For A Free Europe — Radio Free Europe

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President Bush has spent much of the past two weeks in connection with the NATO and Economic Summits considering the prospects for freedom in Eastern Europe — and a variety of diplomatic, strategic and economic measures the United States might adopt to advance them. He is expected shortly to address himself to the future of one of the most effective of all the instruments available to affect conditions in this region: Radio Free Europe (RFE).

Since the early 1950s, RFE has broadcast objective information about the United States and international events otherwise unavailable to the people of Eastern Europe from Munich, West Germany. Together with its sister station — Radio Liberty (RL), which performs the same service for millions in the Soviet Union — news and commentary are provided in twenty-three languages.

Beginning in 1973, RFE/RL have operated under a unique funding and management structure designed to minimize any audience misapprehensions about the independence or integrity of their programming. Congressional appropriations are provided through the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB), comprised of distinguished citizens drawn from the U.S. private sector and both political parties. By making the BIB solely responsible for overseeing the Radios and by stipulating only that their programs are not be "inconsistent with broad U.S. foreign policy," Congress has ensured that the requirement for RFE/RL to be fiscally accountable is satisfied without jeopardizing their day-to-day autonomy from the United States government.

Now More Than Ever

As the people of Eastern Europe have come to enjoy greater freedom of expression in recent months, it has been possible for the first time to take stock of just how successful Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty have been at complementing the official information outlet of the U.S. government — the Voice of America (VOA). In November of 1989, for example, Lech Walesa said of Radio Free Europe’s role in Poland’s liberation, "Would there be land and earth without the sun?" He also averred that without RFE, Solidarity would not have existed.

In fact, RFE/RL would seem — given their enormous credibility among devoted listeners in Eastern Europe and the USSR, their unsurpassed experience communicating with such audiences and their unrivaled informational resources concerning the people and affairs of the region — to be more needed than ever at this moment of historic transitions to democracy there. And yet, there are those who — whether for budgetary, ideological or other reasons — believe that these institutions, borne of the Cold War, are anachronisms in a world said to have moved beyond it.

Indeed, with the fall from power in many parts of Eastern Europe of the repressive communists who sought to deny their publics objective information and with the coming of glasnost to the USSR, some have concluded that the Radios are no longer needed. They contend that whatever remains of RFE/RL’s missions can satisfactorily begin to be assumed by the VOA, its parent organization — the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) — or other arms of the United States government.

Just such a recommendation was included in a report entitled Public Diplomacy in a New Europenow for the termination of RFE/RL programming "when their goals have been achieved" stands in sharp contrast with the overall recommendation that there should be more vigorous use of U.S. international radio broadcasting in assisting the fledgling democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. issued in May 1990 by the presidentially appointed Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Curiously, the Commission’s proposal that planning be started

Don’t Count Chickens

Even if one accepts the premise that there will no longer be a need for high quality, independent radio broadcasting to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union made possible by the support of the United States government once genuine democracies and free access to such information exists throughout the region, that day has surely not yet arrived. As was evident in the course of the just-completed Soviet Communist Party Congress, anti-democratic forces still wield power in the USSR. Similarly — as the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Transitions to Democracy has documented — much remains to be done throughout Central Europe before the needed transformation of national political and economic systems in the region can be judged secure.

Under such circumstances, it is absurd to contemplate, to say nothing of actually initiating, the dismantling of one of the most powerful devices available to help effect such transformations in both Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, as the Advisory Commission itself said, this is the time when U.S. international broadcasting should be offering maximum support to those striving to bring democracy and economic opportunity to this long-suffering region by emphasizing programs on such topics as: democracy in action; federalism; the role of a free press; adjusting national interests to ethnic and local differences; and practical steps involved in organizing political parties, banking and financial systems or starting a small business. To this list could be added programs on public health, broadcasting, publishing, transportation, telecommunications, business law, environmental problems and agriculture.

A Continuing Role

What is more, there is every reason to believe that the independence and objectivity with which Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are properly credited will continue to be needed — even if and when transitions to genuine democratic and free market systems are accomplished. In fact, the new political leaderships emerging in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia already seem to have anticipated this. As the Commission report notes, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel have made it clear that RFE still has an important role to play in the political life and information needs of their countries. In a particularly direct statement on 24 May 1990, Havel said "I believe that the freedom today enjoyed by our mass media does not at all mean that RFE — its Czech and Slovak broadcasting — has lost its meaning….There are numberless spheres where it can continue to serve our nations well at this time — better than our own mass media are able to provide this service."

Indeed, in the future, RFE/RL — no less than VOA — will have an important role to play in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. In addition to providing a single authoritative source for central and East European peoples of broadcast news of the region and the world, RFE/RL can contribute significantly in two other, perhaps less obvious, but enormously important, ways:

First, the Radios serve as repositories of national memory for the countries of the region. RFE/RL’s research department, analytical staff, and extensive documentary holdings (including illegal publications or samizdat) constitute unique resources for democratic forces seeking to chronicle and comprehend a past long concealed and/or distorted by the previous communist regimes. These archives, used over the years to support radio programming, will be invaluable to Central and East European scholars, journalists, and emerging political leaders determined to establish new ties to distant traditions of personal freedom and economic opportunity and to kindred spirits elsewhere in the region. It is unclear from the Advisory Commission’s proposal that RFE/RL be disbanded how, if at all, such users might be able to continue to tap the Radios’ archival and human resources.

Second, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are working models of free journalism for East European countries seized with the urgent requirement to foster independent and pluralistic media. With their more than forty years of experience, varied programming, multitude of language broadcasts and highly skilled personnel, RFE/RL offer unsurpassed vehicles for facilitating the organizing and training of non-government-controlled mass media where such things have not been permitted to exist for half a century or more.

Interestingly, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy report recognized the urgent need for just such help. In particular, it called for Congress and the private sector to provide more funds in connection with teaching the mechanics of a free press, including through the use of journalistic workshops that can "provide training quickly in East European languages." (Emphasis added.)

A Not-So-Hidden Agenda?

It is striking, however, that the Advisory Commission goes on to recommend that USIA be the locus for this sort of training and the recipient of additional funds to support it. Of course, that recommendation is consistent with its larger view that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty should, in due course, cease to exist. But it also suggests an unsavory factor at work that may have contributed significantly to both the Commission’s general and specific recommendations concerning RFE/RL: USIA and its broadcast operations — which, according to today’s Washington Post are to be consolidated under the Voice of America — have long been jealous of the Radios’ excellent reputation and wide audience and been covetous of RFE/RL’s resources.

Never have these sentiments been more in evidence than in the present era of budgetary austerity. For example, one "middle-level [U.S.] Government official was recently quoted by the New York Times on 29 June as bitterly comparing RFE and the Voice to "a thoroughbred and an underfed workhorse," respectively. According to the Times, this official believed that "both horses are sick, but the prize horse has a ‘terminal disease’ because the Cold War for which it was bred has ended."

Evidently, the Advisory Commission — which relies heavily upon USIA for technical and logistical support — was influenced by the bureaucratic agenda of the U.S. Information Agency. Unfortunately, that fact may well have contributed to recommendations concerning Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty that not only detract from the overall, sensible thrust of its proposalsthreaten to add substantially to the human and material costs involved in meeting objectives identified by the Commission. For instance, if the expense involved in liquidating RFE/RL were added to that associated with enhancing VOA’s capabilities in many of the areas now served ably by the Radios, it is improbable that any net savings will accrue to the taxpayer — particularly in the short-run. for "public diplomacy for a new Europe;" they also

More onerous still would be the cost to U.S. interests if those in Central and Eastern Europe and throughout the Soviet Union who share America’s commitment to democracy and economic opportunity were suddenly to lose access to the unique, virtually autonomous, reliable source of information provided by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. To these audiences no official government mouthpiece — no matter how professionally run or how high the integrity of reporting — will have the same authority and play the same role.

Conclusion and Recommendation

While the Center agrees with many of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy’s May 1990 report — especially those calling for a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy in Eastern Europe linking government and private sectors, and for radio and television broadcasting to the area emphasizing programs on democracy in action — it cannot support the Commission’s call for the termination of the Radios’ operations.

Indeed, the Center is persuaded that, for the foreseeable future, the unique capabilities of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty will continue to be required. It sees these capabilities not as duplicative of those residing in USIA; to the contrary, they differ in important ways, are now more indispensable than ever and lend themselves to a powerful synergy with those of the official organs of the U.S. government.

Accordingly, the Center calls on the Bush Administration to preserve and, where appropriate, to expand the activities of RFE/RL. In particular, it should seriously consider ways in which to actualize some of the as yet unrealized potential of Radio Free Europe to help bring about a truly free Europe.

Center for Security Policy

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