BBG Watch Commentary
Just two months after Masha Gessen took over as the new director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, the station no longer appears on the Medialogia list of the most Internet cited radios in Russia. The rating shows how often reports from radios’ websites are picked up and cited online by other media outlets. Medialogia may have removed Radio Liberty from its list because it no longer considers it a radio station in Russia. But other independent data also show that the number of visitors to the Radio Liberty Russian website and links to it in other media have both drastically fallen in just the last two months.
Before September 2012, Radio Liberty consistently made the Medialogia list of “Top 7 Cited Radios,” sometimes taking the second or third place behind Ekho Moskvy, an FM news station in Moscow. The mass firing of popular Radio Liberty journalists in September and changes to its website introduced by Gessen in October and November, drove away more than half of the Radio Liberty Russian website visitors. Gessen eliminated most of the news coverage from the Radio Liberty’s home page and replaced it with links to feature stories.
Gessen’s Internet team often misses important news items or posts them with significant delays. Many feature stories appearing on the site are also stale and of questionable relevance and taste for a U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet charged with supporting media freedom in Russia. A report on Prof. Paul Frampton who was convicted in Argentina in November on drug smuggling charges was posted on December 6 and was kept on the home page until December 11. It included his photo with drawings of women wearing bathing costumes made of American flags. (Prof. Frampton, who teaches physics and astronomy at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, flew to Argentina to be with a “well known model” he met over the Internet.)
Rather than increasing traffic to the Radio Liberty website, the new media strategy developed by Gessen, RFE/RL Vice President for Content Julia Ragona, and RFE/RL President Steven Korn, who hired Gessen and ordered the dismissals of popular journalists, has resulted in a boycott by most leading Russian human rights and democratic political leaders and a mass exodus of site visitors — all of whom condemned the move toward tabloid journalism at the U.S.-funded broadcaster, known before for serious news, political and social analysis, and high-quality cultural reporting. The new content strategy also included posting offensive sexually suggestive videos on the RFE/RL Kazakh Service website. They were later deleted after protests from outraged site visitors from Kazakhstan, a largely Muslim country. The programming change was also combined with dismissals of experienced RFE/RL Kazakh journalists. One young woman journalist who questioned the videos did not have her RFE/RL contract renewed.
Radio Liberty no longer appears on the The Medialogia’s list of “Top 7 Cited Radios” in Russia for November.
1. Ekho Moskvy
2. Russian News Service
4. Commersant FM
5. Business FM
6. Voice of Russia
7. Vesti FM
In August 2012, a month before Korn and Ragona fired dozens of Radio Liberty journalists and two months before Gessen started to change the website, Medialogia listed the station as number three most Internet cited radio in Russia. Members of the old Internet team at Radio Liberty, led by award-winning journalist Lyudmila Telen, had created a popular and respected multimedia news portal and were responsible for increasing site traffic multiple times. They were first to be fired in September and later replaced with Masha Gessen’s associates, many of whom — according to Russian media reports — lack significant multimedia and news reporting skills. Gessen was reported to have also lost website visitors for her previous employer, the Russian geographic magazine Vokrug Sveta, but nowhere near the extent she is losing online and radio audience for Radio Liberty’s Russian Service with her new programming strategy.