BBG Watch Commentary

“I don’t understand why RFE/RL produced these obscene videos using American taxpayers’ money.” — Kazakh journalist Saida Kalkulova

RFE/RL video with sexual content designed to attract a younger audience in Kazakhstan, a largely Muslim countryIn June 2012, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) management fired half of the staff of the Radio Liberty Kazakh Service in Prague (4 out of 8 journalists) and immediately commissioned videos from outside contractors designed to attract a young online audience in Kazakhstan.

Before their dismissal, these journalists specialized in radio and online reporting on human rights issues, political corruption, and serious social problems, which used to be RFE/RL’s traditional mission.

But the new RFE/RL President and CEO Steven Korn decided that these kinds of programs, which are funded by American taxpayers through a grant from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), are not sexy enough to attract a young online audience. He determined that the answer is the production of short videos to be posted online, on RFE/RL websites and on YouTube, for audiences in Kazakhstan, Russia and in other countries. RFE/RL was already producing videos and pioneered live online video streaming in Russia, but Mr. Korn apparently decided that the content was too political and that new type of videos was needed to reach a wide audience.

The new videos commissioned for Kazakhstan turned out to be outrageously obscene, poorly produced and without any redeeming value, but apparently no one inside RFE/RL dared to protest to Mr. Korn and other new top executives because former managers and previous dissenters had found themselves fired. Dozens of experienced journalists at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau, including many Internet specialists and web editors deemed unwilling to engage in risqué reporting, were also dismissed on orders of Mr. Korn and replaced by others who promptly changed online content to more features and less news, and lost more than half of Radio Liberty’s traditional site visitors in the process.

The result in Kazakhstan was moral outrage. Not referring specifically to the Kazakh videos, Steven Korn told his senior staff recently, “We will try things that will fail and we will try things that will succeed, when they fail we’ll try something else.”

He also dismissed criticism from nearly all major human rights and political opposition figures in Russia, including Lyudmila Alexeeva, who confronted him in a meeting in Moscow. Mr. Korn told his senior staff:

“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 (Barack Obama), 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.”

Mikhail Gorbachev issued a statement critical of the RFE/RL management. He and others warned that Radio Liberty’s brand and reputation were being destroyed. These warnings were not heeded. Some of the Russian human rights and political leaders said that not even the former KGB was able to do more damage to RFE/RL than Mr. Korn did with his actions in Russia. The same can be said about the videos produced for Kazakhstan.

A Kazakh journalist has sent us a description of one of the most offensive videos. WARNING: Her narrative posted below is quite graphic.

It’s useful to keep in mind that Kazakhstan is a conservative, largely Muslim nation.

Another young journalist in Kazakhstan Nazira Darimbet, who had protested against the production and the posting of the videos and asked RFE/RL President Steven Korn questions in an open meeting about the firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow, had her RFE/RL contract terminated shortly after she asked these questions. Nazira Darimbet wrote: “After a few days, there was a post on the Facebook about the joint video project. In those videos the guys were swearing, used vulgar language, etc. Under the post I left a comment: “Какой ужс” (“what a horrible thing”) and paid the price for my comment… They didn’t renew my employment contract.”

The video, “Agent,” which is described in this article by a Kazakh journalist, can be seen here:

The name of Radio Liberty in Kazakh and the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty logo can be seen in the lower left corner.

Radio Liberty Kazakh Video Agent

There are also two other videos available online:

Steven Korn with producers of sexually suggestive videos (later removed) for RFE/RL Kazakh Service
Steven Korn with producers of sexually suggestive videos (later removed ) for RFE/RL Kazakh Service

All three videos have been subsequently removed from the RFE/RL Kazakh and RFE/RL YouTube sites, but not before RFE/RL President posed for a smiling photo with the authors of the videos.

One can only imagine in what kind of work environment these young former Radio Liberty women journalists had to work. Steven Korn had joked in a public Broadcasting Board of Governors meeting that he would hire cute high school interns to narrate videos about RFE/RL’s accomplishments. He also made a disparaging private remark about “old white guys” still working at RFE/RL. Some of them were later forced out. The BBG, which hired him, allowed him to stay in his position.

The fact that these Radio Liberty Kazakh videos were posted online for many months without anyone on the inside protesting to the upper management also tells a lot about the current state of things and employee morale at RFE/RL. Unless, of course, such protests were made and RFE/RL executives did nothing, which is also possible.

Saida KalkulovaThe description of the video was provided by a former Radio Liberty Kazakh Service journalist Saida Kalkulova who was dismissed last June. She had worked at RFE/RL for seven and half years, first as a broadcaster and later as a contributor to the bilingual website and a developer of multimedia projects and social media pages. She wrote: “I couldn’t understand why the management of RFE/RL acts with its journalists the same way as autocrats with their nations.” And also: “the atmosphere … was not easy one but became unbearable when Steve Korn joined the radio as president. Under his leadership it is impossible to solve issues in a civilized manner. Whenever a journalist raises an issue and if the management or the president himself does not like it, the whistleblower faces persecution.”

The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty commissioned video project “Agent,” like the other videos in this series, starts with the following warning: “Warning!!! There are dirty, swearing words in this video product. People with high morals and distinct culture are prohibited to watch it.”

In this video, the RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service promotes sexism even further. By zooming, sometimes several times in a row, the video shows intimate parts of seminude bodies of beautiful girls. It also includes what appears to be an imitation of a sexual act, swearing words, and a racist comment.

In 1 minute 40 seconds into the video, one of the moderators, who sees intimate parts of the girls’ bodies, pretends to be engaging in what viewers can interpret as self-stimulation. His colleague says behind the scene: “Remove your hand!” In other words, the actor who said this confirms that he witnessed the moderator engaging in some kind of an inappropriate act. After this, the moderator takes away his hand.

Then another actor asks colleagues the following question: “What should the Kazakh girl be like?” As scenes of intimate parts of girls’ bodies are shown, his leering colleagues respond that the Kazakh girls have to be “cultured”, “educated” and “respectful.”

All these right words said to the background of leering smiles and suggestive tone of voice point to an absolutely different meaning.

I need to explain for non-Kazakh speakers that the spoken Kazakh language differs from many spoken European languages, including Russian, in terms of perceptions of the meaning of some words. Sometimes the meaning of words in Kazakh does not correspond to their literal understanding if voice and tone are changed accompanied by a grin, or if there is a suggestive smile. In these cases, these words are perceived as having the opposite meaning.

That is why in this episode when the actors seem to say the right words, in reality, they psychologically influence viewers’ perceptions by appealing to their baser feelings.

In 2nd minute, 26 seconds, the actor was again caught engaging in what viewers are led to believe was a sexual act. His colleague again warned him: “Remove your hand!”

In 3rd minute 52 – 56 seconds, one can hear swear words twice: “Fuck! you’ve stepped on my foot.” Those swear words are in the following scenes: first, when a girl and a guy collide with each other and again in a scene in front of the building.

In 5th minute 35 seconds, the actor speaking while a girl is sitting in a cafe says that after an eye contact with this kind of girl he suffers from insomnia. After his words one can hear somebody laughing, which suggests that the actor indeed implied he had inappropriate thoughts regarding the girl.

At the beginning of 7th minute, almost the end of the video there is an element of racism, when the actors call “Cacao” someone who appears to be of a mixed race.

In general, the video clip — amid all the smirks, hints of masturbation, swear words, sexism and racism — is very unpleasant to watch and frankly disgusting. The warning caption at the beginning of the video corresponds to the truth. As far as any deeper social message or informational value are concerned, this video offers absolutely nothing. It has no appropriate plot. This video project is about nothing. The authors just made a video that has no value.

I don’t understand why RFE/RL produced these obscene videos using American taxpayers’ money.