Legendary radio service kicked off airwaves
28 Sep 2012

Last week was a painful one for free speech in Russia.

Tens of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Moscow bureau journalists were fired within two days. First an entire internet department, then radio hosts, reporters and producers — around 90 per cent of RFE/RL’s Moscow staff became jobless.

A further 5 per cent quit in protest, including me.

RFE/RL broadcasts on medium waves will end on 10 November due to amendments to the law on mass media which state a radio cannot broadcast in a primary service area if more than 5 per cent of it is owned by foreign individual or legal entity. RFE/RL’s broadcasts in Russia will only be available online through its website.


In a in a statement released on 24 September, the service’s American manager Steve Korn stressed changes were made to improve RFE/RL’s Russian service. Yet in a letter to the US Congress Committee on Foreign Relations, notable Russian human rights activists wrote: “The KGB couldn’t have done worse for Radio Liberty’s image, as well as the image of USA in Russia, than American managers Julia Ragona and Steve Korn have done”. In a letter, the activists added:

Professionals with irreproachable reputation were fired; while a newly appointed RFE/RL’s Russian Service director [Masha Gessen] is a person whose managing skills were receiving negative assessments on her previous positions.

They asked the Congress to create a commission for a thorough investigation into Radio Liberty’s managers’ activities, which they said “harmed the USA’s public image in Russia”, and requested they “revise the decisions”.

Gessen, who will oficially take her post of RFE/RL Russian Service director on 1 October, denies allegations of “cleaning up the media for her new team”.

Korn and Ragona have not commented on the issue.

The switch to online and departure from medium waves will occur without the people who, over past few years, made Radio Svoboda (as it is known in Russian) the second most quoted radio station after Echo Moscow (which has an FM frequency), according to data from monitoring service Medialogia. Radio Liberty’s website was very much original. Decoded programmes’ texts formed just a small part of website content. It consisted mainly of informative pieces, blogs and a large multimedia section with video reports, documentaries and live video broadcasts.

The internet team, which I had the honour to be a part of, increased the number of visitors and the core audience tenfold. Radio Svoboda achievements were hailed by Broadcasting Board of Governors.

However, the mass dismissals were made.

RFE/RL was established in the 1950s in the United States as a private non-profit mass media organisation funded by the American Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). RFE/RL broadcasts in 21 countries and 28 languages. Russian service history began soon after Stalin died in March 1953, but until 1988 its broadcasts were jammed as “anti-Soviet”. It was the “enemy’s voice” during the Cold War.

In August 1991, after RFE/RL’s full coverage of the August Coup, president Boris Yeltsin issued a decree allowing Radio Liberty to broadcast in Russia. The document was given personally to former RFE/EL journalist Mikhail Sokolov, who was fired last week together with the overwhelming majority of his colleagues.

Since Yeltsin’s decree Radio Svoboda was retransmitted by Russian FM stations. This ended soon after Putin’s second presidential term began in 2006. The official reason concerned incorrect registration documents. However, most Radio Svoboda staff believed this was a form of censorship. The radio was forced to broadcast across short and medium waves, AM frequencies and online.

No law was violated in last week’s events, Radio Svoboda former staff say, but moral and ethical values were.

The amendments to the mass media law are not the only means of targeting groups that receive overseas funding. Since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May this year, a law has been passed which forces foreign-funded NGOs involved in political activity to register as “foreign agents” in Russia.

The tragicomic element is that the editorial office, which consisted of people fighting against censorship and advocating for freedom of expression, was destroyed not by its antagonists, but by its own chiefs at the expense of American taxpayers, whose money was used in the name of promoting democracy.

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Major new global free expression index sees UK ranking stumble across academic, digital and media freedom

A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression is published today

25 Jan 2023

A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.

In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.

The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.

Key findings include:

  • The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.

  • The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.

  • The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

  • Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.

Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:

“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.

“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.

“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”

Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:

“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.

“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”

Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said: 

“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.

“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”

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