The former editorial chief of Radio Free Europe says the mass firings of top radio journalists from its Moscow affiliate, Radio Liberty, will weaken press criticism of President Vladmir Putin.
John O’Sullivan, who served as executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from 2008 until 2011, tells Newsmax TV that U.S. changes at the radio station will embolden Putin, who has been limiting press freedoms and stifling independent news reporting.
“This is not just a question of soft power,” O’Sullivan, the magazine’s editor-at-large, tells Newsmax. “It’s not just a question of cutting back on soft power.
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“It’s a question of whether or not the kind of journalism that is going got be subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer is going to be journalism that makes a difference in Russia — or whether it’s going to be journalism that the Kremlin will be quite happy with,” O’Sullivan said. “Any amount of soft social stories, they can live with.”
Radio Liberty, a branch of Radio Free Europe, is financed by the United States and transmits uncensored broadcasts in Russian. Founded 60 years ago, the station’s funding is in jeopardy because of a new law pushed by Putin that barred foreign-owned media from broadcasting on AM radio frequencies. The station broadcasts content over its website.
A month earlier, 37 Radio Liberty staffers were let go by its corporate parent, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, amid a push toward digital journalism, and less political news and more lifestyle coverage.
The changes have drawn protests among the country’s dissidents.
O’Sullivan, a former editor of the National Review, also served as an aide to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In addition to heading up the editorial operation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he also served as its vice president in 2011.
Radio Free Europe was founded in 1949. The stations were merged in 1976.
“The reason for the cuts were not the normal economic ones,” O’Sullivan tells Newsmax. “The radios wanted to do a different kind of journalism. They decided that the journalists who were there were not really suited to, for example, the Internet.
“This was a big mistake,” he added. “The journalists who were let go were doing excellent work. They were actually leading figures in the movement toward the more Internet-based journalism — the kind of journalism that is being suggested, which is to say, less hard-edge news — less “opposition journalism,” as they call it — political criticism of Putin, more softer social features.
“That kind of journalism isn’t suited, in my view and the view of others, to the worsening situation in Russia with Putin requiring more kind of repressive power,” O’Sullivan added. “And also, at the same time, the mounting opposition to him, which looked to the radios for leadership.”
Despite the uncertainty of Radio Liberty’s American support, O’Sullivan praised the US.
“It’s important for us to realize that the arguments in and about Radio Liberty are not arguments between Republicans and Democrats or between conservatives and liberals. The radios have got terrific support from both sides of Congress in all the time I was there, and I believe today.”
He added that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, “gave a lot of support to the radios. We regarded Mrs. Clinton as one of the radio’s best friends in Washington — and we would have liked her to be more involved rather than less.
“It’s a mistake to think of the radios as being somehow a football between left and right,” O’Sullivan added. “They’re not. Both sides of Congress have given strong support to them and continue to do so.”
He said he is not sure why Radio Liberty’s story is not more known in the US.
“It’s a mystery to me, because it’s a very good story. It’s a story involving American institutions that have been very successful over the years. It’s about the American taxpayer because, after all, the American taxpayer funds these institutions.
“We’re going to need them more and more, as more conventional methods using American power, armed forces, diplomacy, and foreign aid are cut back in the climate of fiscal austerity,” O’Sullivan added. “We will need to continue and we’ll need to expand U.S. broadcasting in order to then continue to exercise influence but exercise it cheaply and effectively because the radios are effective, as the protests in Moscow show.”
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