Police officers escort a supporter of Radio Liberty who was detained during a protest near the U.S. Embassy in Moscow against a mass firing of journalists, Oct. 9. 2012.

Battle of words

January 23, 2013

RFE/RL chief’s controversial resignation reverberates in Russia and beyond

The president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has resigned from his lucrative Prague-based position, angrily denying claims he was forced to quit because of wasteful personal spending at the U.S. government-funded broadcaster.

Some former employees at the embattled international broadcasting service have accused Steve Korn of gross mismanagement and say his tenure was “disastrous.” In an exclusive interview with The Prague Post, the former lawyer has hit back at his critics and says he may even take legal action against them.

The one-time CNN executive announced his surprise departure in a 2,000-word resignation letter posted on the RFE/RL website after Christmas. The departing president said he was leaving for personal reasons, specifically to spend more time with his family in Atlanta.

“I made a promise to my son that I would be home permanently in time for his 16th birthday in February 2013. I have never wavered in this commitment,” he wrote. “In addition, my father is ill. He is in his 80s, and his time may be short. I am simply no longer willing to spend his last years separated by 5,000 miles and six time zones.”

Korn took up his post in June 2011 but his time in the job has been marred by controversy after he dismissed dozens of Moscow-based staff working for Radio Liberty’s Russian-language service, Radio Svoboda.

In September last year, more than 30 journalists were fired, and according to some, they were barred from their offices, directed to a law firm and asked to resign for modest severances.

“This dismissal wasn’t voluntary – neither for me nor for my colleagues,” wrote Veronika Bode, one of the sacked reporters. “We were treated by these RFE/RL American executives like common thieves. … The whole old team of the Moscow bureau was fired – brave people, real human rights activists who for many years led the fight for human dignity. … We suffered a huge moral[e] damage.”

However, Korn insists his managers acted fairly and generously, and argues that after RFE/RL’s license was not renewed, there was no other choice but to shut down the radio signal and lay off employees.

“We didn’t have an option. We looked long and hard over a nine-month period with several law firms trying to figure out if there was a way around it – we found that we couldn’t; we feel like we have to obey the laws in the countries in which we exist and so we did that,” he told The Prague Post.

Former Radio Liberty journalist Elena Vlasenko says the “no option” justification for the firings is doubtful. “The official reason of the mass firings sounded like, ‘We’re switching to the Web, so we need people who know how to do it,’ ” she said. “But first of all they fired the Internet team, which consisted of people who know exactly how to do it.”

Speaking from his soon-to-be-vacated Prague office, Korn insists the digital shift represents a growing investment in Russia and the hiring of freelance reporters across the country has improved the service’s once Moscow-centric coverage. “When we lost the radio, we found we had many more people than what we needed for the distribution that we had,” he said. “However, we have not cut back in Russia either in terms of the amount of money that we’re spending in Russia; in fact, we’re investing in Russia, and we are not cutting back.”

He says a brand-new “state of the art” facility will be opened in early February that will allow “a lot more video and give us capabilities that we never had in Russia.” But the changing face of Radio Liberty in Russia has drawn loud protests and caught the attention of many high-profile figures including former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

“In times of tight censorship in the USSR, Radio Liberty made appeals for democratization and openness,” Gorbachev wrote. “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in [the] context [of recent attacks on glasnost]. It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about-turn,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner added.

Lyudmila Alexeeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, joined the criticism of Korn’s actions, writing that the re-organization of Radio Svoboda was carried out in a form of “special operation” that was “shameful and abusive for its employees.”

“The KGB could not harm the image of the radio and the United States in Russia as did U.S. managers – the president of Radio Liberty, Steven Korn, and the vice president, Julia Ragona,” she said.

Criticism of Korn has also come from a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the bureaucracy in charge of RFE/RL and other U.S.-funded foreign broadcasters. “He was feared and disliked by most employees. His self-serving letter of resignation sets a new standard for arrogance and delusion,” said BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe. “His hiring was a terrible mistake we will spend years recovering from.”

A group called BBG Watch, which has campaigned heavily against Korn, claims “unauthorized expenses, waste and mismanagement” have marred his last days as president.

“People who say that have no idea what they’re talking about and it’s irresponsible and reprehensible that they would say that,” Korn responds passionately. “The budget of this company has been managed quite well and quite effectively. Indeed, we went through and took out a lot of fat in the budget and redeployed all of those monies to our core mission of journalism.”

In online posts, some critics have even suggested Korn has wasted funds by spending thousands of dollars furnishing his Prague flat, a claim he angrily rejects. “That’s absurd, absolutely absurd. Will I take legal action? I have no idea. These people are beneath contempt frankly,” he said.

As he prepares to leave Prague Jan. 25, Korn has won praise from some of his current employees, as well as the head of the BBG. “We appreciate the passion and energy Steve devoted to RFE/RL through a difficult time of change in the global media landscape, including strengthening its presence on digital platforms,” said BBG Presiding Governor Michael Lynton in a statement.

One RFE/RL broadcaster, who spoke to The Prague Post on the condition of anonymity, says despite the problems in Russia the organization’s 26 other language services are all working well, and insisted Korn’s leadership has not harmed the organization.

The BBG has recently announced that longtime journalist and broadcast executive Kevin Klose will serve as the interim boss before a full-time replacement for Korn is found.

5 Comments

  1. cclook – pretty sure you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Russia didn’t renew a license, does it really matter what the reason was in the context of this story i.e. mass staff firings?

    On the web question – I think he says in his answer he wanted more reporters outside Moscow.

    And thirdly on the money issue I’ve read that Korn has refused to give financial records to the BBG so how is the Post supposed to get to the bottom of it. He refutes the allegation in any case

  2. This news article clarifies almost nothing for me.

    First, it states that RFE/RL’s Russian radio license was not renewed but provides no reason why. So, why the rejected renewal?

    Second, the Post apparently did not ask Korn why the Russian RFE/RL’s Internet team was fired. If the new operation is web-based, those firings make no sense. So, how does Korn explain it? We don’t know.

    Third, whether Korn spent RFE/RL monies for use on his Prague flat is treated as a “he said, she said” issue. So, I don’t know if he did or not. Where’s the in-depth reporting on that. We need some, don’t you think?

    So in the end, all I know is that there is a dispute. The Post has spread the heat, but has thrown no light on it.

  3. There is little reporting outside Moscow, cities full of lack of investment, no voice for millions, information does not come from cosy inhouse interviews with well drilled defence state officials.

  4. I remember Mikhail Gorbachev uttering the words ”Glasnost” and ”Perestroika” in the late 1980’s; here seemed a man who had grasped two simple idea’s that could help modernize the communist party and allow Russia to have its citizens have more say in the direction of the nation. His mannerisms appeared to have a gentle smile; his facial features showed a man who was prepared to look at situations from differing angles. It seemed like an opportunity for Russia had arrived, the ‘West’ welcomed the admission that more openness and freedom of speech would help in giving a broader voice to the party and opportunities to modernize attitudes to problems that in the past would just have been swept under the carpet of ‘long term party objectives’. Mr. Gorbachev had an engaging personality that many liked, in many ways his own human openness was the living proof that an alternative to a strict centralized secretive methods of state planning and limited debate could help in reforming an” apparatchik ” that lacked inventiveness through more open discussion of state policy’s.

    The Russia of today has developed differently than these hopeful first admissions that free speech, more openness and a less centralized power structure would lead to more freedoms. The names of the political parties may have changed, but the structures of power that plan and legislate on behalf of Russian citizens have an iron grip on the levers of power where glasnost and perestroika soon meet their ‘glass ceilings’. I would have thought that a journalist that secures an interview with someone who is representative of these without a voice is an asset worth investing in. The journalist who is prepared to travel 500km to report on gas infrastructure that cannot stop ice forming on a kitchen floor. Surely the journalist is ‘mobile glasnost’, the unofficial NGO; this kind of loyalty must come from the dedicated. The kind of dedication it has to compete with is very apparent,
    But while Putin has promised to keep Russia on a market path, his critics worry about his commitment to Russia’s young democracy. The institutions of a broad civil society – the press, political parties, free associations and others – are not yet well developed. The rule of law has not been well entrenched. And these weaknesses are, in part, a legacy of the Soviet police state of Putin’s early career, when the Communist Party had a monopoly on power.

    The need for a society with no fear of association, to mix with like minded friends, to develop ideas, to feel you are part of a modern developing country where a government listen to its critics with an open mind. Keeping journalists available so that someone, somewhere, believes that they will be believed if their story is told seems reasonable in a budget.

  5. Without listeners, why have broadcasters?

    Shortwave went extinct, and Putin extinguished RL on FM.
    RFE/RL must evolve along with technology to work around Putin’s repression of free media in order to reach Russians with effective journalism; that means text, audio and video via the internet.

    The “old guard” at RL is no longer effective or even relevant – and like their listeners from the cold war, they are relics of a bygone era.

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