MOSCOW — American-financed Radio Liberty, which penetrated the Iron Curtain with news of the outside world during the Cold War, has been trying to join today’s information revolution — and the static crackling around its efforts has been loud enough to reach Washington.
The radio station, funded by Congress but independent of it, has embraced a digital future, dismissing 37 journalists as it downsized just before it lost its only local broadcasting license here in November, when a 2011 law preventing foreign ownership came into effect.
Traditional media everywhere grapple with the Internet age and the wide availability of information, but here in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, where news is highly political and controlled, a small but loyal radio audience that treasures unbiased reporting has declared itself betrayed. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, has complained. The name Radio Liberty — Svoboda in Russian — carries memories of overcoming Soviet oppression, freighted with disappointment over failed democracy, and its transformation is mourned.
On New Year’s Eve, after weeks of growing controversy, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President and Chief Executive Officer Steven Korn resigned, effective Jan. 25. He cited personal reasons — his father is ill, and his family has been unable to join him in Prague, where the service is based — although he said in an interview from the United States on Thursday that his critics would probably interpret his departure as their victory. “I understand the nostalgia,” he said, “but it’s not our fault.”
Controversy aside, the last weeks have been sad and silent for Marina Zherdeva, a 66-year-old artist who said she listened to Radio Liberty for 40 years, “since before it was allowed.” The station began broadcasts in 1953, when Russians listened by shortwave radio, often sticking an antenna into a potted plant on the windowsill and tuning in at night, when reception was better.
“It had news, culture, political topics, wonderful programs you couldn’t find anywhere else,” Zherdeva said.
“I’m not a very good computer user, to put it mildly. A radio — you can always switch it on anywhere. I could carry it with me. You can’t do that with a computer,” she said from her realm of bulky desktops, where smartphones are far from the horizon.
After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin allowed Radio Liberty to open a bureau in Moscow. It obtained a medium wave, or AM, license in March 1992. By 2004, it had more than 30 affiliates across the country, giving it access to Russia’s 10 largest markets. But by then, Putin was exerting control over information, and the affiliates were pressured to drop Radio Liberty programs. For the past several years, Radio Liberty was heard only by those who have a shortwave radio, those who could get a weak signal in Moscow and Internet users drawn to the Web site.
Korn and Julia Ragona, RFE/RL’s vice president, hired Masha Gessen, a Russian American journalist who last year published a book critical of Putin, as the editor, based in Moscow instead of in Prague. But a firestorm erupted as journalists whom Korn and Ragona fired set up an alternative Web site criticizing the changes.
Gorbachev, who inadvertently helped bring about the demise of the Soviet Union by opening up access to information, said that in light of the recent clampdown by Putin’s government — including laws forcing activists who get grants from abroad to register as foreign agents and the expulsion from Russia of the U.S. Agency for International Development — it looked as if the United States was making “an about-turn.”
Two Russian dissidents, Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Sergei Kovalyov of the Sakharov Foundation, wrote to Congress demanding an investigation. Radio Liberty’s management, Alexeyeva said, had harmed the U.S. image here more than the KGB ever could.
Although Congress finances Radio Liberty and other U.S. international broadcasters, such as Voice of America and Radio Farda (which is aimed at Iran), it is run by the Broadcasting Board of Governors — four Republicans and four Democrats appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to prevent congressional interference. The board has launched a review of the operations in Russia. Some board members plan to visit here early this year, and they say they have not abandoned hope of the radio station returning to the air.
Lyudmila Telen, then-editor of the Radio Liberty Web site, was among those told in September that she would get severance through the end of the year if she resigned immediately. “Over the weekend, they let us in the office for an hour to get our things,” she said, “and they sent security guards to watch us.”
“When I was editor, I understood very well we had to find a new audience, but I thought it would be wrong to throw out the old one,” she said, noting that the station had been becoming more innovative and was widely quoted for its scoops, interviews and political analysis.
Gessen, speaking by telephone Thursday, said the station couldn’t ignore that its audience was dropping while the Russian Web audience was growing.
“We were preaching to the converted,” she said. “Our job was to deliver content, and that’s what we’ve started to do.”
She has formed partnerships with a few other independent sites, including TV Rain, an online television channel, which will use Radio Liberty content. “It’s extremely easy to shut off access to a single Web site,” Gessen said. “We need to have a lot of alternative ways to get our content out.”
Could the changes have been handled without setting off so much clamor? “I’ve asked myself that a gazillion times,” Korn said. Other countries, including the United States, have similar laws against foreign ownership of broadcast licenses. What could be done, he asked, but to go online, with enthusiasm.
Perhaps the changes were necessary and overdue, said Alexander Morozov, director of the Institute of Media Research. But he said all would have been accepted better had staff members been given the opportunity to see whether they could fit into the new strategy.
“The change came in a very rude way,” he said. “The journalists are very well known and respected. Of course, there is no other way that it could have been accepted in Russia except with infuriation.”