be very difficult and very expensive.

The question that was asked at the beginning of the discussion has two parts. Do those who pay for Radio Liberty still need it? I think they do.

Dissemination of one’s own values and principles has a very useful reflexive feedback effect. It constantly reminds those who engage in this effort about their own values and principles. It forces them to also abide by these values and principles. Otherwise, presenting them to others would be hypocritical and those values and principles would be perceived as false. What right do we have to tell others about values and principles we ourselves fail to honor?

A former Russian Service director, Yuri Handler, used to say that Radio Liberty is needed as an insurance policy. May be he meant something slightly different from what I am try to convey, but his words accurately reflected what is being discussed about the continued need for Radio Liberty as a unique information and opinion medium in Russia. Thanks to its existence, both Radio Liberty’s listeners and those who pay for it are insured against the risk of even greater dangers to their security and the risk of even greater dangers to whatever freedom they have or still only aspire to have.

Mario Corti’s comments were adapted and translated from RFE/RL Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) program hosted by Ivan Tolstoy “Родственность голоса. К 61-й годовщине Радио Свобода,” Radio Liberty Russian Service, February 25, 2014.

More about Mario Corti

mariocorti100Mario Corti was born in Italy but his parents took him to Argentina, where he developed a lifelong interest in Russia. Later on he became a fluent Russian speaker and writer. Living in Italy in the 1970s, he was active in defense of human rights in the Soviet Union and published Russian samizdat books, articles and documents.

From 1979 until 2005, he worked at the U.S.-funded international broadcaster Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He became the head of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service but left the station together with other veteran journalists over a programming dispute with the American management. He is author of numerous books and articles, many of them published in Russian. Dreif, a book written in Russian about philosophy and culture, was published in Russia and Ukraine in 2002. His book, Salieri i Mozart, on the relationship between the two composers, was published in Russian in 2005. His articles on human rights and Soviet dissent have appeared in several languages in many countries. He speaks Italian, Rusian, English, German, Spanish, and French and has a working knowledge of several other European languages. Dividing his time between Italy and Russia, he now works as a freelance journalist and worked a consultant for a media group based in Saint Petersburg.

More Background on RFE/RL, Mario Corti, and Kremlin’s Propaganda Offensive

Day view of the Red Square, Moscow Kremlin and Lenin mausoleum, Moscow, RussiaPulitzer Prize winning author, journalist and historian Anne Applebaum wrote recently an op-ed for The Telegraph about the Kremlin’s propaganda onslaught over Ukraine, in which she suggested that maybe it’s time to look again at the funding of such U.S. taxpayer-supported media outlets such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, “and to find ways to spread their reach once more.” She observed that “Russia’s information warriors are on the march” and “we must respond.”

“Unfortunately, the only response to an all-out information war is an all-out information defence. The West used to be quite good at this: simply by being credible truth-tellers, Radio Free Europe and the BBC language services provided our most effective tools in the struggle against communism. Maybe it’s time to look again at their funding, and to find ways to spread their reach once more.”Russia’s information warriors are on the march – we must respond,” by Anne Applebaum, The Telegraph, March 7, 2014.

The job of setting the record straight in Russia on news and opinions indeed falls largely to Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, which recently celebrated the 61st anniversary of its first broadcast on March 1 1953, a few days before the death of Joseph Stalin. The station has always been funded by American taxpayers, first through the CIA and later directly by the U.S. Congress through a U.S. federal agency now called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). In addition to countering Soviet censorship, one of the station’s initial goals was to assure the Russians that the United States had no intention of attacking Russia with nuclear or any other weapons.

Unlike Washington-based Voice of America (VOA), which has been the radio of the United States as a government and a nation, a station also very popular in Russia during the Cold War, Radio Liberty was designed as a surrogate broadcaster, a significantly different concept from external national broadcasts. This meant that its Russian journalists and guests were given a far greater freedom to express their own personal political views as if they were still living in the Soviet Union, even those views opposed to any current U.S. policies but still reflecting Western values of individual freedom and democracy and consistent with long-term U.S. interests.

The station’s credibility and popularity increased over the years, largely because of alternative views being expressed with considerable editorial independence, specialization and focus on Russia. Many credit it, together with its sister station Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and BBC, with contributing to the fall of communism in much of Eurasia and the fall of the Soviet Union — a historic shift, which Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, called the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He was referring specifically to the disappearance of the Soviet empire.

Radio Liberty became and still remains a great intellectual force, first in the Soviet Union and now in Russia. Since the fall of the USSR, there have been, however, several crises at the station, caused largely by new American managers who had assumed wrongly that Radio Liberty can compete in Russia on commercial terms like any other Russian station. These new managers came after such outstanding American journalists previously managing RFE/RL and Radio Liberty as Kevin Klose, who had been a correspondent in Moscow for The Washington Post, and Robert Gillette, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent.

Soon problems and conflicts ensued. A manager, who who later made a career at the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington and oversaw the ending of direct Voice of America radio and television broadcasts to Russia in 2008 shortly before the Russian invasion of Georgia, fired a number of legendary Radio Liberty journalists who were behind the station’s great intellectual power.

One of those fired in 2005 was Mario Corti, director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, a distinguished Italian writer and analyst of Russian politics, society, and culture. Another was a famous former Soviet dissident, poet, novelist and musician, Tengiz Gudava, who after his expulsion from the USSR became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was fired in 2004. Another highly popular Radio Liberty broadcaster fired was Sergei Iourienen. Also gone was a distinguished RFE/RL journalist, Lev Roitman, who had been highly critical of the changes being imposed on the Russian Service by the new American management. He left of his own volition.

Although he is Italian, Mario Corti not only spoke Russian fluently, he wrote and hosted radio programs in Russian and published books in Russia on philosophy and culture. He and his colleagues were intellectual giants who worked well with equally gifted Klose and Gillette.

The new management that came after Klose and Gillette quickly changed the culture of the organization and ordered other staff dismissals at RFE/RL. Those led to lawsuits from two women, one of them an Armenian RFE/RL journalist. Eventually, these actions by RFE/RL managers came to be reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

These early firings preceded a major dismissal in 2012 of dozens of other highly talented Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists, again a move planned and initiated by American managers.

Those fired in 2012 included one of the best known political reporters in Russia, Mikhail Sokolov, and a human rights reporter, Kristina Gorelik.

Personnel and programming changes advertised by these American managers as designed to increase online audience in Russia actually produced the opposite effect. The number of online visitors and Facebook “Likes” precipitously declined after the best journalists were fired. The station’s reputation plummeted. Fired reporters, many of whom were in fact digital multimedia experts, promptly created Radio Liberty in Exile with with a popular website, video, live television transmissions, and social media pages.

This time, thanks to strong opposition to the firings and support for the journalists from Mikhail Gorbachev, human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva and other famous Russian opposition figures, the American management team that fired them was itself replaced by the BBG and at least some of the fired reporters were brought back by newly-appointed president and CEO Kevin Klose. He returned to RFE/RL for the second time and managed to restore much of Radio Liberty’s lost reputation and effectiveness. But Klose resigned a few days ago to the great regret of many RFE/RL employees and supporters of U.S. international media outreach.

Mario Corti had contributed to saving Radio Liberty by publishing articles in American media to bring attention to the decline of the station’s reputation in Russia after the firings of 2012.  “Silenced by Washington – Mass firings have ended the distinguished history of Radio Liberty in Russia” – by Mario Corti and Ted Lipien, National Review Online, Oct. 23, 2012.

Many other individuals also contributed to saving Radio Liberty — BBG members Ambassador Victor Ashe, Susan McCue, and Michael Meehan — as well as an ex officio BBG member Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State and her representative to the BBG, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (now former) Tara Sonenshine.

When Hillary Clinton described in one of her Congressional testimonies U.S. international media outreach as “defunct,” she no doubt also had in mind what former American managers at RFE/RL and some of the current International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives did to Radio Liberty over a number of years. (Hillary Clinton was being briefed by Tara Sonenshine.)

Fortunately, the BBG board and Kevin Klose were able to repair some of that damage just in time before President Putin decided to intervene militarily in Ukraine and unleashed his propaganda machine in Russia, in Ukraine, and in the rest of the world.

Thanks to reforms instituted by Kevin Klose, the station has responded well to the crisis in Ukraine. But Radio Liberty still faces many big challenges. Program delivery is and will remain a major issue due to Kremlin-imposed media restrictions in Russia. Another problem is the shrinking budget for all U.S. international media outreach — which, as Anne Applebaum correctly observes, prevents the United States from properly responding to the Kremlin’s propaganda offensive.

Contrary to the hopes of former American managers at RFE/RL, President Putin is not going to let the station have its own radio or television frequencies in Russia or to distribute its programs in any effective way, even to a limited degree. Online delivery of news content still works in Russia, but even that could be restricted by the Russian authorities if the conflict with the West over Ukraine develops into a major crisis.

On February 25, 2014, Radio Liberty aired a special program moderated by one of its top broadcasters Ivan Tolstoy, in which some of these issues were discussed. Mario Corti was was one of the distinguished participants in the discussion.

BBG Watch has received an adapted English-language translation of what Mario Corti said, which we are happy to re-post.

Meanwhile, the BBG in Washington is looking for a replacement for Kevin Klose. RFE/RL journalists and their supporters fear that some of the American managers responsible for Radio Liberty and Voice of America failures over the last 15 years can somehow still find their way back to RFE/RL. So far, however, there are no indications that the new BBG board chaired by Jeff Shell is moving in that direction.

BBG Watch has learned that there was a push for a temporary appointment of a particularly worrying nature, but this move was apparently successfully resisted by those who remember the history of mistakes made at Radio Liberty and Voice of America and do not want to see former management failures repeated, neither in Prague nor in Washington, our sources told us.

BBG Watch has also heard that the board is now looking at least at one candidate for the position of RFE/RL president and CEO who appears to hold very strong pro-trans-Atlantic views and has excellent intellectual credentials. We remain hopeful that the BBG board will make the right choice for RFE/RL and Radio Liberty in Russia.