BBG Watch Commentary
Radio Liberty in Exile responds to RFE/RL President Steven Korn’s dismissive comments about Russian opposition leaders by appealing to U.S. Congress for help.
Radio Liberty in Exile, a group of Russian journalists fired in September by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) management and their colleagues who had resigned in protest, has responded to RFE/RL President Steven Korn’s dismissive comments about leaders of Russia’s major human rights organizations and democratic opposition parties by producing a video with an appeal to U.S. Congress for help.
Steven Korn was hired by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting. At least one Republican member of the bipartisan BBG board, Ambassador Victor Ashe, has publicly expressed his lack of confidence in Mr. Korn. Sources told BBG Watch that other BBG members, including some Democrats, are privately criticizing Korn’s actions in Russia and his management of RFE/RL but have not yet taken any concrete steps to remove him from his position.
Commenting on his recent meeting in Moscow with leading anti-Putin opposition and human rights leaders, Mr. Korn said: “I did not think that we would convince any of the people in the room of anything. I don’t think I could have convinced them of what day it was, if it was coming out of my mouth they were not going to believe a word of it.”
Korn also denounced fired Radio Liberty political reporter Mikhail Sokolov for his aggressive questioning of his decisions. Sokolov, considered by many as one of the best among independent Russian journalists, was recognized by former President Yeltsin for his brave reporting during a communist coup in Russia.
In comments that could only be described as dismissive and almost mocking, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President Steven Korn announced that criticism from such Russian human rights and anti-Putin political leaders like Lyudmila Alexeeva and Mikhail Gorbachev means nothing to him. Alexeeva confronted Korn directly during the meeting, telling him that even repugnant wild Russian capitalists treat their employees better than he did. (Guards hired by RFE/RL prevented journalists from entering their news bureau and the management would not allow them to say good bye to their radio and online audience of many years.)
Gorbachev did not attend the meeting but issued a statement critical of RFE/RL’s American management.
During the Moscow meeting and later in a meeting with his senior staff in Prague, Korn defended his decision to fire dozens of Radio Liberty journalists and new media specialists and to cancel their pro-human rights programs.
“You may have heard I was in Moscow last week with Julia and some of you may have watched our event. I will say that it went probably in my estimation as well as I expected it, in fact I think it went a little better. I did not think that we would convince any of the people in the room of anything. I don’t think I could have convinced them of what day it was, if it was coming out of my mouth they were not going to believe a word of it. However, I think that they had their say. I think that the best thing that happened was their insisting that two of our former employees join the group, which they did. I think the words and attitude of those people, one in particular (Mikhail Sokholov), speaks for itself, for themselves, and my theme, like the President’s, is forward, we’re done debating this, we’re done gnashing our teeth about it, we’re done wringing our hands, we’re done with the second guessing, we are going forward.
And I am excited about what we are going to be doing. Masha and her team are working hard and diligently on planning what the new website will look like, how they’re going to cover things, what kind of programming there will be and it will be a work in progress. We will try things that will fail and we will try things that will succeed, when they fail we’ll try something else. That should be your approach to your services as well.
I went over and saw the new space and saw what progress is being made and there is progress being made, there are people in there everyday making all kinds of noise and all kinds of clatter and constructing a new newsroom and new bureau, new studios it’s going to be great.
I will tell you that the team is coalescing I think. The existing employees and the new employees seem to be working well together. The new employees are enthusiastic, they smile, which is nice to see, they’re creative, they’re working hard and I’m very excited about where we’re going.
So, I’m done answering questions about this. We are doing the right thing and we are moving forward. So, those of you who are not reconciled to it — too bad, those of you are indifferent to it, which you probably more or less should be if you’re not in the Russian service — good, and those of you who are supportive of it — that’s even better. But we’re going forward, so you’re either on the train or off the train and I don’t care which but we’re going forward.”
Statement by fired Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Sokolov referenced by RFE/RL President Steven Korn
Link to VideoÂ in RussianÂ
Mikhail Sokolov: I am a member of the team, who was ousted by Mr. Korn without any explanation, I would like to make a short statement if I may. Especially, since I’ve seen on the Radio Liberty’s website a lot of questions about this. Mr. Korn spoke for what appears to be 12 minutes, I will take 4 or 5 minutes.
Mikhail Schatz (moderator): I think it’s quite possible, do not forget about the time.
Mikhail Sokolov: “Thank you. I would like first of all to thank American taxpayers who have allowed me until recently to discuss the political situation in Russia quite freely. 20 years at Radio Liberty is a really long time. Thank you American taxpayers.
Now I would like to say this: I did not come here to discuss an imaginary reform concept that does not exist in nature. There was a pogrom of the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty, which led to a massive scandal reflected in media reports. The Radio Liberty website which was on its way up is now in shambles.Â Look at what the readers of our website write about you, Mr. Korn and Ms. Korn Ragona.
Without providing any reasons, without providing any arguments, you ousted about 40 people who have worked professionally for your country. You have demonstrated immoral and unprofessional behavior. As a result (of your actions), Radio Liberty no longer for the time being has any right to teach Russians about democracy. It is a fact that a number of prominent politicians, experts and regional correspondents refused to cooperate with Radio Liberty in a show of protest. Moreover, not only the people you kicked out, but those who did not want to work in this kind of atmosphere, have also left.
What you have here a boycott. Now, regarding the broadcasts. You are not a professional, you told a lie when you said that Radio Liberty had no way out of the situation that occurred because of the adoption of the new Russian media law. You had walked away from an agreement with Novaya Gazeta and Alexander Lebedev, you walked away from broadcasting on their FM frequency, which was perfectly possible during (President) Medvedev’s thaw. You did not go onÂ the way all other foreign media are doing business in Russia. None of them has its own license to broadcast in Russia. They are not license holders. Neither Euronews, CNN, orÂ BBC.
The broadcaster must be a Russian legal entity, with whom an agreement is reached, and this entity then broadcasts the client’s programs. For example, NTV Plus. Even the Voice of America, as far as I know, has an agreement with Voice of Russia. You have not shown any interest to keeping radio broadcasting – either getting FM or medium wave.Â Now you have voluntarily given up the license.
This is a betrayal of Radio Liberty’s mission. I can tell you that your actions show complete political blindness. We now have in RussiaÂ a harsh authoritarian regime based parliamentary and archaic rules. Tomorrow, new rules that prohibit legitimate criticism of Putin and his system may be introduced. And independent political activity is under threat. You put the Russian Service in Moscow in a very difficult position.
Moreover,Â while I do not really want to focus on the nomination of a new director,Â she was not hurt, at least in recent years, feeding out of the Vladimir Putin’s handÂ (Vokrug Sveta magazine). In addition,Â censorship has been already introduced at Radio Liberty, At the very least, political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky is already banned from participating in Radio Liberty programs.
You are switching to digital broadcasting. Very good. But how will you respond to a situation, similar to what has happened in China and Iran, when the Internet is blocked.
Political Broadcasting – you are giving it up, and delivering video will become more difficult. In addition, video will be of amateur quality because you don’t have enough money.
Finally. About your new hires. Well, I guess, we are bad journalists – unprofessional, useless, and we can leave. You hired wizards that are supposed to attract young people. As someone who knows the Russian media, I can say that either you bought something sight unseen, or you trusted in some quack promise. Wonders will not take place.
You are talking about equipment. You should know that hardware and wires without any quality content and news are not worth anything. The people you hired are already saying that the news is not needed. Lenin once said that there are useful bourgeois idiots. There is such a quote that they will bring a rope on which communists will hang them. You behave the same way as far as the interests of your own country are concerned. Because one cannot behave this way in the current political situation in Russia.Â Only amateurs would do that. Moreover, I believe that your actions are nothing but a betrayal of the ideals of American democracy. I do not think that you are an enemy of your own country, but you have disgraced Radio Liberty’s reputation and the principles that are enshrined in the American Constitution.
And I believe that you and Ms. Ragona, who have destroyed Radio Liberty’sÂ Russian Service, should simply resign. But since you are not about to do this, I think the American public will become engaged in this issue to stop your destructive activities. I’m talking not only about the destruction of the Russian Service, but alsoÂ the Kazakh Service,Â where you have fired half of the staff; and the eliminations of broadcasting in Russian to the North Caucasus region; your attempts to close down the North Caucasus and Tatar services. Your actions, which harm America, should be examined by a committee of the U.S. Congress — something that Russian human rights activists have already requested.
You also know very well what the fired Radio Liberty staffers were told: “no matter what you do, even if you appeal in court, you will not be working for Radio Liberty, we will do everything to stop you.” And for that — you, Ms Ragona, you hired lawyers and they applied psychological pressure. And the security guards were brought in and some of the people were not allowed to enter the office. You all know very well how it was. You should not to lie to human rights activists. You do this frequently, constantly trying to deceive people.
And about the people who had resigned, they had left not because they wanted the money, as Mr. Korn said here, they left because they could not continue working in this disgusting atmosphere of lies and meanness. Do you understand?
Everything could have been done differently. And it is a lie that this is about money. People should have been working until the end of the year. You did not want them to work, and you paid them.
All the other payments are required by Russian law, when a person leaves he is entitled to it.
You are incompetent, I want to repeat this, when it comes to broadcasting.Â Here at this table sits a person who was personally responsible for the collapse of Radio Liberty’s regional broadcasting partners, for the fact that we lost frequencies in St. Petersburg, Tomsk, and in other cities. Yes, there was pressure from the security services. But there were people who were willing to cooperate with us, including the people from the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. They confirmed that they had made you a proposal for using an FM frequency owned by Alexander Lebedev and we could have been broadcasting on that frequency now. You should not try to deceive serious people as you are apt to do.”
Statement by human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva referenced by RFE/RL President Steven Korn
LYUDMILA ALEXEEVA: “In the words of Mr. Korn, the station should not work the way it has worked for the entire last 60 years.
Although it was true to its name and it was respected because of it in this country. I can attest to it as someone who since 1977 has been freelancing for Radio Liberty.
With the exception of the last few weeks, since 1977, I have not missed a single week being on the air, regardless of what was going on in my life, because I had great respect for these words ‘Liberty,’ ‘Radio Liberty.’
And I thought we were working the right way.
You are saying that now we need to work differently because the world has changed.
Of course, and our country has changed. But Mr. Korn, we have also changed as our country has changed. And the people who have worked at Radio Liberty, they have also changed in the last 20 years.
And believe me, we understand our listeners better then you who do not speak our language.
May be you want to make Radio Liberty a beautiful station using all your strengths. I have concluded that Radio Liberty is interesting. It has its niche. It has its listeners.
When does the new programming start? November 10, I think. You already in September, in one day…
You know, even in conditions of our wild capitalism, which the whole world finds repugnant, people are not treated the way you treated the people at Radio Liberty.
I was at Radio Liberty on that day. I don’t go there too often. It was a shock for everybody and for me too.
OK, we did not work the right way. May be it’s difficult to see it from the inside. May be. You talk about this and that, about telephones. But about this glorious concept, which forms the basis of programming, I don’t know. What is this concept?
What is this concept? What’s in it? Can you explain it to me? Why did you kill the old Radio Liberty already in September?
You didn’t wait till November 10. Why did you do it? Why? So that we would hear what? How are you going to create this?
You said that you will increase the number of freelancers.
I don’t know to whom you will turn with this proposal. I don’t know if I will be among them. I work the old way since 1977. You understand?
I am obviously too old and hopeless. But who will be the new freelancers?
About what will they be required to talk that we did not talk about?
And about what will they be silent that we were not silent about?
Can you answer for me this question? And this for me more important than all the talk about the frequencies and new youthful audience.
May be it’s true that you should broadcast to a young audience. But you also have to tell something to the youth.
It would be interesting for me to know what exactly is this concept for which you kicked out everybody and brought in Masha Gessen and who knows who else.”