Radio Free Europe's Independence


A fierce behind-the-scenes battle is going on in Washington over the State Department authorization bill that effectively merges Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty into the Voice of America. While that shortsighted move currently seems to enjoy majority support in Congress, it is not too late for reason to prevail.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were born during the early days of the Cold War as "surrogate" stations broadcasting uncensored local news to Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. Although they were initially financed by the Central Intelligence Agency, they established a level of credibility in their target countries that no other Western radio service could or can match.

Despite increased freedom in those countries, respect for those two stations has continued. When plotters arrested Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev during the 1991 coup attempt, one of his few links to the outside world was a shortwave set tuned to Radio Liberty. During this month's Russian rebellion against Boris Yeltsin, the station again was a crucial source of reliable information to millions of people in the former Soviet Union.

Yet the future of those radio services is threatened. Under a Clinton administration proposal they would be combined with the Voice of America, the government's global network.

When this idea was first proposed, we favored a single administrative entity for the three U.S. broadcasters so wasteful duplication of resources, particularly in maintaining costly and overlapping transmission sites, could be ended. The administration would go beyond that, however, and would end the federally financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty organization as an operationally independent corporation.

That would be a terrible mistake. As independent organizations, the polyglot radios have much more editorial and operational freedom than if they were formally part of the government. They are not covered by various diplomatic reciprocity clauses, their transmission arrangements do not have to be negotiated between governments. As a consequence, RRE/RL pays a fraction of what the VOA pays for leasing its huge shortwave transmission sites in Central Europe.

The Cold War is over and America's overseas radio projects need to be overhauled. But sacrificing the proven independence of RFE/RL to bureaucratic empire-builders under the guise of cost-efficiency is the wrong way to go about it.

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