The Role of Radio in Eastern Europe


Is it possible that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are a kind of information-age "cure for polio" whose disease has now passed into history?

Is it plausible that these two extraordinary Munich-based American radios, having helped decisively to destroy communism, should now themselves be destroyed, like some good guard dog that has done its faithful duty and is no longer necessary?

That was the recommendation last week of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy -- and, of all the foolish post-Cold War suggestions being bandied about these days, this surely heads the growing list.

"With the Cold War over . . ." the members prefaced their proposals at a press conference this week. "Now that the wars are over . . ." a spokesman said at another time. And then: "Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty's mission has been accomplished. It currently is a wasted effort. It is the classic March of Dimes syndrome: cured polio, now need to find a new mission."

Funny, I had not noticed that wars were over across the world, but then every once in a while I do miss something important.

Let us look first at some history. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were formed after World War II, funded by grants from the U.S. Congress, to open up the Iron Curtain even a bit by broadcasting alternative, non-partisan news and perspective to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

That it has done this persistently and brilliantly -- and that it was a major factor in the breakdown of communism -- is shown by the praise of everyone from Vaclav Havel to Lech Walesa to Boris Yeltsin. What's more, the radios have over the years developed a unique and remarkable research facility in Munich, which allows them to do their work of covering news and commentary inside Eastern Europe and the new republics.

The advisory commission did not, surprisingly, seem to understand this. It recommended that the Munich radios' functions be taken over by the Voice of America, but this idea just does not make sense.

Voice of America, as valuable as it is, broadcasts almost entirely news about America and the world to foreign countries. Nowhere does it have any capacity for broadcasting about other countries.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcast almost all news about the countries or areas that they are broadcasting to. Indeed, their role has expanded enormously since the ostensible end of the Cold War. In only the last year, the stations have actually negotiated contracts with almost all the post-Soviet republics to broadcast news on local AM and FM stations.

To give up that extraordinarily successful and influential tool in the region of our former "enemy" -- and at a time when the republics' future is more uncertain than ever -- is inconceivable.

This small but important conflict also (unfortunately) becomes even more important when one realizes how symbolic it is of what is happening in many areas of policy here. There is a definite desire, in the administration and out, to be done with the Cold War -- and with wars in general.

There is an unfortunate inability on the part of many to see that the conflicts "over there" may well be just beginning. "Democratic" Russia looks more and more every day like Germany's doomed Weimar republic in the 1930s; to pretend in these conditions it is all over is to indulge in a kind of grotesque euphoria.

What should be done seems to me rather clear. The radios have basically two missions. One is "surrogate broadcasting." This is what Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty do, and it means foreign radios acting as a surrogate for news media within the country or in effect broadcasting the news of that country (at the country's request) until the time when the local media can do it.

The other is "official broadcasting," which is broadcasting news and views of America to foreign countries, as Voice of America does.

The actual mission, not theoretical ideas, should drive the radios. Neither should only slightly hidden desires to have the monies of RFE/RL transferred to Voice of America (the advisory commission is under the U.S. Information Agency, which oversees Voice of America).

And that mission is clearly still present, as the struggling new governments from Russia to Kazakhstan look to us for ongoing help in the transformation of their news and of their media.

A reasonable judgment is that completing the RFE/RL missions in the former Soviet Union will take at least another 10 years. Then the radios can be silenced as the republics' own media become well enough developed to take over the full job.

But to destroy one of our major tools for that ongoing transformation -- and to destroy the hope it brings to the best people over there -- is morally and practically unthinkable.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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