Mario Corti

In a nutshell, the station [Radio Liberty] has abandoned its uniqueness, its identity, its face.

Former Russian Service Director at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has warned that the U.S.-funded international broadcaster has lost its identity, uniqueness and effectiveness in Russia as a result of programming changes imposed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. federal agency which manages RFE/RL. Mario Corti, an Italian born journalist, writer, and Russia expert who was fired in a dispute with the American management team, also charged that former RFE/RL managers and BBG members are hiding  massive loss of audiences in Russia and other mistakes from the Obama White House, the U.S. Congress, and the American public.

In an interview published in Free Media Online Blog Mario Corti described his battles with the American management at RFE/RL and with BBG consultants, whom he accused of imposing on the Russian Service the same popular culture talk show format which former BBG member Norman Pattiz, a Democrat, developed with the Bush White House for Arabic language Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television for the Middle East. These two U.S.-funded private broadcasting entities have been plagued by financial and programming scandals, including airing of statements by Holocaust deniers on Alhurra.   A study by researchers for the University of Southern California, who conducted a review of Alhurra broadcasts, concluded that “the quality of Alhurra’s journalism is substandard on several levels“ and that the station has no significant audience in the Middle East.

Mario Corti  who sits on the Board of Directors of FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, said in an interview that he resisted the changes demanded by the BBG, which ultimately led to his dismissal and firing of several other Russian Service journalists, whom he praised as intellectual giants of international broadcasting. One of them was a famous former Soviet dissident, writer, poet and musician Tengiz Gudava, who was killed last month in Prague, the Czech Republic, under still unexplained circumstances.

Corti said that he was prompted by his friend’s death to go public for the first time with his criticism of the role RFE/RL management and the BBG played in changing the programming philosophy of U.S. taxpayer funded broadcasts to Russia. Before his death, Gudava was publishing sharp criticism of RFE/RL management and the current political leadership in Moscow, but there are no indications that his death, which the police described as resulting from being hit by a car, was related to his journalistic activities. 

Corti said that “Those among the old KGB and the new FSB , who see the U.S. as an enemy rather than a valuable and generous partner of Russia, could only be enormously happy with such leaders in charge of U.S. international broadcasting as the current U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executive team. They have no reason to worry or need to do anything themselves to undermine U.S.-funded broadcasts; it is being done for them by these American government officials who are now trying hard to hide their mistakes from the White House, the U.S. Congress and the American public.”

Corti was particularly critical of former acting RFE/RL president Jeffrey Trimble who is now executive director for the BBG in Washington, D.C. Corti said that he enjoyed full support from one of the previous RFE/RL presidents, former Washington Post correspondent in Moscow Kevin Klose who left the BBG for an executive position at NPR. He also said that he worked well with Robert Gillette, a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent who, according to Corti, had to leave his broadcasting director’s job to make room for the new management team appointed by the BBG with the mission to change RFE/RL’s programming philosophy.

Corti was referring to a series of decisions by the BBG, including the termination of all Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian military incursion into the disputed territory in Georgia last summer. As a result of this decision, VOA registered an unprecedented 98 percent drop in its annual audience reach in Russia, from 7.3% in 2007 to the estimated 0.2% in 2009. Radio Liberty’s Russian Service has seen a less dramatic but steady loss of listeners, which Corti said was due largely to programming changes and firing of some of the most talented journalists. Some of the audience loss can also be attributed to media restrictions imposed on Western broadcasters by the Russian authorities.

In a 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Broadcasting Board of Governors was rated by its employees as the worst managed federal agency. Mario Corti criticized the BBG for requiring RFE/RL journalists to sign secrecy agreements, which he charged are designed to hide management mistakes. He refused to sign such an agreement.

Corti also charged that the BBG is using a communist era Czech law, which is still on the books, to deny foreign journalists working at RFE/RL in the Czech Republic basic protections of U.S. and Czech labor laws and expressed hope that the Obama Administration and the European Court of Human Rights will put an end to this policy. Mario Corti now works as a freelance journalist and a consultant for a media group based in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

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