Mikhail SokolovIn his remarks to his senior staffers, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn made dismissive comments about Lyudmila Alexeeva and other Russian human rights and democratic opposition leaders who had confronted him earlier at a roundtable discussion in Moscow. But Mr. Korn also had critical comments about one the best political reporters in Russia, a fired Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Sokolov.

Former President Yeltsin personally gave Sokolov the license for RFE/RL to broadcast in Russia in recognition of his brave reporting during a communist coup in 1991. Until he was fired in September along with more than 30 other journalists and new media specialists (eight more resigned in protest), Sokolov was Radio Liberty’s premier political reporter who interviewed and submitted to tough questioning leaders of all Russian political parties, including supporters of President Putin.

Neither the Kremlin nor the RFE/RL new management headed by Steven Korn liked Sokolov’s tough political reporting and he found himself without a job after many years of working for the U.S.-funded broadcaster. He and some of his fired colleagues have now formed Radio Liberty in Exile and hope that they can in some fashion continue their independent reporting in Russia as President Putin continues to expand his control over the media.

RFE/RL PRESIDENT STEVEN KORN: “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. However, I think that they had their say. I think that the best thing that happened was their insisting that two of our former employees join the group, which they did. I think the words and attitude of those people, one in particular, speaks for itself, for themselves, and my theme, like the President’s, is forward, we’re done debating this, we’re done gnashing our teeth about it, we’re done wringing our hands, we’re done with the second guessing, we are going forward.”

This is the statement by Mikhail Sokolov to which Korn objected:

Mikhail Sokolov: I am a member of the team, who was ousted by Mr. Korn without any explanation, I would like to make a short statement if I may. Especially, since I’ve seen on the Radio Liberty’s website a lot of questions about this. Mr. Korn spoke for what appears to be 12 minutes, I will take 4 or 5 minutes.

Mikhail Schatz (moderator): I think it’s quite possible, do not forget about the time.

Mikhail Sokolov: “Thank you. I would like first of all to thank American taxpayers who have allowed me until recently to discuss the political situation in Russia quite freely. 20 years at Radio Liberty is a really long time. Thank you American taxpayers. 

Now I would like to say this: I did not come here to discuss an imaginary reform concept that does not exist in nature. There was a pogrom of the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty, which led to a massive scandal reflected in media reports. The Radio Liberty website which was on its way up is now in shambles.  Look at what the readers of our website write about you, Mr. Korn and Ms. Korn Ragona.

Without providing any reasons, without providing any arguments, you ousted about 40 people who have worked professionally for your country. You have demonstrated immoral and unprofessional behavior. As a result (of your actions), Radio Liberty no longer for the time being has any right to teach Russians about democracy. It is a fact that a number of prominent politicians, experts and regional correspondents refused to cooperate with Radio Liberty in a show of protest. Moreover, not only the people you kicked out, but those who did not want to work in this kind of atmosphere, have also left. 

What you have here a boycott. Now, regarding the broadcasts. You are not a professional, you told a lie when you said that Radio Liberty had no way out of the situation that occurred because of the adoption of the new Russian media law. You had walked away from an agreement with Novaya Gazeta and Alexander Lebedev, you walked away from broadcasting on their FM frequency, which was perfectly possible during (President) Medvedev’s thaw. You did not go on  the way all other foreign media are doing business in Russia. None of them has its own license to broadcast in Russia. They are not license holders. Neither Euronews, CNN, or  BBC.

The broadcaster must be a Russian legal entity, with whom an agreement is reached, and this entity then broadcasts the client’s programs. For example, NTV Plus. Even the Voice of America, as far as I know, has an agreement with Voice of Russia. You have not shown any interest to keeping radio broadcasting – either getting FM or medium wave.  Now you have voluntarily given up the license. 

This is a betrayal of Radio Liberty’s mission. I can tell you that your actions show complete political blindness. We now have in Russia  a harsh authoritarian regime based parliamentary and archaic rules. Tomorrow, new rules that prohibit legitimate criticism of Putin and his system may be introduced. And independent political activity is under threat. You put the Russian Service in Moscow in a very difficult position. 

Moreover,  while I do not really want to focus on the nomination of a new director,  she was not hurt, at least in recent years, feeding out of the Vladimir Putin’s hand  (Vokrug Sveta magazine). In addition,  censorship has been already introduced at Radio Liberty, At the very least, political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky is already banned from participating in Radio Liberty programs. 

You are switching to digital broadcasting. Very good. But how will you respond to a situation, similar to what has happened in China and Iran, when the Internet is blocked.

Political Broadcasting – you are giving it up, and delivering video will become more difficult. In addition, video will be of amateur quality because you don’t have enough money.

Finally. About your new hires. Well, I guess, we are bad journalists – unprofessional, useless, and we can leave. You hired wizards that are supposed to attract young people. As someone who knows the Russian media, I can say that either you bought something sight unseen, or you trusted in some quack promise. Wonders will not take place. 

You are talking about equipment. You should know that hardware and wires without any quality content and news are not worth anything. The people you hired are already saying that the news is not needed. Lenin once said that there are useful bourgeois idiots. There is such a quote that they will bring a rope on which communists will hang them. You behave the same way as far as the interests of your own country are concerned. Because one cannot behave this way in the current political situation in Russia.  Only amateurs would do that. Moreover, I believe that your actions are nothing but a betrayal of the ideals of American democracy. I do not think that you are an enemy of your own country, but you have disgraced Radio Liberty’s reputation and the principles that are enshrined in the American Constitution.

And I believe that you and Ms. Ragona, who have destroyed Radio Liberty’s  Russian Service, should simply resign. But since you are not about to do this, I think the American public will become engaged in this issue to stop your destructive activities. I’m talking not only about the destruction of the Russian Service, but also  the Kazakh Service,  where you have fired half of the staff; and the eliminations of broadcasting in Russian to the North Caucasus region; your attempts to close down the North Caucasus and Tatar services. Your actions, which harm America, should be examined by a committee of the U.S. Congress — something that Russian human rights activists have already requested.

You also know very well what the fired Radio Liberty staffers were told: “no matter what you do, even if you appeal in court, you will not be working for Radio Liberty, we will do everything to stop you.” And for that — you, Ms Ragona, you hired lawyers and they applied psychological pressure. And the security guards were brought in and some of the people were not allowed to enter the office. You all know very well how it was. You should not to lie to human rights activists. You do this frequently, constantly trying to deceive people.

And about the people who had resigned, they had left not because they wanted the money, as Mr. Korn said here, they left because they could not continue working in this disgusting atmosphere of lies and meanness. Do you understand? 

Everything could have been done differently. And it is a lie that this is about money. People should have been working until the end of the year. You did not want them to work, and you paid them. 

All the other payments are required by Russian law, when a person leaves he is entitled to it. 

You are incompetent, I want to repeat this, when it comes to broadcasting.  Here at this table sits a person who was personally responsible for the collapse of Radio Liberty’s regional broadcasting partners, for the fact that we lost frequencies in St. Petersburg, Tomsk, and in other cities. Yes, there was pressure from the security services. But there were people who were willing to cooperate with us, including the people from the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. They confirmed that they had made you a proposal for using an FM frequency owned by Alexander Lebedev and we could have been broadcasting on that frequency now. You should not try to deceive serious people as you are apt to do.”