BBG Watch Commentary

U.S. Must Take Immediate Action to Save Radio Liberty in Russia

by Mario Corti and Ted Lipien

What does the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, need to know for taking immediate action and what needs to be done before it is too late and the damage to Radio Liberty in Russia becomes irreversible?

Mario Corti
Mario Corti

On December 14, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) announced that the board will engage in a six-months review of the recent events at the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow. The announcement said that the review will be led by the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) deputy director Jeff Trimble who will travel to Moscow at the beginning of January. The review will last approximately six months.

Six months is a long time for most investigations of this kind. It is unacceptably too long to address a catastrophic crisis that has already become a truly Kafkaesque nightmare for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists and its audiences in Russia and in other countries without free media.

We now hear that upon an expected resignation of RFE/RL president and CEO Steven Korn, the BBG plans to appoint an interim president. This would be a much better move depending on who the person is and what authority he or she is granted to immediately deal with the terrible mess created by Mr. Korn and his management team. But we also hear that some within the BBG bureaucracy are trying to delay any real and immediate solutions. Any further delay will cause irreversible damage to RFE/RL, U.S. public diplomacy standing in Russia, and Radio Liberty’s reputation. Those who are opposing immediate emergency action and reforms should think hard about the consequences of their actions for the United States.

Ted Lipien
Ted Lipien

The new interim president should definitely not be a current insider but someone with previous experience in U.S. international broadcasting, public diplomacy, human rights and media freedom advocacy. It should be a person with considerable outside accomplishments and balanced judgement. RFE/RL needs a strong but calm and reassuring leader to undo the damage and restore confidence among its staff, audiences, and traditional supporters abroad and in the United States.

But if the BBG also wants to conduct an internal review at the same time, such a review could be useful if it is done to expose rather than to hide management mistakes. Perhaps it will show why IBB officials did not alert BBG members much earlier to the developing crisis at RFE/RL and in Russia, but frankly we doubt that it will. The understandable tendency of any bureaucracy is to minimize the extent of the crisis so that bureaucrats can hide their own responsibility for allowing it to develop or blame it on others. That’s why an outside, independent review might be much more objective and useful to the BBG and any new RFE/RL president. What could Jeff Trimble find out on his expensive trip to Moscow that is not already available in the public domain and even already known by the BBG?

It is true, however, that the BBG and the public were exposed to a lot of misleading claims and misinformation. Steven Korn says that misinformation was spread by his critics, but it is becoming abundantly clear that it was he and his deputies who did not tell the BBG the whole truth. Perhaps Jeff Trimble can shed a light on what was said and what really happened. This is, for example, how RFE/RL president Steven Korn justified his actions in an article published in The Moscow Times on December 16:

“We are currently building a state-of-the-art video and digital facility in Moscow and believe that our future success in Russia will be on digital, Internet and social media producing the type of video, audio and text content that listeners and viewers demand. The new Radio Svoboda will become an interactive forum where our audience can engage in an ongoing dialogue with each other and with the service’s journalists and guests,” and “the switch to a digital service requires new ways of working with fewer people and people with different skills.”

To a reader without any background knowledge this means:

First, that Radio Liberty until now was not available on Internet, that it was not using social media or producing video, audio and text content. Mr. Korn’s article also suggests that Radio Liberty had no interactive forum where the audience could engage in an ongoing dialogue among themselves and with the journalists and guests of the Russian Service.

Second, that journalists and other media professionals working at the Radio Liberty news bureau in Moscow did not have the skills required to manage a multimedia website or produce video, audio and text content etc., and therefore the termination of most of the Moscow bureau staffers was justifiable because room was needed for new people with the right skills.

But Russian speakers in Russia and elsewhere who have been following Radio Liberty during the past few years know full well that the station was already in digital format, using Internet and social media and producing video and analytical text content, and that it had an interactive forum where the audience could engage in an ongoing dialogue.

Furthermore, most members of the new team brought in by the newly appointed director Masha Gessen do not have the required skills; they are print journalists. As Julia Ragona, the RFE/RL vice-president of content, delivery and marketing candidly admitted at an RFE/RL directors’ meeting in Prague, of which BBG Watch published a full account, “they are being trained.” Dale Cohen, the RFE/RL vice-president of administration, oversaw the firing and hiring in Moscow and in Prague. Masha Gessen denies any role in the firings of journalists, but her denials have been questioned in numerous Russian media reports. She accused authors of such reports of slandering her, which is a criminal offense in Russia under a new law signed by President Putin.

As it turns out, Mr. Korn and his deputies, whoever they were, fired the wrong people only to hire the wrong people.

Those who were fired have received many prestigious journalism awards that recognized also their outstanding news website and online reporting — the fact that even the BBG acknowledged in a press release issued a few days ago. They are some of the best known independent journalists in Russia who are often invited to publish or appear as guests on other major media outlets. They enjoy the respect and support of their colleagues who fight against censorship in Putin’s Russia. The same cannot be said to any degree about the new team that replaced them.

In the meantime, Mr. Korn’s so called “transformation,” his own misleading statements and claims, and those of his subordinates, have brought tremendous discredit upon RFE/RL in Russia and in the United States. The situation inside of what is left of the Russian Service, as it has been documented in many ways, continues to deteriorate.

Korn’s prominent critics: Mikhail Gorbachev, Ludmila Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalev, Pavel Litvinov, Boris Nemtsov, Freedom House president David Kramer and many others have not changed their highly negative assessment. Their criticism has become even stronger after they listened to explanations from Mr. Korn, Ms. Ragona, and Ms. Gessen. And the negative campaign in the media, both in Russia and in the United States, which Mr. Korn predicted would last for only two weeks, is far from waning. It has intensified and will be entering its fifth month.

What else does the BBG need to know for taking immediate action and what needs to be done before it is too late and the damage becomes irreversible?

To start with, an interim RFE/RL president for at least a one year period should be immediately appointed. He or she could benefit from some experience in emergency management. As it has been suggested from different parts, the specific mandate should be to restore confidence, reassemble the team that was fired, and continue to develop digital media backed by a strong news gathering operation and radio broadcasting.

But the final result cannot and will not be the same Russian Service and other RFE/RL services as they existed prior the Korn-Ragona-Cohen-Gessen transformation. Given the amount of structural damage the Russian Service has suffered, it will and it should be a reformed service.

The new president will have to turn to outside and inside experts for advice, but he or she should not repeat the same mistakes that have been made in the past 10 years. The biggest one by far has been the stifling of internal discussion, punishing and firing of dissidents, and imposing changes from above on talented and intellectually independent journalists and other media professionals. Those who know their audience, their media markets, political restrictions on program distribution, and ways of getting around them without compromising the mission have been silenced or driven out. Their views must again be heard and carefully considered to save RFE/RL.

An effort of the same cyclopean difficulty was partially and successfully carried out at RFE/RL when the station made the move from Munich to Prague in 1995. Most former RFE/RL presidents treated journalists with respect and consulted with them on a regular basis. The BBG might be surprised to find out how creative and innovative Russian service staff can be if directly involved in a project. If necessary, resources could be made available by reducing bureaucracy, redundant administrative staff and extravagant spending by RFE/RL executives on their housing and business class plane travels.

Contrary to what BBG members have been hearing from their staff, the best solutions do not usually come from hired consultants in Washington and former commercial media executives who have never experienced how real political censorship works and who do not understand the role of publicly-funded international broadcasting to nations without free media.

The arrogance and contempt that some of these contractors, consultants and executives have for RFE/RL journalists resulted in arbitrary decisions, firings of talented staffers, and the denial of their basic rights as loyal and dedicated employees. It has created a culture of internal intimidation and fear that culminated in turning Radio Liberty by the Korn management team into an enemy of the Russian human rights and democratic opposition movement. Even Mr. Putin could not have hoped for a better outcome.

Whatever the vision to restore Radio Liberty’s reputation and its vibrant free media role in the future, it must be shared, discussed and developed jointly with Russian Service and other RFE/RL journalists, web editors and broadcasters, on whom ultimately falls the burden of creating meaningful intellectual content. They should be made the driving force of reform. And this will require a major change of the corporate culture not only at RFE/RL but also at the BBG, the worst employee-rated agency of its size in the U.S. federal government. The Broadcasting Board of Governors must act immediately before the damage to this important free media American institution abroad becomes permanently irreversible.

— Mario Corti, an Italian journalist and writer published in Russia, is a former director of Radio Liberty Russian Service. Ted Lipien, an American journalist and writer, is a former Voice of America acting associate director and the author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped The Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed The Catholic Church” (O-Books, UK, 2006).

Lipien and Corti are directors of Free Media Online, a media freedom NGO. Ted Lipien is also a co-founder and director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB), an independent and nonpartisan NGO which supports free flow of uncensored news and information from the U.S. to countries with restricted or developing media.

An earlier article on RFE/RL written jointly by Mario Corti and Ted Lipien was published in National Review Online: “Silenced by Washington,” NRO, October 23, 2012.