BBG Watch Commentary
One of Ukraine’s most famous independent journalists Vitali Portnikov welcomed the resignation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn as signaling a possible return to the station’s original mission, which Portnikov said was “cruelly interrupted by (Korn’s) adventurous personnel decisions in recent months.”
Korn announced that he was resigning on January 25 for personal reasons, but Russian and U.S. media reported that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in Washington which oversees U.S. international broadcasting, had asked him to resign. According to media reports, the BBG became alarmed by widespread protests against Korn’s decision to fire dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and his other management actions at RFE/RL.
Vitaly Portnikov, is the president of TVi (Ukrainian: ТВі) which is now Ukraine’s only independent TV channel. His station is known for its critical coverage of the Ukrainian government. Until recently, Portnikov also participated in Radio Liberty programs.
See: Portnikov emerges as one of nation’s top journalists, offering fearless commentary, Kyiv Post, Nov. 12, 2010.
See: Portnikov becomes TVi president, Kiyv Post, Nov. 27, 2012.
Vitaly Portnikov’s commentary on the Radio Liberty crisis was published by Radio Liberty in Exile website SvobodaNew.com: Решение президента РС/РСЕ об отставке можно счесть возвращением корпорации. The website is published by former Radio Liberty journalists who were fired by Korn or resigned in protest against the brutal treatment of their colleagues and programming changes imposed by the new management.
“The decision of the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to resign can be considered a return of the media outlet, with which I have had the honor to cooperate for 22 years, to the execution of its mission, cruelly interrupted by adventurous personnel decisions in recent months. This mission – to promote the democratization of the former Soviet empire – requires responsibility and mutual respect. And the mission is far from over, as, again, it is still being demonstrated by the latest decisions of the Russian government,” Vitaly Portnikov wrote in a commentary published by SvobodaNew.com, the website of fired Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists.
Modern journalism is not so much about the forms, as it is about personalities, Portnikov also wrote. He accused both Steven Korn and Masha Gessen, Korn’s choice for the director of the Russian Service, of bearing the blame for the mass firing of some of the best and most famous Russian journalists working at the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow. Portnikov also said that Gessen is trying to hide her involvement in this tragic event.
Gessen denies any involvement in the firings in Moscow, but her denials have been widely questioned by Russian media.
Gessen worked as an independent consultant for Korn on restructuring the Russian Service before she was hired to be the Russian Service director. The dismissals in Moscow happened shortly after the announcement of her appointment but a few days before she officially came on board.
Gessen brought with her to the Moscow bureau her own team of mostly feature magazine writers and editors. Without much multimedia and news reporting experience, they have turned the Russian website into a strange mix of light political features and tabloid journalism and have lost much of its former audience.
“The expulsion of the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty, its senior staff, will remain an indelible stain on the reputation of the outgoing (RFE/RL) president and the current director of the Russian service, who did nothing to remedy the failure and is trying to hide her involvement in the venture,” Portnikov wrote.
The Russian Service and its core cadre in Moscow has been destroyed, Portnikov concluded. He stressed that without the return of Mikhail Sokolov, Marina Timasheva, Anna Kachkaeva, Elena Rykovtseva, Elena Fanailova, Kristina Gorelik, Victor Rezunkov, Vladimir Abarbanell and other distinguished colleagues there is no chance the broadcaster can survive and save its reputation.
Portnikov expressed hope that the new head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty will act more responsibly in selecting the new leadership of the Russian Service and be more aware of the challenges imposed by the service’s important work.
Vitaly Portnikov is one of many leading independent journalists in the region who find it impossible to cooperate with Radio Liberty under the current management, which in addition to Masha Gessen also includes RFE/RL vice president of content Julia Ragona and vice president of administration Dale Cohen. Ragona and Cohen oversaw the mass firing of journalists in Moscow.
Portnikov was a longtime contributor not only for the Radio Liberty Ukrainian Service but also the Russian Service. According to Ukrainian media watchdog Telekrytyka, TVi, run by Portnikov, and 5 Kanal were the only remaining TV channels in mid-May 2010 with independent and fair TV news coverage. In July 2011, it became Ukraine’s only channel offering independent news coverage.
Many still currently employed Russian Service journalists are appalled by the destruction of the station’s reputation in Russia and the recent programming changes but are still afraid to speak out fearing retaliation from Gessen, Ragona and Cohen. One Russian Service journalist who broke the silence is famous Radio Liberty Chechnya war correspondent Andrei Babitsky. He called on Korn to take his managers with him when he leaves on January 25.
A younger journalist and in the past one of the most active Radio Liberty freelance correspondents in Western Europe Sophia Kornienko said in a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors that working for the station under the current leadership would go against her personal and professional ethics. “The only way to help Radio Svoboda (Liberty) escape clinical death is by removing the malicious tumour of its management installed there by Steven Korn,” Kornienko wrote.
Vitaly Portnikov is one of several famous journalists and intellectuals formerly associated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who have become major media personalities, top politicians, or political opposition leaders in their countries. Nearly all of them, including the legendary human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva, have condemned the firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and the programming changes introduced by Korn, Ragona, and Gessen. The RFE/RL management team in Prague has also fired experienced journalists in RFE/RL’s Kazakh, Turkmen, Ukrainian and other broadcasting services.