BBG Watch Commentary

“Not only have I not changed my views on how bad the situation is at RFE/RL, I came away from the BBG panel more worried than I went in and more convinced than ever that it needs radical change at the top.” – Freedom House President David Kramer

David J. Kramer, Freedom House President

U.S. officials and American NGO heads are refuting statements from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executives who claimed in media interviews and in reports to staff that their leadership of the U.S. publicly-funded international broadcaster is no longer being seriously questioned in Washington. Freedom House President David Kramer said Sunday that nothing short of a complete housecleaning of the RFE/RL top leadership is required. “The damage they have done is immeasurable,” Kramer concluded.

Kramer’s latest rebuttal of what RFE/RL executives have been saying to the media in Russia and to their own staff was aimed at their suggestions that he has changed his position on the crisis triggered by the mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow. Kramer stated categorically that his recent participation in a panel on Russia organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency which oversees RFE/RL, only strengthened his negative assessment of top RFE/RL executives and their decisions and plans. He called for the rehiring of the fired journalists.

Earlier, BBG Governor Ambassador Victor Ashe had told Russian reporters who contacted him that suggestions in Russian media interviews from the new director of Radio Liberty Russian Service Masha Gessen that the BBG will not carry out an inspection of Radio Liberty and her own role are stunning as the are totally not true. Ann Noonan, executive director of watchdog NGO, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), told BBG members that the chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alexeeva said that neither Putin nor the former KGB were able to damage Radio Liberty more than Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President and CEO Steven Korn.

BBG Watch has learned that International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, who was appointed by the BBG to lead the review, has requested a meeting with Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow who had been fired without any warning by RFE/RL president Steven Korn and his deputies and replaced by Masha Gessen and her team.

Freedom House President David Kramer issued a rebuttal of recent statements from RFE/RL officials concerning his position on the Radio Liberty crisis:

“Not only have I not changed my views on how bad the situation is at RFE/RL, I came away from the BBG panel more worried than I went in and more convinced than ever that it needs radical change at the top,” Freedom House President David Kramer said. “The comments I heard suggest to me that nothing short of major change is required, meaning a complete housecleaning of the top leadership. The damage they have done is immeasurable,” Kramer concluded.

Masha Gessen gave a presentation to the BBG panel in Washington, which she and other RFE/RL officials later said was “very well received” by BBG members. Speaking for himself, BBG Governor Victor Ashe questioned this assessment by RFE/RL executives. “Board members just listened to Gessen and did not make many comments,” Ashe said. “Cohen’s (RFE/RL Vice President for Administration Dale Cohen) suggestion that I was impressed was fiction on his part,” Ashe added.

Freedom House President David Kramer was responding to media reports on how various RFE/RL executives described his comments and reactions at the Broadcasting Board of Governors panel last week in Washington on the media situation in Russia. In his remarks to RFE/RL senior staff, Cohen referred to David Kramer as “the guy from Freedom House.”

“While the session I attended was closed and thus I won’t get into what specifically was discussed, I’m happy to set the record straight,” Kramer said:

“The callous and insensitive manner in which RFE/RL leadership fired those who had worked at the organization requires reexamination with the goal of rehiring/rehabilitating some, if not all, of those who were laid off,” Freedom House President said.

Kramer was referring to RFE/RL officials using security guards to prevent Radio Liberty journalists from entering the Moscow bureau, sending them to a law firm and forcing more than 30 to sign termination agreements. RFE/RL executives insist that all employees resigned voluntarily and were treated generously and with great respect. Eight more journalists resigned in protest to show solidarity with their colleagues. RFE/RL officials implied that they were motivated by greed in collecting their severance pay.

All those who were fired or resigned in protest dispute this explanation and insist that RFE/RL management gave them no choice but to resign. They also question the official explanation that the firings were necessary for the digital transition since RFE/RL management fired members of the award-winning Radio Liberty Internet team. Afterwards, RFE/RL officials even prevented well known radio and web journalists from saying good bye to their radio and online audience of many years.

Critics believe that recent deceptive statements and media interviews by RFE/RL executives are a continuation of their coercive tactics designed to intimidate former employees and to force them to stop their protests.

Some of the fired Radio Liberty journalists and their colleagues who resigned in protest — many of whom are still unemployed because of their opposition journalism in Putin’s Russia — said that they were depressed by media reports just before Christmas quoting statements from Masha Gessen, Julia Ragona and Dale Cohen implying that BBG members and David Kramer agreed with the RFE/RL leadership. These statements, later refuted, suggested to them and media audiences in Russia that their fight for justice was now doomed despite the strong support they received from nearly all major Russian human rights leaders and opposition political figures, including Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Russian news platform Lenta.ru reported that Masha Gessen, the new Russian Service director of Radio Liberty appointed by RFE/RL president and CEO Steven Korn, admitted that Kramer, indeed, “expressed quite a harsh judgment,” but Gessen explained that it was not directed at the activity of Steven Korn, but in reference to the reputational losses for the station.

“I fully admit that it was possible to conduct all this restructuring better, but I doubt very much that it could have been carried out without a loss of reputation” – added Gessen. She had earlier accused independent Russian journalists who suggested a link between her appointment and the mass firings of slandering her. Slander is a criminal offense in Putin’s Russia and is used by Russian officials to stifle free speech and investigative journalism. RFE/RL is funded by U.S. taxpayers to support free media in Russia.

Kramer, according to Gessen, did not mention Steven Korn’s name at the discussion panel in Washington last week. But sources who were present told BBG Watch that Kramer directly told Korn he considered his comments about the fired RFE/RL employees made at the Russia panel last Thursday, which Gessen attended, to be “insulting.” It is not known whether Gessen heard that remark.

According to officially unconfirmed reports, the BBG had asked Steven Korn to leave his post at RFE/RL within 45 days. The fired employees are still waiting for the official confirmation of this report and for any word from the BBG on their future. Many political, media and human rights experts in Russia and the U.S., including Freedom House President David Kramer, have said that the Radio Liberty crisis cannot be resolved with bringing back the fired journalists.

In a Russian media interview, Gessen attacked Ann Noonan, executive director of American NGO, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), who in an open BBG meeting in Washington last week criticized actions of RFE/RL president Steven Korn and specifically mentioned the firing of fully qualified employees with disabilities. Even though Noonan did not mention Gessen in her presentation, Gessen said that Noonan and other CUSIB members engage in “a trick with mirrors: they serve themselves illuminate themselves inflate scandal.” CUSIB did not comment.

Shortly after the meetings in Washington, Steven Korn’s top deputy, RFE/RL Vice President for Content Julia Ragona, reportedly told RFE/RL senior staffers that “I do think with respect to Mr. Kramer at Freedom House that there is a lot of misinformation that he was getting that I think we may have cleared up, because he was quite happy to speak with Masha afterwards and wanted to get more of that perspective that he hadn’t gotten.” A recording of her comments was placed online by anonymous RFE/RL staffers.

Freedom House President David Kramer specifically refuted suggestions in Ms. Ragona’s statement that he had been misinformed earlier and may have changed his position after listening to RFE/RL managers. Kramer stated that the opposite is true: “I came away with the view that the situation is even worse than I had imagined” Kramer explained that during the panel he had indeed sent Ms. Gessen a note that he would be happy to talk with her later since he had to leave early, but he added that he has not spoken with her since the panel discussion.

“The suggestion from Ms. Ragona that I came away from that session with a different view is inaccurate, if not an outright lie. I came away with the view that the situation is even worse than I had imagined,” Kramer added.

BBG Watch welcomes comments from RFE/RL officials.

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