BBG Watch Commentary

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

According to sources inside the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) headquarters, at a meeting in Washington on Friday BBG members had asked Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president and CEO Steven Korn to leave his post within 45 days. According to sources, Korn was also stripped by the board of his authority to fire RFE/RL employees. These decisions have not been publicly announced by the BBG.

The fate of Mr. Korn’s top deputies, Vice President for Content Julia Ragona and Vice President for Administration Dale Cohen, who together with Korn initiated the crisis at the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster by their brutal firing of highly experienced and popular Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow, has not been decided, sources told BBG Watch.

Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen

But BBG members also did not make any final decisions regarding the fired journalists and their colleagues who resigned in protest, although sources tell us that the majority of board members now believe that the crisis cannot be resolved without reversing the dismissals.

The board also did not make any decisions regarding Masha Gessen and her team, who were hired by Korn and his deputies to manage the Russian Service. Their lack of substantive news reporting and multimedia experience, general lack of name recognition in Russia, and changes made to the Radio Liberty website have resulted in the loss of about 60 percent of the online audience in just two months. Criticism from nearly all major Russian human rights leaders and democratic political figures has also contributed to the precipitous decline in the number of site visitors.

Julia Ragona
Julia Ragona

We note that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has been far kinder to Mr. Korn than he has been to his employees. He was given 45 days to leave his post and given plenty of time to say good bye and perhaps throw a holiday party or two at U.S. taxpayers’ expense. Even if they can’t fire anyone, Korn and his deputies can still do a lot of damage to U.S. international broadcasting in the time they have left. That is certainly not the way they treated RFE/RL employees whom they wanted to fire. They were given no extra time, nor did they even suspect they were going to be fired. There was no warning or extra time for them before they were fired.

Dale Cohen
Dale Cohen

Korn, Ragona and Cohen fired longtime loyal and dedicated Radio Liberty employees in just a few hours. Guards were used to prevent journalists from entering their office. They were sent to a law firm, and after they were forced to sign termination agreements, guards escorted them as they collected their personal belongings. Radio Liberty journalists were prevented from saying good bye to their radio and online audience of many years.

We’re not suggesting that the BBG should have treated Mr. Korn the same way he dealt with RFE/RL employees. A leading Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva said that even wild capitalists in Russian, whom the whole world finds repugnant, treat their employees better than Mr. Korn did. No one should be treated the way Radio Liberty Moscow journalists were treated. We do not advocate the same treatment for Mr. Korn and his deputies or for any BBG employee.

But while the Broadcasting Board of Governors may have had its reasons to give Mr. Korn 45 day to clear out, it also had a moral obligation to let the fired journalists know that they have not been forgotten. They should have been told by the BBG that they can spend peacefully the holidays with their families knowing that they will not be discarded, discredited and unemployed much longer. Keep in mind that RFE/RL executives have viciously accused these journalists of being resistant to change and incapable of doing digital media, when in fact those who were fired or resigned in protest were leading the digital transformation at RFE/RL and managed the organization’s most popular multimedia website.

Radio Liberty in Exile Journalists
Radio Liberty in Exile Journalists

While Korn, Ragona and Cohen will no doubt celebrate the holiday season, enjoying all the perks and benefits of their employment at RFE/RL for as long as it lasts, the fired journalists are still left wondering what the future holds for them. They are not just former Moscow bureau staffers, but also Kazakh journalists who were fired so that RFE/RL executives could order the production of offensive, sexually suggestive videos, which they then had to remove after they had caused an outrage in Kazakhstan, a largely Muslim nation.

So while we rejoice that the nightmare of Mr. Korn’s presence at RFE/RL will soon be over, we appeal to the Broadcasting Board of Governors to recognize the critical urgency of this crisis and to take immediate steps to save Radio Liberty’s reputation in the region.

The BBG can do this by letting the fired journalists know during this holiday season that the United States government is still committed to justice and fairness.

We understand the BBG board may be prevented by law from making lower level personnel decisions at RFE/RL, but the board can make an announcement that it intends to resolve quickly the issue of the fired employees, among them two staffers with disabilities.

If the board waits six months for Jeff Trimble, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Deputy Director, to complete his review of RFE/RL, it will be too late to save Radio Liberty in Russia.

(By the way, who will review what Mr. Trimble knew about Korn’s decisions, when did he know it, and what he did, or perhaps did not do, to alert the board as to their potential for disaster? Why did IBB executives allow this crisis to drag on for so long? Their role in this crisis should also be reviewed, and in this context appointing Mr. Trimble as “Revisor,” to use the name of Gogol’s famous play, appears somewhat strange, but it may have been a result of a compromise among BBG members. We urge an independent, outside investigation of what is the greatest crisis in the history of U.S. international broadcasting.)

The BBG should quickly appoint an interim or permanent RFE/RL president. It should be someone with international broadcasting experience, high moral character, record of commitment to independent journalism and human rights, and clear of any conflicts of interests or any past scandals. The new executive needs to immediately bring back the fired Radio Liberty team and reach out to the station’s traditional supporters within the human rights movement and NGO community in the broadcasting region and in the United States who have been alienated by Mr. Korn.

Radio Liberty will never be seen as a champion of human rights and will have no moral authority if the BBG does not move quickly, decisively and publicly to fix Mr. Korn’s tragic legacy.

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