BBG Watch Commentary

Steven Korn, President and Chief Executive Officer, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty
Steven Korn, RFE/RL President

In a desperate effort to salvage his reputation and that of his choice for the new director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President Steven Korn published an op-ed in The Moscow Times: New Radio Liberty to Carry Out Its Old Mission.

It is a move of utter desperation that shows how completely disconnected Mr. Korn is from the reality of Russian life, customs, and moral standards. He should have realized that after what he has done by firing in the most brutal way almost the entire team of journalists at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau, he has absolutely no leg to stand on. No one in Russia believes a word he says. He keeps saying that he bent over backward to treat the fired employees with great respect, treat them humanly and fairly, and that they all resigned on their own to receive a generous severance pay. No one believes him. Readers comment on his editorial, “I know the the style – absolutely primitive style of the Soviet propaganda….”

Mr. Korn should have realized by now that after statements, letters of protests, and appeals from almost every major Russian human rights leader, including Lyudmila Alexeeeva, and almost every major opposition politician including Mikhail Gorbachev, former Prime Minister Kasyanov, former Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov, as well as scholars, such as renown sociologist Professor Vladimir Shlapentokh and the head of the research Levada Center Dr. Gutkov and his staff — his (Mr. Korn’s) standing in Russia is below zero.

These great and brave individuals of the Russian democratic opposition are not going to tolerate the brutal way Mr. Korn fired Radio Liberty journalists, using security guards against them and preventing them from even saying good bye to radio listeners and website visitors of many years.

Rather than writing an op-ed for The Moscow Times, Mr. Korn should have asked himself who among Russian human rights leaders, pro-democracy political figures, and independent journalists is going to shake his hand if they meet him after what he had done to Radio Liberty staff. The answer is no one, or almost no one. Mr. Korn obviously does not understand the Russian mind and neither apparently does Ms. Gessen if she agreed to accept the job at Radio Liberty under these circumstances.

Russia is not the United States, where media professionals lose their jobs and move on. These journalists are marked because of their human rights reporting and uncovering official corruption. They have given their lives to the ideal of freedom and thought they would be protected by the United States. They will never forget what was done to them, and neither will most decent Russians. Do BBG members and Mr. Korn realize this? Do they know what they have done? Apparently not. If Mr. Korn is so completely disconnected from reality in Russia, at least BBG members should show some good sense and force him to undo the mess he created.

The BBG should immediately rehire Radio Liberty journalists and and issue a severe reprimand to Mr. Korn and his deputies. America’s reputation and public diplomacy are at stake here. It’s not easy to admit a mistake, but government officials at this level have a duty to protect public interest and a moral obligation to correct a great injustice.

No one believes in Mr. Korn’s assurances that this is about digital transition or that Radio Liberty’s Russian Service was overstaffed. Really?, Mr. Korn. Do you really believe that there are too many independent Radio Liberty journalists exposing abuses of power in Putin’s Russia?

Those Russian who follow these developments all know that the first journalists and specialists Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona fired were the members of Radio Liberty’s outstanding Internet team. Everybody knows that Mr. Korn did it for Masha Gessen, for whom we have seen no evidence of great experience in new media, radio, or ability to manage.

Mr. Korn and BBG members should realize that after about 40 highly-respected journalists and other media professionals were fired or resigned in protest, no respectable journalist is going to work for the new director of the Russian Service. They will avoid her if they see her on the street. After what happened at the Moscow bureau, she will be completely isolated among human rights and opposition leaders and among independent journalists. Radio Liberty has lost all credibility.

BBG Watch has learned that more journalists still working at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau are also considering resigning. This is no surprise. Svoboda has been destroyed my American executives who had absolutely no clue what they were doing. Frankly, we are surprised that Masha Gessen did not tell them to stop, but then we saw reports that she accused two fine journalists of slander. Slander–in Putin’s Russia– he just made it a criminal offense. Need we say more.

To help Mr. Korn and Ms. Gessen connect with reality, we once again republish the evidence of what happened and the reactions of prominent and ordinary Russians.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner:  “Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in this context”[attacks on glasnost], “It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about-turn”;

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov: “We were shocked by the decision of the officials of RFE/RL. This decision will cause tremendous harm to the political media freedom in Russia and therefore we are expressing our deep concern”;

Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov: “The purge in Moscow bureau has badly damaged the reputation of RFE/RL as a free international media working in traditions of democratic standards”;

Former Vice Speaker of the Parliament (Duma) Vladimir Ryzhkov: “We recommend the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington to revise the RFE/RL management decision and restore medium-wave broadcasting and the Radio Liberty Moscow team”;

Russian United Democratic Party “Yabloko” leaders, former Duma member Sergei Mitrokhin and former presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky: “This team made Radio Svoboda website one of the most competent and highly quoted political resources in the Russian segment of the Internet.To the best of our judgment, a bureaucratic mistake took place, which is turning into the other – political – mistake. Bureaucrats supervising mass media were making their narrow decisions, without considering the political consequences, which are indeed political. The Russian audience has lost the information source which it trusted throughout many decades. It is obvious that mass media reputation is the reputation of its journalists”;

Former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov: “You’ve seemingly done all you could so far, demonstrating instead a stunning example of desperate political idiocy. Thanks for making Putin’s life easier, and ours much harder”;

Lyudmila Alexeeva, Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group: “Reorganization of Radio Liberty work was carried out in a form of ‘special operation’ that was shameful and abusive for its employees. The KGB could not harm the image of the radio and the United States in Russia as did US managers – the President of the Radio Liberty Steven Korn and the Vice President Julia Ragona”;

Sergei Kovalyov, Chairman of the Russian “Memorial”, the chairman of the Public Commission for the Preservation of the Heritage of Academician Sakharov — Andrei Sakharov Foundation: “We ask the Congress to set up a special commission to investigate the activities of the Radio Liberty’s management, which caused such damage to the image of the United States in Russia and review the decisions that have been made”;

Vladimir Bukovsky, writer, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union: “Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona’s staffing solutions were conducted without even slightest consideration of the creative contribution and potential of each employee. Dismissed are the professionals with stainless reputations. Some of the journalists have left Moscow office of Radio Liberty deliberately on moral grounds”;

Tatiana Yankelevich, Center Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, daughter of Elena Bonner and stepdaughter of Andrei Sakharov: “Today a grave and gross error of judgement is taking place with Radio Liberty,” “Digging an early grave for Radio Liberty”;

Pavel Litvinov, a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union: “Scandalous publication about the activities of American management team of the radio appeared in Russian and foreign press. The managers themselves could not explain its decisions to the Russian society. These decisions look very strange, while the financing or the Russian service for years 2012- 2013 has not been reduced, but in fact even increased”;

Alexei Simonov, the President of the Glasnost Defense Foundation: “Mass dismissals of journalists have disorganized the work of the broadcast and the work of the radio’s website for extended period”;

Lev Ponomarev, Executive Director of the Russian movement “For Human Rights”: “From now on, every time Russian authorities will decide to close one or another independent media, they will refer to for them very convenient “experience” of the management of Radio Liberty”;

Dr. Vladimir Shlapetokh, renowned sociologist, Michigan State University: “My reaction was perfectly conveyed by Viktor Shenderovich, a leading liberal blogger in Russia, who stated that ‘the KGB and FSB, all ideological departments of the Central Committee of CPSU, all detractors of the West in Putin’s Russia, all of them together’ could not do what Washington did to Radio Liberty”;

Dr. Lev Gudkov, Director of the Levada Center, an independent social research institute in Russia with the rest of the management and employees: “In an authoritarian state, and especially in the period of reaction and ‘crackdown,’ permanent restriction of freedom of speech (which is what is happening now in Russia), it seems extremely untimely to suspend the Radio Liberty broadcasting and to fire its old team. These are people, who advanced the country’s democratic values and human rights. We ask you to consider the situation and conduct a full and thorough investigation into the decisions of the Radio Liberty administration: President Stephen Korn and Vice President Julia Ragona, which resulted in the actual elimination of the radio in Russia”;

2000 Radio Liberty listeners who have signed a petition in just two days: “We demand that the fired journalists be hired back. Probably the journalists, who quit Radio Svoboda to show solidarity with their colleagues, will then come back,” “Almost all Moscow bureau journalists, specializing in democracy and human rights issues, were fired in just two days with no clear explanation. They just
disappeared, without even having a chance to say good-bye to their listeners. The dismissal was so indecent that those who were not fired decided to quit. We still do not know the names of those who were hired instead of the former workers. We have no proof that Radio Svoboda will continue its independent policy.”;

Radio Liberty employees who were fired or resigned in protest: “Such methods and style of management – bragging about a new multimedia concept and firing people who succeeded in its implementation and increased RFE/RL Russian Service web audience tenfold; dismissing all journalists, who throughout the last twenty years have become a part of RFE/RL’s brand – all this looks like the worst kind of mismanagement and a gross violation of moral and ethical values.”

The following letter by the fired Radio Liberty journalist Veronika Bode describes the dismissals from the employees’ perspective. The letter was addressed to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and emailed to Mr. Lynton.

Dear Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors,

My name is Veronica Bode, I’m a writer and journalist. I have been working for the RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau since 1994, first as a freelance journalist, and from 2002 to 2012 as a staff member.

During these 19 years, I had a chance to do absolutely all forms of journalistic and broadcasting work: I was a correspondent, managed the program on street polls, produced cultural programs and was the anchor-person of «Time Behind the Wheel” and the Sunday cultural-entertaining cycle «Free Day». I was even a music critic. In recent years I hosted the program “Public Opinion” and the daily segment of the same name, in which the main focus was on the protest movement in Russia.

This is a unique project: the only program in the whole Russian media space entirely devoted to reporting on and studying civil society. However, on September 21, 2012 my project on the radio was silenced, and I, along with dozens of colleagues, – fired. The “updated” Radio Liberty apparently doesn’t need this kind of reporting.

This dismissal wasn’t voluntary – neither for me, nor for my colleagues. We were subjected to serious psychological pressure. The administration of RFE/RL hid their intentions from us until the last day. (Previously, President Steven Korn repeatedly stated that he would try to save all the positions, and colleagues who had been dismissed the day before us were forbidden to tell us about it.). And then, without giving us time to understand what was happening, they announced our dismissals and forced us to sign the agreement about termination of the contract in exchange for compensation. We were given to understand that we would be dismissed under any circumstances, even if we did not sign these documents. We were given to understand that it was better to agree, otherwise we would be thrown out without any payment.

In the Moscow RFERL bureau, the guards of frightening appearance were especially hired for this purpose, and we were led from one floor to another, being under escort, and had only two hours to pack our personal belongings. The guards blocked the entrance to the building and blocked access to our computers.
We have been treated as enemies.

We, who for so many years worked for the radio, who gave it so much strength and energy, who worked much more for the idea rather than money; we for whom the promotion of democratic values and human rights was the mission and the purpose in life, were treated by these RFE/RL American executives like common thieves.

In fact, the whole old team of the Moscow Bureau was fired — brave people, real human rights activists, who for many years led the fight for human dignity in the complicated (to put it mildly) conditions of Putin’s Russia. I do not understand why we deserved such treatment and who gave the RFERL Prague management the right to treat us in such a way.

And now about the main issue.

It seems that the President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty Mr. Steven Korn and Vice-President Ms. Julia Ragona have never thought for a moment about what will happen to us who live in an authoritarian state, where anti-American feelings are very strong, where Radio Liberty is still called «hostile voice», as in Soviet times, and where for the large segment of the population we are perceived as enemies.
Just one example: my colleagues and I have been regularly attacked by aggressive people while making polls on the streets Moscow. (Some individuals tried to beat us and to take away our recording equipment.) After a few such attacks we were given life insurance, but the RFE/RL management never provided us with medical insurance, which we would need if any of us suffered physical injuries or developed a serious illness. All these years we had been working without health insurance! I wonder if BBG members were aware of this situation.

Now, when in Russia the attack on the rights and freedoms of its citizens is now in full swing, I’m sure, that no one from among us, journalists fired from RFE/RL, «foreign agents», «enemies of Russia» will be hired. For example, I still have four years remaining until retirement, and I risk staying unemployed these next years, and consequently I will get only a very small pension.

My colleagues (about 40 people) were thrown out onto the street from Radio Liberty with the same “wolf ticket” (a Russian expression which applies to individuals under any kind of suspicion by the authorities or powerful employers, whom no one dares to hire or treat decently because it would offend or annoy those who have power and control). Among us, there are people of pre-retirement age, there are single mothers with many children, and some who are physically disabled.

How are they going to live now? How can they feed their children? How will they be treated by the Russian state authorities? The answer to the last question is, at least, obvious.

If the RFE/RL’s management decided to dismiss so many distinguished journalists, who because of their visibility in pro-democracy reporting have become tarnished goods in Putin’s Russia, they should have at least thought about pensions for them or, for example, whether to extend invitations and help them get a refugee status in the United States. But this was not done or even thought of. Mr. Korn just told us all “thanks” in a written statement posted on the website from Prague, and gave to understand that we are no longer needed.

All these years, working for Radio Liberty, we were sure, that behind us stood a strong organization, a powerful and fair country – the United States of America, and that we would always be under its protection and would get help and wouldn’t be left unprotected in case of threat or dire need. And now we are threatened, and we won’t be defended. We were all thrown to the mercy of fate. The new Director of the Russian Service Masha Gessen came on the radio with her new team, and the people who had been working here for 20 years and more, became a used commodity for the management, things which can be safely dumped and not thought of anymore.

Dear Members of the BBG, please tell me that I am not right. Tell me that there is at least one person among you who cares or even worries about my future and the future of my colleagues. Let me know the answer to the question which we are asking together with the leaders of the Russian human rights movement: will there be an investigation of the activity of the management of RFE/RL? And another question: what should we, the fired journalists, do now? How are we to survive in a country where many of our compatriots consider us enemies because we have worked for so many years for American radio?

What can we do if no one cares to answer these question? Some of us will appeal to the Russian courts against the management of Radio Liberty or to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Among other things, we suffered a huge moral damage. And we are still in Russia and can’t leave.

Best Regards,

Veronica Bode