BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch has received a letter to the editor written by former Radio Liberty Russian Service director Mario Corti. The author comments on the recent removal of a well-known RFE/RL journalist, Andrei Babitsky, from the position of the chief editor of RFE/RL’s “Caucasus Echo” website for apparently expressing a controversial opinion. Corti is an Italian journalist and author of several books published in Russia. Before joining RFE/RL, Corti publicized in the West the works of Soviet human rights activists and Samizdat writers. After leaving RFE/RL, Corti worked as a media consultant and manager in Russia. He now lives in Italy.

Mario Corti strongly defends Andrei Babitsky on the issue of freedom of expression even though he does not agree with a comment that apparently got Mr. Babitsky in trouble with his superiors. We fully share Mario Corti’s view that Vladimir Putin had absolutely no right to intervene in Crimea. We also applaud Corti’s defense of the principle of freedom of expression.

Mr. Babitsky did not explain his controversial comment about President Putin taking the population of Crimea under Russian protection and the rest of his article, where he defends human rights in Russia, appears to contradict his initial vague statement, or at least does not support it. But we agree with Mr. Corti that as in some other similar cases in the past, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty did not deal with this issue well. A well-run journalistic organization has procedures for resolving such differences of opinion before they escalate and cause damage.

Babitsky is viewed as one of Radio Liberty’s most courageous reporters. Wikipedia article on Andrei Babitsky (Russian: Андрей Маратович Бабицкий, born September 26, 1964, in Moscow) describes him as “a Russian journalist and war reporter, who has worked for Radio Liberty since 1989, covering the 1991 August Coup, Civil War in Tajikistan and, most notably, both Chechen Wars from behind Chechen lines. Babitsky is most famous for his kidnapping by the Russian forces in January–February 2000 during the Second Chechen War and his 2005 video interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.” The interview with Basayev was first broadcast on ABC and incurred the wrath of Russian officials.

The interim RFE/RL management team has done overall a good job during the Ukraine/Russia emergency in terms of news output, but some key management problems remain unresolved and new ones have emerged. They have not been handled well at various levels of management, including the Radio Liberty Russian Service.

While RFE/RL’s management problems in Prague pale in comparison with the meltdown of news reporting and governance at the Voice of America (VOA) in Washington, RFE/RL urgently needs to have a new CEO with a clear vision of the mission in support of freedom of expression and ability to manage conflicts and differences of opinion in collaboration with its outstanding journalistic staff. (A management reform at VOA is even more urgently needed to protect VOA journalists, their mission, and the VOA Charter, as we pointed out in many other BBG Watch commentaries.)

While still functioning well as a multimedia organization, especially during the latest crisis in Ukraine, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty clearly suffers from the lack of strong central leadership after the sudden departure of former RFE/RL president Kevin Klose. He had introduced some significant reforms and restored RFE/RL’s journalistic reputation but did not finish some of the other promised reforms before he left.

In view of this latest incident and the growing conflict in Ukraine, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should name a new RFE/RL president and CEO as soon as possible — someone who can not only promote the mission of media freedom and freedom of speech but who will also know how to manage a diverse staff and will put a stop to unfair treatment of foreign journalists employed in Prague. As we have urged in many other commentaries, the BBG must also deal as soon as possible with the severe management problem at the Voice of America.

Letter to the Editor of Free Media Online from Mario Corti


Mario Corti
Mario Corti

According to an article by Petra Prochazkova in Czech newspaper “Lidove Noviny” of April 7, 2014 (title in English: “He had the wrong opinion on Crimea. Removed”), which has just been brought to my attention, Andrei Babitsky, the chief editor of the RFE/RL Russian blog “Caucasus Echo,” was dismissed from his position for sharing Putin’s thesis that Russia had the right to take the population of Crimea under Russian protection.
Babistky’s statement, posted on the “Caucasus Echo” blog, consists just of a short one-sentence introductory note to a larger commentary, titled (in English) “It’s not about Crimea,” which is harshly critical of Vladimir Putin for his calling as “traitors” those Russians who do not agree with Crimea’s annexation.
Let me make it clear, before I get to the point I want to make, that my opinion is diametrically opposite to that of Andrei Babitsky’s: I think that Russia has annexed Crimea in violation of its own commitment to respect the independence, sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine (see the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances signed by Russia, USA and Great Britain on December 5, 1994).
However, should it be true that Babitsky was dismissed from his post for expressing an opinion in a commentary—which is a legitimate genre of journalism and which by definition expresses personal views of its author—then the case would be similar to that of Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations (MGIMO) professor Andrei Zubov, who was recently sacked for his criticism of Russia’s adventure in Ukraine. Babitsky was not fired from RFE/RL, but he was removed from his position as the chief editor of “Caucasus Echo.”
The dismissal of Andrei Zubov was announced in Moscow by his employer – MGIMO in a public statement, and was subsequently publicized worldwide. Zubov’s case was also extensively discussed in quite a number of RFE/RL broadcasts and on its webpages.
As far as Andrei Babitsky is concerned, an internationally well known journalist, RFE/RL in Prague and the BBG in Washington have yet to provide to the public a valid reason for removing him from his previous position.
The motto of RFE/ RL has always been, and I very much hope it still is, a quotation from article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone» has «the right to… seek, receive and impart information and ideas… regardless of frontiers.”
I worked for many years at Radio Liberty, and I always thought, and was taught there, that RL must be and indeed is a paragon of freedom of speech. It cannot be otherwise. How could RFE/RL be effective and convincing to its target audience if it betrayed the principles it tries to promote, first and foremost freedom of opinion?
What is certain is that Babitsky’s commentary was removed from the RFE/RL web page.
BBG Watch has recently published an Open letter by the Czech Helsinki Committee to the Czech Prime Minister (dated March 28, 2014) under the title “Radio Free Europe Violates Human Rights and Hospitality of the Czech Republic.” According to the letter RFE/RL has adopted labor policies providing no legal rights to its foreign personnel in the Czech Republic and inconsistent with RFE/RL mission statement: “to promote democratic values and institutions,” “strengthen civil societies by projecting democratic values,” “provide a model for local media….”
A similar concept was expressed in an editorial under the title “Equality With Precondition. Practice of Radio Free Europe Contradicts its Own Ideals”, published earlier in the same pro-American Czech newspaper “Lidove Noviny,”: “Prague headquarters of RFE/RL, while pretending to be a messenger of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, behaves as an employer as if though the principles it heralds are relevant ‘just’ for the whole planet but not for… that estimable organization itself.”
Incidentally, Andrei Babitsky is one of those foreigners deprived by RFE/RL of any defendable labor rights.
Again, should it be true that Babitsky was removed from his position for expressing an opinion, then RFE/RL, I believe, is betraying its own mission and putting at great risk its credibility with the audience.
I attach a link to the Russian text of Babitsky’s commentary and a scan of the article in “Lidove Noviny.”
Mario Corti