Radio Liberty making waves: have no lessons from the past been learnt?

The imminent withdrawal of Radio Liberty from medium wave broadcasting has dented the image of American public democracy, which is perceived as kowtowing to the autocratic will of the Kremlin. The outcry has, predictably, been ferocious. Kristina Gorelik looks back at the Soviet and more recent past.

On 10 November the voice, which for 60 years brought Soviet citizens information other than the official Communist propaganda, will fall silent. Radio Liberty’s mission was to surmount the cold war, to promote the idea of democracy and human rights within the USSR; now it is leaving medium wave (MW) broadcasting.

Objective information: a breath of fresh air

These are interesting times in Russia. The civic protest movement is once more lifting its head, after the lull of the 00s. People are dissatisfied with the results of the general election, with its all-out victory for the ruling party, and are tired of one and the same person being in power for 12 years in a row with no end of this situation in sight: firstly, 2 terms as president, then one as prime minister, and now…president again. 

Protests against the rigged election are being described as a 'white-collar revolt' and the leaders of the protest movement are reproached with being too distant from the people.  This is the stratum of free-thinkers, who are changing their lives for the better and trying to change their country too by turning it towards democratic values. Radio Liberty was the thread linking this group with the rest of their huge country, showing people in the regions, where there is a catastrophic lack of information, a different way of behaving and telling them about the concentration of energy generated by the progressive thinkers of our time.

'People are tired of one and the same person being in power for 12 years in a row with no end of this situation in sight…'

The lack of information in Russia meant that when there were disasters or political cataclysms people throughout the country were seeking objective information like a breath of fresh air. This happened during the two Chechen wars, the apartment block explosions in Moscow and Volgodonsk, the occupying of the school in Beslan, the Nord-Ost theatre siege, the murder of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and the shameful trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot. People have no faith in the official media, but they trusted Radio Liberty. I still remember the sense of responsibility I felt when I broadcast to my listeners live from in front of the Nord-Ost theatre complex: we had been told that the terrorists inside were listening to Radio Liberty.

I remember the series of programmes on Chechnya I did with Anna Politkovskaya at the end of the 90s. It was during the horrors of the 1st Chechen War and Anna was travelling to Chechnya all the time; on her return she would come to see us at Liberty so as to record her stories. Sometimes she sobbed in the studio and I would sob with her. I remember the appalling tension when Anna was in Chechnya and couldn't be located for 3 days: she was taken out of the country by her friends in the boot of their car. That was the first, and only, time that fear for her life and safety made me shout at her. After that she and I did several joint programmes, which resulted in threatening calls to my mobile. I forbade the security guards at work from giving out my contact details and, for me, that was an end to it. But not for her.

Then…lots of things happened. But why am I recounting all this?

Radio journalists and their audience

Well, because in my kind of work people are what's most important. If there aren't any trustworthy journalists, then there's no audience to believe in them. People often took many years to start listening to Radio Liberty: it's not a private outfit, where the boss can change the staff every two years and start over – it's a working system promoting the ideas of democracy and human rights, which was developed over the years through pain and hard work. The resulting team of people had a well-defined cultural code, journalistic flair and an independent view of events.

A considerable number of young journalists came to the Moscow bureau to learn professional skills from their more experienced colleagues, so there was a smooth transfer of knowledge and experience from one generation to the next. In my case, for instance, a month after I had joined the team I found myself in the home of Yelena Bonner, the wife of Academician Andrey Sakharov. I can't describe the significance of an experience like this for a journalist's professional development. Radio Liberty was known as a source of manpower and any publishing house worth its salt would willingly have taken on its young journalists, when they had finished their stint in the RL bureau.

'American managers had succeeded in 2 days doing what the KGB had not managed in 60 years.'

All this collapsed within the space of an hour. It took 2 days to destroy the connection between information, journalist and audience, which had taken years to build up. I remember someone even joking that American managers had succeeded in 2 days doing what the KGB had not managed in 60 years. Over 40 journalists from the Moscow office were sacked without reason. Most of the radio presenters were not even allowed to take leave of their listeners, who had been with them faithfully for many years.

I was luckier: on that ill-fated day I was recording a programme with Lyudmila Alekseyeva, famous human rights campaigner and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. She realised what was happening: 10 days later a letter from the top 10 best-known human rights activists in Russia was sent to the US Congress in defence of Radio Liberty. They were outraged by the carnage at the Moscow bureau. But, most importantly, no one understood then, or can now, why the decision was taken.

It's difficult to explain what Radio Liberty meant to its audience. Perhaps I should simply quote a couple of letters, because they speak for themselves:

'I always thought that talking about the radio as a friend was an exaggeration, I never rang or wrote to a station. But now I know for certain (and all this time out of habit I have been trying to listen to RL) that it's not the habit that can't be changed, but oneself. I miss your programmes, your guests, your voice and your colleagues' voices. I miss MY radio' (from a letter to mass media journalist Anna Kachkaeva).

Or another letter:

'I really miss your artistic programmes and reports, especially the theatre ones. Thank you. Your listeners are suffering because you and your colleagues have been sacked from the airwaves' (from a letter to the culture journalist Marina Timasheva).

Reform or demolition?

There has always been conflict between managers and journalists, and not only at Radio Liberty. The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin tried to explain the relationship between artistic people and managers with the phrase 'Inspiration cannot be bought, but manuscripts can.'

Radio Liberty did, of course, need reforming. It's essential to let fresh air in on to ideas that have stagnated. Life is changing all the time: new technology is conquering the world and one has to face this.

But reform and demolition are two very different things. And anyway now is hardly the time to be thinking about reform, when the country is seeing ever more signs of autocratic government. In the last 6 months alone new laws have been passed, clamping down on human rights activities and foreign organisations, limiting the dissemination of information via networks, and expanding the concepts of slander and state treason.  Against such a backdrop, the recent events at the Moscow bureau have had a deleterious effect on the RL image, giving people every reason to suspect a plot between the two administrations, Russian and American, aimed at doing for independent media. This is the opinion of leading Russian human rights activists Lyudmila Alekseyeva and Sergei Kovalyov, and sociologist Lev Gudkov.

'...reform and demolition are two very different things, but now is hardly the time to be thinking about reform, when the country is seeing ever more signs of autocratic government.'

The managers cite the new law as justification for abandoning MW broadcasting. It should, however, be remembered that during Soviet times the station was completely banned, but…it managed to operate. Today's RL managers themselves took the decision to stop MW broadcasting, without even engaging in a struggle. It could be said that MW is a left-over from the past: no one listens to it in civilised countries, but what about Russia? Lev Gudkov, the head of one of the leading Russian social survey organisations, Levada–Center, has published the following statistics: about 40% of the Russian population uses the internet, mainly in large and medium-sized cities, two thirds of the population (large and medium-sized cities and rural areas) have no access to alternative independent media and are, therefore, completely at the mercy of official propaganda.  But only 10% of the overall number of internet users has any interest in the political or social life of the country.

The concept for the reforms to be carried out at Radio Liberty has not yet materialised. The RL audience knows nothing about it, and neither do the journalists still working there. I should like to hazard a guess that the new leadership doesn't know anything about it either.

In their communications the managers gave only a few vague indications of what the new format might be, and how RL might develop in the future.

Preaching to the converted

I can understand the RL managers' interest in the young, urban internet audience, but what about the huge numbers of elderly people on low incomes and from socially unprotected sections of society? Do they not have as much need for independent information as the rather smaller numbers of people who are both well-off and young? I think that it's the people from small towns and villages who have the greatest need for objective information. For them 10 November will be a real blow.

The middle class is small, a very attractive audience and easy to communicate with, because its views and values are already democratic. One can't help thinking it's quite strange to go on making such efforts to preach to the converted, telling them what they already know very well. You should be talking about your mission to people who are mistrustful of anything foreign: no one listened to my programmes with such attention and devotion, following my every word on air and making comments about me on the RL site, as the spluttering critics of democracy.

'I think that it's the people from small towns and villages who have the greatest need for objective information.  For them 10 November will be a real blow.'

Which makes it all the more important, in my opinion, to deliver information to people with different views, to argue, rebut, strive, hope and triumph.

That was where MW was so important because it enabled RL to reach the whole of Russia. An opportunity that will be lost on 10 November.

To get people to listen to RL on a mobile, as the managers want, the new audience will have to be enticed with interesting content – but where's that going to come from if all the brilliant journalists have been sacked?

Recently the RL airwaves have contained profound analysis of the events taking place in Russia's political, social and cultural life. The features chimed with the news programmes, creating a united whole, nuanced, detailed and perceptive. The listeners loved dipping into this unique combination of interrelated news and feature programmes.

In a knowledge-based society it's not the information that people trust, but the people conveying it, and reputation is the journalist's chief weapon.

And now?

I have nothing against those few young people who have replaced us in the Moscow bureau, but what do they have to offer the blasé urban audience? Where will they get their knowledge and points of reference from if their new territory has been scorched? There's a Russian saying 'Ivan, who doesn't remember his family,' which is used critically of someone who ignores tradition, has no respect for the customs of his forebears and has renounced his environment. Today, Radio Liberty has become just such an 'Ivan'.

The result of the reforms at Radio Liberty will probably be the loss of a devoted audience in the regions. There will be no new audience to take its place, because the managers have fired a unique group of journalists who had won the audience's trust. In today's Russia this is a disaster.

Listeners and users of the RL site don't have time to wait. The conflict between the managers and the journalists should be settled as soon as possible. If no solution is found and the two opposing sides cannot reach a compromise, then in all probability nothing will remain of the Radio Liberty brand.

This will strengthen the ground under the conspiracy theory which holds that the destruction of Radio Liberty's Russian Service was specially organised to please the Putin regime. 

About the author

Kristina Gorelik is a Moscow based human rights reporter and broadcaster. 

Read On

Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty website

Steve Korn On Changes To RFE/RL's Radio Svoboda,  Sept. 24, 2012, RFERL website

Reports: RFE/RL will quit its medium wave frequency in Moscow, moving to "multimedia internet broadcasting.", Kim Andrew's blog on International Broadcasting

Cold War Broadcasting: Impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe- a Collection of Studies and Documents, by A. Ross Johnson (Author, Editor), Eugene R. Parta (Editor), Central European Univ Pr (August 28, 2012), 610 pages

United States government-funded broadcasts, Broadcasting Board of Governors Watch, website

More On

After more than 60 years defying Soviet censorship and the Kremlin's hostility, Radio Liberty, the US government-sponsored station that once commanded an audience of millions, is to cease broadcasting to Russia this week. Driven from the airwaves by a new Russian law preventing foreign-owned media from broadcasting on AM radio frequencies, Radio Liberty (RL) has abruptly sacked dozens of its journalists based in Russia and announced that it will now be available only as an online news operation. The move has provoked a furious reaction in Russia, with human rights activists accusing President Obama of capitulating to pressure from President Putin and abandoning Washington's longstanding commitment to freedom of information. Dozens of RL journalists demonstrated in Moscow after being shut out of their office by armed guards in September, and accused the station's director of destroying RL and its reputation.

Michael Binyon, The Times, November 5, 2012