BBG Watch Commentary
Masha Gessen, the controversial director of the Russian Service at the U.S. taxpayer-funded media freedom station Radio Liberty, was given a $50,000 journalistic award by Liberty Media Corporation, a group of American media industry billionaires, while dozens of journalists recently fired from the station by the previous management are still unable to do uncensored reporting in Putin’s Russia because some of their jobs have been taken over by her associates. Unless returned to their former jobs, these media freedom journalists associated with the United States face a bleak economic future in Putin’s Russia. American billionaires and millionaires whose company gave Masha Gessen an award appear to have no clue as to what happened at Radio Liberty and why there is outrage in Russia and a boycott directed against her.
Many anti-Putin Russians are disturbed that the Obama administration has allowed highly respected investigative reporters to be dismissed and shoved on the street after years of loyal work in defense of human rights. The damage to the station’s reputation for hard-hitting journalism caused a public diplomacy scandal for the United States and undermined America’s image among champions of democracy in Russia, including Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President Mikhail Gorbachev, former reformist Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and many other prominent leaders. They have sent letters to the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress demanding that the journalists be brought back and criticizing Masha Gessen’s editorial policies.
One of the strongest supporters of the fired reporters, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lyudmila Alexeeva, said that Masha Gessen does not understand the station’s mission in Russia and should leave her post. Alexeeva also said that those who were fired to make room for Masha Gessen and her team should be immediately brought back and allowed to practice their investigative journalism to expose political and economic corruption and human rights violations in Putin’s Russia.
Ignoring the controversy and the plight of fired Radio Liberty journalists, whose contributions to media freedom in Russia far surpass anything that Masha Gessen ever did, a group of super-rich American private media industry executives gave Gessen a prize for journalism promoting economic freedom. It’s also possible that these American billionaires and millionaires, as well as judges who approved the award, have had no clue what is going on. Some independent Russian journalists think that a prize given by a group of rich American businessmen is not particularly significant and in many respects not much different from how Russian oligarchs approach the media in Russia.
The 2013 Media for Liberty Award, which seeks to acknowledge and encourage media contributions that explore the relationship between economic and political liberty, is given by Liberty Media Corporation. It is a for profit company that owns interests in a broad range of media, communications and entertainment businesses. Those interests include subsidiaries Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc., and TruePosition, Inc., interest in SiriusXM, Live Nation and Barnes & Noble, and minority equity investments in Time Warner Inc. and Viacom.
The Chairman of Liberty Media Corporation is American billionaire John C. Malone. Forbes estimates his net worth in 2013 at $6 billion. He is also the largest individual private landowner in the United States, owning 2,100,000 acres (8,500 km2) of land, most of which is in Maine. Malone is listed on the Liberty Media website as one of the judges for the award. Other judges include some well-known American journalists and professors of journalism, but it is not clear how many of them were even aware that many independent reporters and human rights activists in Russia blame Masha Gessen for their colleagues being fired from Radio Liberty.[aside]Liberty Media Corporation Management
John C. Malone
Gregory B. Maffei
President & CEO
Richard N. Baer
Senior Vice President and General Counsel
David J.A. Flowers
Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Alternative Investments
Albert E. Rosenthaler
Senior Vice President
Christopher W. Shean
Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer[/aside]
Critics charge that because of Masha Gessen, the station has lost its credibility and, according to Russian media reports, much of its former audience. Dozens of Radio Liberty independent journalists, who were either fired or resigned in protest, cannot do their job of defending media freedom.
Masha Gessen has done nothing to defend them. Instead, she has made snide comments and accused her critics of slandering her because some had suggested that she may have had something to do with the mass firing. She denies that she did. They were sacked in September 2012 by the person who had hired her, former RFE/RL president Steven Korn, after he had announced her appointment but shortly before she officially assumed her duties on October 1, 2012. Before that, Masha Gessen had worked for Korn last year as a consultant. Slander is a criminal offense in Russia thanks a law signed by Mr. Putin with the intention of silencing critics, especially among independent journalists.
For the record, Steven Korn denies that he had fired these journalists and insists that they had all left voluntarily and were treated with great respect. Security guards stopped unsuspecting Radio Liberty journalists from entering their office in Moscow and prevented them from saying good bye to their audiences of many years. Lyudmila Alexeeva, who had witnessed the firing operation first hand, said that even repugnant Russian mafia capitalists treat their employees better than Mr. Korn treated these journalists.[aside] Liberty Media Corporation Media for Liberty Award Judges
Stacey Woeflel, Ph.D.[/aside]
So while Masha Gessen will be honored by a group of American billionaires for her journalism prior to joining Radio Liberty late last year, some 40 brave Russian journalists are without a job of defending freedom and democracy in Russia in the most effective way they know how — through Radio Liberty’s various media platforms. Nearly the entire human rights and political opposition community in Russia, including Lyudmila Alexeeva, Mikhail Gorbachev and other democratic Russian leaders and intellectuals came to the fired journalists’ defense and are boycotting Masha Gessen at Radio Liberty. They are demanding that the journalists be rehired and their pro-human rights programs restored.
American human rights leaders and Russia experts, including Freedom House president David Kramer, writer and journalist David Satter, and Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting executive director Ann Noonan, also spoke publicly in defense of the fired Radio Liberty journalists. Gessen later launched a personal attack on Noonan in a Russian media interview. But Gessen’s boss, newly-appointed RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose, had met in Moscow with representatives of fired journalists and with human rights leaders who support them. He had also invited Lyudmila Alexeeva to the Radio Liberty 60th anniversary observance in Washington, DC.
Fired Radio Liberty journalists are still waiting for an offer to return them to work. Kevin Klose has a failed manager who faces rebellion from within and without. Many current Russian Service employees have signed a petition expressing solidarity with their fired colleagues.
What Happened to Journalism at Radio Liberty Under Gessen?
Fired journalists and other independent reporters have accused Masha Gessen of putting a stop to most investigative journalism at Radio Liberty, promoting “normal journalism,” eliminating much of hard news reporting in favor of feature stories and losing a substantial part of the station’s online audience. They also point out that she has ignored on the station’s website all the negative Russian media coverage of Radio Liberty in recent months.
The director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service has always been based outside of Russia until Steven Korn decided that Masha Gessen should stay in Moscow despite well-known threats from Putin’s secret police. Did she persuade him to allow her to stay in Russia because that is where she was living with her family? How save is it? How good is it for journalism at Radio Liberty?
“I want to do a kind of journalism that no one is doing at the moment. I would describe it as normal journalism,” Masha Gessen told The Moscow Times shortly after her appointment. “Something that’s not polemical, like opposition media, and something that’s not controlled by the Kremlin.”
Liberty Media Corporation and its chairman John C. Malone have the right to support and honor Masha Gessen for her books and her articles. They should have known, however, that when a former Radio Liberty journalist who had resigned in protest last September was later given the Andrei Sakharov human rights journalism award for her previous online reporting on the station’s website, Masha Gessen refused to cover the ceremony in Moscow by declaring it a low profile event in Russia.
These American private media millionaires and billionaires should also think about all of these 40 plus brave, independent journalists who are prevented from doing the same kind of outstanding reporting they were able to do before. Their purge from Radio Liberty has been a great loss for media freedom in Russia. As many Russian human rights leaders and BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe observed, even Mr. Putin could not have done more damage to Radio Liberty than the damage done by Steven Korn and his RFE/RL executives. Other BBG members agreed by asking Steven Korn to resign. For the record, Korn denies that he was fired.
BBG Governors Susan McCue and Michael Meehan have also been actively pursuing a solution to the Radio Liberty crisis while Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton supposedly has been boycotting BBG meetings for the past two months to show his displeasure. With Lynton out of the picture because of his self-imposed absence, BBG members have shown remarkable engagement and unity, which was particularly evident during the last board meeting chaired by Governor Mulhaupt.
We have learned, however, that Lynton apparently broke his weeks of silence on BBG’s business to inform agency associates of his industry’s award for Masha Gessen. Lynton is is CEO of Sony Entertainment, Inc. Monumental Pictures, one of Sony’s international holdings, is a Russian motion picture studio formed on February 2, 2006 as a joint venture between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Russia-based Patton Media Group producing and releasing Russian language films in Russia, the CIS, and Mongolia. In addition to being an absentee BBG member, Lynton may have a corporate conflict of interest in serving on a U.S. government board charged with supporting freedom while his company does business in Russia, where business access is controlled by Kremlin bosses who report to Putin. In fact, the entire industry, where Lynton works, may have a similar conflict of interest.
Any solution to the Radio Liberty crisis must involve the return to work of the fired staff. These 40 plus journalists have the support of Russian human rights and democratic political leaders; Masha Gessen does not — she is being boycotted. Many of them are far better known and respected in Russia than she is. They are also far more effective as independent journalists in Russia. They are both victims and the real heroes who deserve to be honored.
“Her reputation (Masha Gessen’s) has been damaged by her decision to accept the position at Radio Liberty on terms that required the firing of dozens of good editors and reporters and in pursuit of an editorial strategy that downplayed hard news and anti-Kremlin criticisms in favor of news features and softer social stories. This damage is not irreparable, but it is real.”
If the fired journalists are returned to Radio Liberty and Masha Gessen leaves the station, we will congratulate her on her award. We don’t deny that she has done good reporting and writing on some Russia-related topics, including economic ones — although she was not completely honest about her meeting with President Putin last September, which took place a few days before she accepted her current position at Radio Liberty. It’s clear that she is not a supporter of the Kremlin, far from it, but she is responsible for destroying Radio Liberty’s reputation and effectiveness in Russia.
We agree with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lyudmila Alexeeva and many others that for the sake of effective U.S. support for freedom and democracy in Russia, Masha Gessen should leave her post at Radio Liberty and the fired journalists should return. If Liberty Media Corporation, its chairman John C. Malone and the judges who approved the award are serious about supporting media freedom, they should demand that fired Radio Liberty journalists be returned to their jobs and their pro-human rights programs be restored. It would be a human and decent thing to do.