The treatment inflicted on 41 Russian journalists in Moscow’s Radio Liberty office is nothing less than scandalous, and it threatens to silence American broadcasting into Russia for good.
But what is even more scandalous is that it was not the Russian government that, without warning, shut those journalists out of their offices on September 20 and 21 with armed guards, marched them to a lawyer’s office, and demanded they sign away their jobs of many years.
It was the government of the United States.
This action against the journalists by the management of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (RL/RFE), a U.S.-funded international broadcaster, reflects terribly on the U.S. as a nation that respects human rights and free expression. The Broadcasting Board of Governors should reverse the firings without delay and issue a strong reprimand to the leadership of RL/RFE.
The decision is allegedly the result of a new media law that takes effect in Moscow on November 10 that ends Radio Liberty’s license to broadcast on AM radio. The law was issued by President Boris Yeltsin during a very different time in Russian–U.S. relations. Yet other broadcasters manage to find alternatives, broadcasting either from the Baltics or through contracts with domestic Russian stations.
In addition, the firings came shortly after the selection of a new head of the Moscow office of Radio Liberty, Masha Gessen, a Russian-American author and gay rights activist. Gessen met with Russian President Vladimir Putin just days before the firings took place, giving at least an impression that the Russian president had exerted pressure on her.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom, wrote an op-ed in The Moscow Times criticizing the firings at Radio Liberty as part of the Obama Administration’s retreat from supporting human rights and democracy in Russia.
It is hard not to see it in that light, especially as it comes so recently after the Kremlin’s decision to kick out U.S.-government-funded USAID on October 1 after accusing the organization of internal meddling in Russian politics. This affront was meekly accepted by the Obama Administration.
Journalist Mumin Shakirov recounted the day she was fired after 18 years of working for Radio Liberty:
Now all that is in the past. The Moscow bureau no longer exists. But we have carried out our mission; for all these years we have talked about another Russia, about events that often passed the official media by, and we have occupied a human rights niche that would otherwise have been empty. We were different from everyone else and will be remembered for it.
There is time yet to reverse the wrong done to the Russian journalists who trusted the U.S. as a beacon of freedom. This decision to fire them should not stand.