This BBG Watch Guest Commentary was written by an anonymous former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) analyst, journalist and manager.


Once upon a time, the main news program on Soviet TV was called “Vremia” – “Time”. It was a source of inspiration.

One of the changes approved a few years ago by Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) managers was the renaming of several Russian Service broadcasts: “Liberty Live” became “Liberty Time”. Soviet “Vremia” was reborn, if only in a name.

“49 Minutes of Jazz”, one of the most popular programs of Radio Liberty, was first cancelled, then when they realized they had made a mistake and restored it, it was renamed into “Jazz Time.” “Vremia” won again.

Other programs were called “Politics Time”, “Guests’ Time”, “Time and the World”, “Time Limits”. One of the few exceptions was “The media hour”, instead of “Media Time”.

This frivolous exercise was called “revamping”, which was preceded by the termination of few broadcasters including one former Russian Service director.

It wasn’t a big change, and they didn’t destroy much either.

Now they did.

The newly appointed Russian Service director Masha Gessen, who is scheduled to start work on October 1, promised that she will stick with Radio Liberty’s tradition of objective journalism.

There is much more than aseptic journalism in Radio Liberty’s tradition.

Masha Gessen says she had nothing to do with the recent purge of dozens of Radio Liberty’s journalists and broadcasters in its Moscow bureau. But she has already made mistakes. She accused another opposition journalist of slander. Slander is a serious accusation and criminal offense in Putin’s Russia.

RFE/RL has two components: Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda). No Russian listener, no Russian Service broadcaster would ever confuse or combine the name Radio Liberty with Radio Free Europe. Gessen did, and keeps speaking about RFE, which suggests that she knows little about what the name Radio Svoboda and the broadcasting tradition of its Russian Service signifies.

Once upon a time, members of the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB), a commission established in the United States to oversee Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, knew what their broadcasters and managers were doing. BIB members were all well known Americans.

When a BIB member wanted to be informed about a particular subject dealing with the Soviet Union, he would consult directly the real expert, usually a broadcaster or a researcher of the RFE/RL Research Department. He did not go to the president or directors of RL or RFE.

After the BIB, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) stepped in.

There was an expert on Russian politics inside of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, probably the best in all of Russia. His name is Mikhail Sokolov. He argues that it was possible for Radio Liberty to maintain broadcasting in Russia. If he says so, then he is probably right.

RFE/RL bureaucrats never consulted him. They fired him.

There was an expert on Russian media working for the Russian Service, probably the best and most respected in Russia. Her name is Anna Kachkaeva. In her capacity as the Dean of the Media Communications School of the Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE), she helped the Broadcasting Board of Governors organize a seminar for Russian journalists on the role of social media in covering ethnic migration issues.

Anna Kachkaeva is now gone. Resigned in protest. Unwilling to tolerate the sight of security guards keeping fired employees from entering the RFE/RL building in Moscow.

They fired Vladimir Abarbanel, who for many years moderated a program about and from the regions of the Russian Federation and coordinated the work of regional correspondents. Already during the previous “revamping” they decided that broadcasting to the regions was not essential. “Let’s concentrate on Moscow,” they said. Now they are giving away broadcasting to Moscow altogether.

Many other valuable journalists and contributors are gone or have been terminated.

Once upon a time, RFE/RL cared deeply about human rights. Essential rights and liberties: freedom of speech and assembly, the right to inform, the right to a fair public trial, the right to dissent without fear intimidation, freedom from torture, etc. etc… freedom from discriminatory treatment based on race, religion, politics, gender or sexual orientation. Welcome Masha Gessen.

She does fight for the right of unisex couples to marry and the right of homosexuals to be free from discrimination and be able to adopt and educate children in a still very traditional and conservative society that we have in Russia. Her reported dual Russian and U.S. citizenship and her recent semi-private meeting with President Putin, whom she criticizes and humanizes at the same time, may offer some protection.

But what happened to dozens of journalists who at a great risk to their safety fought for years against censorship and defended the most essential rights and liberties?

They were suddenly summoned from their homes with a call from a receptionist and fired by RFE/RL managers in the offices of an international law firm in Moscow. No good byes, no thank yous.

One RFE/RL American executive who fired them disagreed. They were given generous severance pay, she said. It’s easy to destroy.

“We thank those who have made Radio Svoboda possible in the past. Please join us on our journey into the future,” RFE/RL President Steven Korn said after the firings.

Who in Russia from among professional colleagues of the fired journalists who happens to share their deep commitment to human rights and human dignity will now want to work for Radio Liberty, Ms. Gessen, Mr. Korn and his Vice President of Content, Distribution, and Marketing Julia Ragona?

We live in times of economic crisis. The American taxpayer wants to know how his/her money is being spent. The experts are gone. The bureaucrats are still there and the bureaucratic apparatus continues to expand.

Viktor Shenderovich, a popular Russian satirist, and (now former) Russian Service contributor, says now that the KGB and the FSB altogether did not manage to do as much harm to the prestige of America in Russia and the reputation of Radio Svoboda as did RFE/RL bureaucrats with apparent approval of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Mario Corti, a former Russian Service director, said the same in an interview with Free Media Online a few years ago:

“Those among the old KGB and the new FSB , who see the U.S. as an enemy rather than a valuable and generous partner of Russia, could only be enormously happy with such leaders in charge of U.S. international broadcasting as the current U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executive team. They have no reason to worry or need to do anything themselves to undermine U.S.-funded broadcasts; it is being done for them by these American government officials who are now trying hard to hide their mistakes from the White House, the U.S. Congress and the American public.”