So people in Moscow were stunned when Radio Free Europe fired Olevskiy earlier this month. The organization cited his unauthorized participation in an online discussion about Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who has blamed state forces linked to President Vladimir Putin for his near-fatal poisoning by a nerve agent this year.
Olevskiy’s firing has turned into a mini-propaganda coup for the Kremlin, which has used it to portray Radio Free Europe as hypocritical in its claims about free speech.
The discussion that got Olevskiy in trouble involved a conspiratorial theory he had apparently shared with another journalist, Oleg Kashin, about Navalny’s wife’s father being a former KGB agent. Kashin had publicized the rumor, leading to a heated denial from Navalny, who also produced a death certificate to prove that his father-in-law was not secretly living in London as Kashin claimed. As part of an apology, Kashin brought Olevskiy on his YouTube show to explain his understanding of the story.
Yet Olevskiy’s appearance on the show drew him publicly into the uproar. While he said later that his comments on Kashin’s show were taken out of context by his critics, Radio Free Europe moved to fire him.
A Radio Free Europe spokesman, Martins Zvaners, declined Tuesday to elaborate on the dismissal, saying only that Olevskiy was terminated for “violating our policies.” The acting president of the organization, Daisy Sindelar, also declined to comment in a brief phone call on Tuesday.
In an interview, Olevskiy said he was fired for participating during work hours in a 10-minute discussion. But “unofficially, my remarks played a role,” he maintained. “My participation, in the view of the company, was a violation of journalistic neutrality.”
Olevskiy insisted he didn’t endorse the claims about Navalny, though he did say that he had found “unconfirmed” information about an individual who “might” be Navalny’s father-in-law. “I never said that I could confirm anything about [him], nor did I have any verified information . . . I said in my view Navalny should have made this information [about his father-in-law] public to avoid any insinuations.”
In any case, Olevskiy’s termination has proved to be fodder for the kind of state-sponsored campaign that Radio Free Europe was designed to counter when it began broadcasting news and commentary to audiences behind the Iron Curtain in 1949. Its mission is “to promote democratic values and institutions by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government” and to provide “uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.”
Kremlin-controlled media outlets have portrayed the incident as an example of American censorship and hypocrisy about press freedom. Russia Today, the state-funded multimedia outlet, claimed that the firing was Radio Free Europe’s attempt to protect Navalny, whom the Russian government alleges is working for the CIA, at the expense of its own journalists.
Olevskiy, who has reported on the illegal financial activities of Russian oligarchs and on Russian-sponsored anti-democratic movements in Ukraine and Belarus, was literally the face of Current Time, Radio Free Europe’s Russian-language TV channel. He has been a field reporter and was the moderator of a program called “Evening.”
When the organization marked its 70th anniversary, it ran ads in Prague, where it is based, featuring photos of Olevskiy reporting from the streets of Moscow during violent anti-Putin protests next to images of Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist dissident and first president of the Czech Republic.
Even while many independent Russian journalists and public figures disapproved of Olevskiy’s comments about Navalny, many of them have spoken out to criticize Radio Free Europe for firing him. A Current Time contributor announced she would no longer work for the channel. Navalny has not commented on the firing.
A further irony: Olevskiy has appealed for his job to Michael Pack, the chief executive of Radio Free Europe’s parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Pack has become notorious among journalists at Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other agencies under his purview for his efforts to exert control over their work. In only six months on the job, Pack has replaced Voice of America’s director twice, launched an investigation into its White House bureau chief for alleged bias against President Trump and declined to renew the expiring visas of dozens of foreign nationals who help produce its reporting. He has also claimed the right to ignore a rule that keeps political appointees like himself from interfering in editorial matters. Asked for comment, an agency representative would say only that the firing was a “personnel decision” by Radio Free Europe. (Pack apparently was not involved in Olevskiy’s firing.)
In arguing for reinstatement, Olevskiy cited his journalistic achievements and noted that his dismissal will probably force him to leave Prague and return to Russia — a dangerous move, he suggested, given his work for an American news organization.
“In my case, I face a return to a country that has given me the status of a ‘foreign agent,’ ” he said in a letter to Pack. “I believe that when I was recently reporting in Russia on an assignment, I was able to be safe only because of being a journalist with an American organization.”
Olevskiy sent his letter to Pack on Dec. 7. He said he has not received a reply.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously suggested that Navalny released his father-in-law’s death certificate to rebut false theories after Oleskiy discussed them on Kashin’s YouTube show. In fact, Olevskiy discussed the theories on the show after Navalny had denied them. The earlier version of the story also suggested that Oleskiy apologized to Navalny before he was fired from Radio Free Europe; he apologized after he was fired. The story has also been updated with comment from the U.S. Agency for Global Media.