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VOA Declines to Renew Contract of Former Russian State Journalist Following Outcry

FILE - A sign at the entrance to Voice of America headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Mia Bush/VOA)

Voice of America this week chose not to renew the contract of a former Russian state media journalist who was placed on leave in February from VOA's Russian-language service following complaints about his prior employment at pro-Kremlin outlets.

A second former Russian state media journalist who was placed on leave at the same time remains employed at the Russian Service.

Garri "Harry" Knyagnitsky and Daria Davydova were placed on leave after colleagues objected to their work at pro-Kremlin media outlets before they joined the U.S. government-funded broadcaster.

In town halls with VOA's Russian- and Ukrainian-language services on Thursday, VOA management announced that Knyagnitsky's contract would not be renewed but that Davydova would be permitted to stay.

"VOA has decided to exercise its option to renew the contract of Darya Davydova, who had worked as a freelancer for VOA for three years before joining the VOA Russian Service last fall," VOA spokesperson Nigel Gibbs said in an email. "VOA will not exercise its option to renew the contract of Garri Knyagnitsky, who joined VOA last fall."

The decision came after an independent outside investigation into both reporters.

"VOA has concluded the review of two of its Russian-language journalists started earlier this year and led by an external reviewer with deep experience in both Eurasia and in U.S. journalism," Gibbs said. "The reviewer conducted interviews with staff and with the affected journalists and presented their findings to VOA this week."

VOA efforts to reach Knyagnitsky for comment were not successful.

VOA has previously hired reporters who have worked for state-controlled news outlets but also demonstrated strong journalism skills, foreign-language fluency, and cultural and historical expertise. VOA says it investigates all new employees for potential ties to foreign governments and that all content goes through editorial checks before publication.

Letter from reporters

VOA reporters first raised concerns about the hiring of Knyagnitsky and Davydova in November 2022 when 15 of the Russian Service's 92 reporters sent a private letter to the service's managers asking for both journalists to be dismissed.

In the letter, they wrote that Knyagnitsky's and Davydova's previous work "contributed to the spread of Russian propaganda narratives and disinformation" and "laid the groundwork for the Kremlin to justify their full-scale invasion" of Ukraine last year.

For years, Moscow has prioritized controlling independent media and disseminating pro-Kremlin propaganda domestically and abroad. For most Russians, television is their main source of news. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Russian state media have worked to justify the invasion by vilifying Ukraine and lauding Moscow.

The internal VOA letter said that Knyagnitsky had previously worked for NTV and RTVI, two Russian-language news outlets. NTV is owned by the Russian state-owned gas corporation Gazprom, which the U.S. government has sanctioned.

NTV was once a critical voice in Russia's media environment before Gazprom took it over in 2001.

"NTV is well known as a part of the Kremlin propaganda machine, spreading anti-American disinformation and hatred toward Ukrainians and anti-Putin Russians," the staff letter said. Knyagnitsky "repeatedly presented a one-sided, pro-Russian narrative and, most importantly, promoted the Kremlin's disinformation."

Knyagnitsky left NTV in 2017 and moved to the United States where he worked for RTVI. He left that outlet when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Davydova's previous jobs

Meanwhile, the letter said that Davydova had worked for Public Television of Russia, which is owned by the Russian government. She also worked for a media company controlled by Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who was indicted in absentia in the U.S. last year for allegedly evading sanctions.

One day before VOA placed the two reporters on leave, more than 20 journalists who are part of the Ukraine Media Movement coalition urged VOA to fire Knyagnitsky.

"During his time at NTV, Knyagnitsky seems to have managed to support all Russia's propaganda narratives," the group said in an open letter.

The letter also called on VOA to investigate how Knyagnitsky was hired and to publish the findings of the inquiry.

Shortly after the internal VOA letter and the open letter from the Ukraine Media Movement, the independent investigation opened into both Knyagnitsky and Davydova.

Jessica Jerreat contributed to this report.