BBG Watch Commentary

Radio Liberty in Exile Facebook PhotoRadio Liberty in Exile (Facebook Page) journalists have added several new features to their New Liberty (Novaya Svoboda) website, despite operating without a budget.

While waiting for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), to act on their possible rehabilitation and rehiring, dozens of fired Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists and their colleagues who resigned in solidarity are keeping busy with their New Liberty website, expanding news coverage, conducting interviews with Russian opposition leaders, adding online TV, and receiving journalistic awards. The site also has a new header which replaced their seasonal holiday design.

The fired Radio Liberty team seems to be finally getting some attention of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. BBG Watch has learned from sources within the BBG administration in Washington that as a result of U.S. mainstream media coverage of the crisis in Moscow, some BBG members, at least three if not four out of six, are now actively exploring ways of bringing back the fired journalists to Radio Liberty.

The board had earlier asked RFE/RL president Steven Korn for his resignation, which will become effective January 25. Korn claims that he has resigned on his own for purely personal reasons and the BBG is not discussing his departure in public. The board has also asked the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Deputy Director Jeff Trimble to conduct a review of the events in Moscow.

Andrei Babitsky
Andrei Babitsky
Sophia Kornienko
Sophia Kornienko

According to sources, some BBG members were both disturbed and impressed with an open letter to Korn from still employed Radio Liberty’s famous Chechnya war correspondent Andrei Babitsky and a letter addressed to them from a RFE/RL West European freelance reporter Sophia Kornienko. Both journalists said that Radio Liberty is dying under Korn’s new Russian Service director Masha Gessen and called for all of his top managers to resign as soon as possible.

In addition to documenting various protests against their dismissal from leaders like former President Mikhail Gorbachev and legendary human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva, the fired journalists also report on political, social and cultural news in Russia, which are being ignored or go under-reported on the official Radio Liberty website Web editor and reporter Aleksey Kuznetsov, one of the two former staffers fired despite their physical disabilities, has been even providing sports reports for the New Liberty website. The official Radio Liberty site has lost a sizable portion of its previous audience after it was redesigned by the new Russian Service director Masha Gessen.

Human rights stories covered by but ignored by Masha Gessen included the Andrei Sakharov journalism awards, one of which went to a former Radio Liberty reporter Elena Vlasenko who resigned in protest and to the fired Radio Liberty Internet team. Other members of Radio Liberty in Exile have also won recently prestigious journalism awards given to them by human rights groups and professional organizations of journalists who have expressed their disdain for Masha Gessen and mockingly refer to her website as “Radio Gessen.” Even the Broadcasting Board of Governors noted in a press release the awards given to its fired journalists in Russia, some specifically for their previous website and online reporting.

Unlike most new members of Gessen’s team who are largely unknown in Russia and lack political news reporting and multimedia skills (they came from a print feature magazine), the fired Radio Liberty journalists have easy access to and support of leading anti-Putin opposition leaders and work in multiple media. Before the New Year, one of Radio Liberty’s fired star reporters, Mikhail Sokolov, conducted a live online television interview with former reformist Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. The interview focused on President Putin’s clampdown on democracy in Russia.

Mikhail Sokolov with former Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov on
Fired Radio Liberty star reporter Mikhail Sokolov interviews former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov on

LINK to interview with former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov conducted by fired Radio Liberty (now Radio Liberty in Exile) star political reporter Mikhail Sokolov.

RFE/RL president Steven Korn has publicly accused the fired Radio Liberty journalists, including Mikhail Sokolov and members of the dismissed award-winning Internet team, of lacking skills to do digital media. He also claimed in his letter to The Editor of The Wall Street Journal that “suggestions that any staffers were treated harshly in this process are patently false.”

Most BBG members initially believed to some degree Korn’s claims that the fired team lacked vision, talent and new skills and were treated with respect, but as a result of BBG Watch reports, protests from Russia and the U.S. and their own investigation, they have now realized that Korn and his top deputies, RFE/RL vice president of content Julia Ragona and vice president of administration Dale Cohen, have mislead them on a number critical issues. The human rights Moscow Group chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeeva said that even repugnant Russian capitalists treat their employees better than Mr. Korn. She witnessed the dismissals first hand at the RFE/RL bureau in Moscow. BBG member Victor Ashe said that Korn’s “self serving letter of resignation sets a new standard for arrogance and delusion.”

Comments from Freedom House president David Kramer, who contradicted statements from Ragona and Cohen and called for a complete housecleaning of the top RFE/RL leadership, were an eye opener for some BBG members. Some are now trying to prevent Gessen, Ragona, and Cohen from retaliating against journalists like Babitsky while the BBG search committee is looking for a new interim or permanent RFE/RL president.

New Liberty Holiday Logo
Radio Liberty in Exile website, edited by fired journalists, greets visitors with a seasonal holiday logo.
RFERL Russian Home Page Story Illustration on Dangers of Meat Diet in the UK
Radio Liberty's official website tries to attract audience with nudity.

As Radio Liberty in Exile posts more and more hard news stories and interviews on its no-budget website, Ragona and Gessen, with a budget from U.S. taxpayers of about $8 million, still cling to their marketing strategy, which appears to put a premium on light features and female nudity as a tool for attracting a younger audience.

The strategy included making videos with sexually suggestive content which offended RFE/RL website visitors in Kazakhstan and were later removed.

While Novaya Svoboda greeted New Year and Russian Orthodox Christmas with a seasonal holiday logo, Gessen’s website team welcomed Christmas Eve with a story out of the UK about the health dangers of eating meat illustrated a semi-naked Angel of Meat.

If not completely pointless and offensive to some Russians, the story and the image in the context of the RFE/RL mission and the time and place in which they were presented were certainly a waste of U.S. taxpayers’ money.