The death of Radio Liberty

US-funded Radio Liberty started broadcasting to the USSR in 1953. Now Russia’s new media law has led to the mass firing of the station’s journalists and the appointment of a new editor, Masha Gessen. But she’s unlikely to find many journalists prepared to work with her, thinks Anastasia Kirilenko

I am a 28-year-old Russian web editor and investigative radio reporter who studied digital media journalism in Russia and in France. I have submitted my resignation to the new management of the American-funded Radio Liberty in Moscow after working there for almost four years. I could not in all conscience stay at the ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ Radio Liberty, as the station is now being described by its American management. It is no longer a news organization I and most independent journalists and democratic opposition leaders in Russia want to identify with. I parted with the old Radio Liberty with a very heavy heart, but I leave the new one without any regrets. There is nothing left of the former free media institution.

'My professional curiosity convinced me to stick around for a few more weeks. What I saw first hand was truly frightening — the death of Radio Liberty.'

More than 30 Radio Liberty journalists were fired (eight more resigned in protest) without any warning last month, barred from entering their offices by guards paid for by American taxpayers. Unlike several of my colleagues, I did not resign in protest immediately. My professional curiosity convinced me to stick around for a few more weeks. What I saw first hand was truly frightening — the death of Radio Liberty.

The ‘new’ station

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn keeps telling anyone who will listen that a new great manager, Russian-American writer and journalist Masha Gessen, has a new team to do ‘exciting new media’ in Moscow. In fact, my colleagues at the ‘old’ Liberty were pioneers in live streaming of video from anti-Putin demonstrations and created an outstanding hybrid news website and blogs with a heavy emphasis on social media.

Mr. Korn said that, in Mr. Putin’s Russia, Radio Liberty was overstaffed. Journalists reporting on official corruption had to be fired so that the new manager could bring in her own people.

I’m sorry to break this news to Mr. Korn, but no respectable journalist in Russia is going to join Ms. Gessen after the brutal mass firing of their Radio Liberty colleagues, especially not after she accused some of them of slandering her — a charge frequently used against reporters by the Kremlin to stifle investigative journalism and free speech. Their crime was to suggest a link between the dismissals and her new job.

'I’m sorry to break this news to Mr. Korn, but no respectable journalist in Russia is going to join Ms. Gessen after the brutal mass firing of their Radio Liberty colleagues.'

Are these accusations of slander against anti-Putin journalists worthy of an executive editor at a freedom-supporting, American-financed public broadcaster? What kind of manager would accept a leadership position knowing about the purge of some of the bravest and best independent reporters in Russia?

I can also report for American readers that some of the most prominent figures in Russia  - former President Mikhail Gorbachev, legendary human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva, a former prime minister fired by Mr. Putin, a former deputy speaker of Parliament and many more - have issued statements and written letters to the White House and the U.S. Congress protesting against the firing of Radio Liberty journalists and the cancellation of their human rights programmes.

What have they done?

Why am I, my colleagues and so many others so upset? It’s not only because instead of reforming, Mr. Korn has destroyed a great journalistic institution at a time when glasnost, as Mr. Gorbachev observed, is under increasing attack, but also because RFE/RL executives are lying to Americans about our station’s recent role while portraying themselves as agents of change in a digital age. We were told to report on kindergartens in Russia, as an example of more ‘normal’ journalism. That’s exactly the kind of reporting Mr. Putin wants.

'We were told to report on kindergartens in Russia, as an example of more ‘normal’ journalism. That’s exactly the kind of reporting Mr. Putin wants.'

RFE/RL executives have not only shattered Radio Liberty, they have defamed us by telling Americans that we lacked digital skills. On the contrary, we were the second most quoted radio station in Russia with a popular multimedia website. It is these American executives who have failed to secure new broadcasting arrangements in response to the new media law. They did not push Russian officials to treat Radio Liberty the same way Russia Today TV is treated in the United States. They capitulated to the Kremlin and put the blame on us. They prevented us from even saying goodbye to our audience of many years. They misled the American public and their bosses at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in Washington.

These American executives have no support left in Russia, other than the laughter which can be heard from Mr. Putin’s office in the Kremlin. I will be doing investigative reporting at some other independent media outlet in Russia. There are not too many of them left. Staying at the new Radio Liberty would have been a betrayal of the ideals that made the old Radio Liberty a great news organization, free of censorship, a stronghold of freedom of speech in a country that still desperately needs it. I hope that the U.S. administration and the Congress will move quickly to undo this terrible mistake and injustice. But I’m afraid this may become yet another victory for Mr. Putin handed to him on a platter by Washington bureaucrats.

This article appeared first on BBG Watch website