BBG Watch Commentary

New Liberty on RFE:RL ResignationsDale Cohen, Vice President of Administration at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) since November 2011, and Beth Portale, Vice President and Chief of Staff to former RFE/RL President Steven Korn, have resigned from the U.S.-funded media freedom broadcaster. Their bios have been removed from the RFE/RL website.

Since January 2013, RFE/RL has new Acting President Kevin Klose. He replaced Steven Korn, the former RFE/RL President who had promoted some of the executives and relied on them for advice. Radio Liberty in Exile website Novoya Svoboda (New Liberty) reported that another one of Steven Korn’s top deputies, Vice President of Content, Distribution, and Marketing Julia Ragona, has been on an extended leave.

Sources told BBG Watch that more personnel announcements at RFE/RL are expected within the next few weeks.

Dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia who had been fired by the former management team are awaiting a decision to return them to their former jobs. After their firing in September 2012, Radio Liberty’s reputation in Russia suffered major damage.

Pro-democracy Russians were outraged as journalists and multimedia professionals were barred by RFE/RL security guards from saying good bye to their audiences of many years and prevented from continuing their human rights reporting. Several of their colleagues had resigned in protest.

All of them formed Radio Liberty in Exile and continued reporting as unpaid volunteers on their New Liberty news website, Facebook Page and YouTube.

Some of their colleagues still employed at RFE/RL have also asked that the fired journalists be returned to Radio Liberty and signed a joint letter to Kevin Klose.

Korn, Cohen and Ragona said that the journalists had not been fired but resigned voluntarily and were treated with great respect. Nobel Peace Prize nominee, human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva, who had witnessed the firings first hand, said that even repugnant Russian capitalists treat their employees better. Heads of American human rights and media freedom organizations, including Freedom House and the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) also condemned the firings and programming changes.

The former RFE/RL management team told BBG members that the fired journalists were not capable of doing digital media when in fact they had one of the most well-developed and successful multimedia news websites in Russia and pioneered live video streaming from political trials and anti-Putin demonstrations.

Following their dismissal, the number of visitors to the Russian Service website, which was redesigned by the new service director Masha Gessen and her team, took a big dive, according to statistics published online. Independent media research also shows that other media outlets in Russia for the most part stopped citing Radio Liberty reports as they did before September 2012.

Nearly all leading Russian democratic political figures and human rights activists have criticized the firing of Radio Liberty journalists and demanded that they be re-hired. They also criticized programming changes introduced by Masha Gessen who had been hired by former RFE/RL President Steven Korn. Among those who protested was former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev, former reformist Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and many others. All of them are now part of the opposition against President Putin’s authoritarian rule.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in Washington, which oversees Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, had asked Kevin Klose to restore the station’s reputation and effectiveness in Russia. According to sources, most BBG members claim they were not told about the extent and nature of the firings in Moscow. Steven Korn claims that he had fully informed the BBG board about he was planning to do. He resigned in January for what he said were purely personal reasons. Media reports suggested that the BBG had asked him to resign. Shortly before resigning, Korn attacked his critics in an interview with The Prague Post.

Korn’s successor, Kevin Klose, had met in Moscow with representatives of the fired journalists and with human rights leaders and other prominent Russians who support them. He is expected to announce more personnel and programming changes in the next several weeks and is believed to be working on offering the journalists who were fired an opportunity to return to Radio Liberty, sources told BBG Watch.

According to the same sources, Klose enjoys strong support from the majority of BBG members. They were reportedly unhappy with the senior executives at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) for not alerting them earlier to the growing crisis at Radio Liberty.

Sources told BBG Watch that the currently most active BBG members are Susan McCue, Michael Meehan and Victor Ashe. Ambassador Ashe was the first one among BBG members to speak out publicly in defense of the fired journalists and to criticize the former RFE/RL management team. BBG Watch was told that all of them have encouraged and applauded Kevin Klose’s actions and see them as a model for reforming the IBB bureaucracy in Washington.