BBG Watch Commentary

Radio Liberty remains in a coma – Russian journalist Sophia Kornienko tells Broadcasting Board of Governors

“The only way to help Radio Svoboda escape clinical death is by removing the malicious tumour of its management installed there by Steven Korn”

Sophia Kornienko
Sophia Kornienko

In a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), one of the most active foreign correspondents of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service said that working for the station under the current leadership would go against her personal and professional ethics.


Sophia Kornienko, who has filed hundreds of news reports, interviews and feature stories for Radio Liberty Russian Service, as well as for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) English website and other English-language and Dutch-language media, told members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, that Radio Liberty “can not fulfil its true mission while it remains in a coma” brought about by actions of RFE/RL president Steven Korn and Masha Gessen, his choice for the Russian Service director.

“The only way to help Radio Svoboda escape clinical death is by removing the malicious tumour of its management installed there by Steven Korn and allowing the programming to breathe in as the fired hosts’ voices raise important political issues again,” Kornienko wrote to the BBG about Radio Liberty, a multimedia broadcaster she describes as “legendary,” and herself as a “multimedia storyteller.”

Kornienko, considered one of the most talented and versatile Russian journalists working abroad, publishes news and feature articles in several languages on multiple media platforms, and works in radio and television. She has also produced and directed documentary films.

In her letter to the BBG, Kornienko was making a reference to dozens of Radio Liberty journalists who were fired last September by RFE/RL president Steven Korn and his two closest deputies, vice-president for content Julia Ragona and vice-president for administration Dale Cohen. Kornienko was also commenting on Masha Gessen, Korn’s selection for the director of the Russian Service, and her team of her largely unknown associates who replaced some of the most respected and best known independent media personalities in Russia after they were fired from Radio Liberty by the RFE/RL management.

Calling for the departure of Masha Gessen and Korn’s other top aides, Kornienko concluded “It is then that Radio Svoboda will once again become a magnet for the young journalists with moral principles, the soup from which stars will be born.”

Numerous Russian human rights activists, democratic political leaders, and other independent journalists also said that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty and its leadership have become politically and morally reprehensible in Russia. Condemnations of RFE/RL president Steven Korn, who has announced his resignation effective January 25, and the management team installed by him, and calls for their immediate removal, have come also from heads of U.S. human rights organizations, Russian and American academics, and European public interest journalism experts. Many described Korn’s actions as a public diplomacy disaster for the United States in Russia.


Young Russians Morally Offended – Fired Journalists Receive Awards


Radio Liberty has become morally offensive to nearly all generations of Russians, from 85-year-old leader of the Russian human rights movement Lyudmila Alexeeva and former President Mikhail Gorbachev, to younger democratic politicians like former deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, and finally young university students who used to work as journalism interns at Radio Liberty and helped to organize a protest demonstration against the RFE/RL management in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. One of them, journalism student Kirill Filimonov, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Times that the old Radio Liberty used to train young people with a passion for free expression not found anywhere else in Russia.

Kornienko’s refrence to young journalists with moral principles refusing to work for Radio Liberty under the directorship of Masha Gessen covers several other talented Radio Liberty multimedia journalists who resigned in protest against the brutal firing of their colleagues on orders of Steven Korn. Two of them, Elena Vlasenko and Irina Chevtayeva have received recently prestigious Russian journalism awards for their work at Radio Liberty, as did Kristina Gorelik, one of the human rights reporters who was fired. She received the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for “journalistic activity aimed at promoting human rights values.”

The entire former Radio Liberty Internet team, whose members were fired, was recognized for its outstanding online reporting in one of the Andrei Sakharov journalism awards. The jury refused to present the award to Masha Gessen, who declared the Sakharov Prize “For Journalism as an Act of Conscience” a low profile news event in Russia and refused to cover them on Radio Liberty.

The fired head of the former Radio Liberty Russian Internet team in Moscow Elena Telen received the Russian Union of Journalists Award for upholding “honor, dignity and professionalism,” including the three and half year period at Radio Liberty in Moscow. Telen said she was pained by catastrophic audience drop for Radio Liberty’s new Russian website redesigned by Masha Gessen to include less news and news analysis and more feature and human interest stories.


Sexy “Radio Gessen” Website Loses Visitors


New Sexy Image of Radio LibertyWith many well-informed and educated Russians, including younger ones, turning away from the Radio Liberty website and calling it mockingly “Radio Gessen,” the team of former print feature magazine journalists started to post on the home page stories designed to attract a younger audience Masha Gessen promised to deliver.

As the number of visits declined by more than 50 percent in just two months since Gessen took over, a story about topless bars, drugs and unfortunate romantic adventures of an older professor from America who goes abroad to be with a young woman he met online stayed on the home page of the Radio Liberty Russian website for many days. It was illustrated with drawings of attractive young women scantily dressed in bathing costumes made of American flag.

Many important human rights and political stories, such as the Andrei Sakharov human rights journalism awards, were ignored or under-reported with considerable delays. Asked to comment about Gessen’s plan, one Russia expert said that tabloid journalism will only further ruin Radio Liberty’s reputation after Korn and Gessen have already managed to make enemies of all the best people in Russia — those with the strongest moral and democratic convictions.


Korn and Gessen


Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen

In a letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal, Steven Korn declared that the fired journalist were unfit to do digital media, calling them “not well suited to the demands of our new approach.” He also defended Masha Gessen, whom he reportedly offered $145,000 in salary and $55,000 in housing allowance, praising her “intelligence, abilities, seriousness, and courage.” Her support for the firing of Radio Liberty staffers, including qualified employees with disabilities who were replaced with her associates, outraged many independent journalists like Sophia Kornienko, human rights leaders, and ordinary Russians.

Russians were equally outraged when Gessen made accusations of slander against journalists who suggested that she might have been involved in the decision to dismiss longtime Radio Liberty staffers. A law signed by President Putin made slander a criminal offense in Russia with heavy fines designed to stifle dissent and investigative journalism.

Steven Korn Resignation Photo
Steven Korn, RFE/RL

Korn denied that highly experienced journalists, who were barred by security guards from entering their office, directed to a law firm to be fired and prevented from saying good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years, were in any way treated unfairly. “Suggestions that any staffers were treated harshly in this process are patently false,” Korn wrote to The Wall Street Journal. Rumors persists that contrary to his claims that he has resigned for purely personal reasons, the Broadcasting Board of Governors had asked him in December to resign within 45 days and stripped him of the authority to fire any more RFE/RL employees. Speaking for himself and not the entire board, BBG member Victor Ashe said that Korn’s statements “set a new standard for arrogance and delusion” and described his hiring as a terrible mistake.


Review of Radio Liberty by Jeff Trimble


Jeffrey N. Trimble, International Broadcasting Bureau Deputy Director
Jeff Trimble

Kornienko addressed her letter also to the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Deputy Director Jeff Trimble who was asked by the BBG to conduct a six-month review of the events at the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow.

Before 2007, Trimble had a 10-year career at RFE/RL, where his positions included Acting President, Counselor to the President for Programs and Policy, Director of Policy and Strategic Planning, and Director of Broadcasting. Masha Gessen assured Russian media that Trimble’s review was limited to the situation in Russia and should not be construed as an inspection of Radio Liberty and her performance. She also told Russian media that her plans for Radio Liberty were very well received by the BBG. She was later contradicted by Ambassador Ashe on both claims and later conceded that Trimble’s review may cover whatever he and the BBG want. In response to a media question whether her dismissal is possible in connection with the announced resignation of Steven Korn, Gessen replied “no.”


Sophia Kornienko – Journalist


Sophia KornienkoSophia Kornienko (, who wrote to the BBG about the crisis at Radio Liberty, is a multimedia journalist who reports regularly for Russian, Dutch and English-language media outlets. She was born in 1979 in Tallinn, Estonia but grew up in St.Petersburg, Russia. In 2002, she gruaduated from the St.Petersburg State University, faculty of linguistics and obtained her second MA in 2006 at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Media and Culture, in preservation and presentation of the moving image. She also studied in the U.S. (Georgetown University), Denmark (Syddansk Universitet/Odense Universitet) and the Czech Republic (Charles University).

While still living in Russia, Kornienko worked for Transitions Online magazine and The St.Petersburg Times. Shortly after moving to the Netherlands in 2004, she started working for Radio Svoboda as their free-lance Benelux correspondent.

Kornienko also collaborates with Radio Netherlands and publishes in Amsterdam Weekly, TimeOut Amsterdam, several Dutch-language papers and magazines and appears on Dutch TV and radio.

Most of her reports (with links where possible) prior to the birth of her second child in 2011 are listed on her website:

She has recently published a few columns (one of them about Radio Svoboda) in the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad (in Dutch). Her articles in English about Russia date mainly from 2000-2004 when she lived in Russia and worked for English-language media. After she moved to the Netherlands, several of her English-language reports about Russia were published on the main RFE/RL English-language news website.


‘Pasternak Could Not Imagine What Vladimir Vladimirovich Imagines’

Sophia Kornienko’s 2007 interview with Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

World: ‘I’m A Frustrated Prosecutor’


Open Letter from Sophia Kornienko to the Honorable Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Mr. Jeff Trimble, Deputy Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau


My name is Sophia Kornienko. Formerly one of Radio Svoboda’s – Radio Liberty Russian Service – most active foreign free-lance correspondents (reporting from The Netherlands), for the last couple of years I have been on a sabbatical to take care of my two young children. I was about to gradually start contributing materials again and resume my weekly Saturday column Glamorama when the Radio Svoboda meltdown occurred in September. As a result I have decided that coming back to work for Radio Svoboda would go against my personal and professional ethics.

For years I had seen submitting my pieces to this legendary station as the only way I could still be useful to Russia. Despite a very meagre allowance and quite a heavy workload I was prepared to continue my cooperation with the station for as long as I would live and work. Yet, after the new Radio Svoboda’s management fired all of the station’s star talk-show hosts and articulated its new genre as “normal journalism” there is not a single programme left that would address the hottest and the most controversial political issues in an outspoken, daring manner. This happened at the time when Putin’s clan sent Russia several important steps further down the spiral leading towards complete devastation.

The new director Masha Gessen says she would like the station (by now actually no more than a poorly designed website) to talk about things no one else talks about – but this is exactly what the old Radio Svoboda used to do! It used to talk about what others didn’t dare talk about and did so in the style that merited up to the highest standard what concerns both professional journalism and the level of the Russian language. It was that symbiosis of promoting human rights in discussing hot political topics and preserving the top standard of the Russian culture (also emigrant Russian culture) that I had always seen as Radio Svoboda’s unique mission. And I considered it an honour to be one of this mission’s humble soldiers. To my grief, both of these sacred ingredients have been destroyed.

Even though the brilliant Radio Liberty Russian Service Prague team continues its daily struggle, like some sort of life-support machine, Radio Svoboda can not fulfil its true mission while it remains in a coma. The only way to help Radio Svoboda escape clinical death is by removing the malicious tumour of its management installed there by Steven Korn and allowing the programming to breathe in as the fired hosts’ voices raise important political issues again. It is then that Radio Svoboda will once again become a magnet for the young journalists with moral principles, the soup from which stars will be born.

I realize that it may be unimportant news to hear that if Radio Svoboda’s mission is restored I would love to cooperate with the station all life long, but I know this is the way many more of my colleagues feel, both staffed and free-lance.

I also realize that what happened to Radio Svoboda partially resulted from the fact that President Obama no longer considers Russia as strategically important. He is wrong, and the Magnitsky Act had proven him wrong. If the US stops investing not only money but also intellect and effort in promoting human rights in Russia, Russian leadership will spread corruption and cynicism way beyond Russian borders.

In hope of a wise insight on your behalf,

Warmest regards,

Sophia Kornienko

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