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RFE/RL: 50 Years of Freedom in the Heart of Europe By: Scott Rubush
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, August 29, 2001


IF WINSTON SMITH had had a son, 15-year-old Vaclav could have been it.

Like Winston—the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984 Vaclav and his father lived in a land where an omnipresent police state kept close tabs on their every move. Where they went, what they wrote, what they bought and sold, were all monitored by the state’s eagle eye. Yet Vaclav and his family, not unlike Winston, managed to find a few scraps of privacy. For Winston, that privacy came from a diary; for Vaclav’s father, it came from a radio.

"I do remember that as a fifteen-year-old I used to listen to the broadcasts now and then while my father had his ear to the set," Vaclav said earlier this summer. "Later, naturally, I too became a more attentive, more receptive listener."

Throughout the Cold War in Vaclav’s native Czechoslovakia and indeed, throughout the entire Eastern Bloc that lone voice of freedom was Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). When Vaclav first heard RFE/RL’s broadcasts in 1951, freedom to him was nothing more than a distant dream and a faint radio signal that the communist government often would try to jam. But decades later, all that would change. In 1989, Vaclav would help orchestrate his country’s Velvet Revolution and bring an end to Soviet oppression in the heart of Europe. Today he, Vaclav Havel, serves as the president of a free, democratic, Czech Republic.

"Throughout its existence the radio has accompanied me during mine, one way or another, but this is just a personal observation," Havel told an audience in Prague earlier this year. "More important is what Radio Free Europe has meant for our country. All through the long years of communism, the radio provided the only avenue for free exchange of information for free journalism, and also the only, or rather the main source for communication between the opposition at home with the public… I believe that our society owes Radio Free Europe immense gratitude for the role it has played in the past."

Mr. Havel doesn’t take this debt of gratitude lightly. After the fall of communism, Havel authorized RFE/RL to move its headquarters into the old communist parliament building in downtown Prague. There it continues to broadcast throughout Eastern Europe.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of RFE/RL. While the news service has outlived its original purpose of providing news and information to the communist bloc, it has managed to re-shape itself to the post-Cold War world.

RFE/RL had its beginnings in 1949 when the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE) was established. Though NCFE organized itself as a private, non-profit entity, it secretly received funding from the CIA. Radio Free Europe existed as a subsidiary of NCFE and made its first broadcast a 30-minute program in Czech on July 4, 1950.

In 1951, Radio Liberty was established in much the same manner, and existed independently of RFE until the 1970s. RL broadcast into the Soviet Union itself and attempted to provide a source of news and information in the communist-imposed media vacuum.

During the Vietnam era, increasing public scrutiny of American foreign policy techniques forced RFE and RL to reorganize themselves. In 1967, the ties of RFE and RL to the CIA became public. Though Congress and President Lyndon Johnson allowed this funding to continue, RFE and RL slowly reorganized and weaned themselves from this source of money. The two agencies merged between 1973 and 1976, and came under congressional control. Under the new arrangement, a bipartisan board, appointed by the president, oversaw RFE/RL’s operations. Meanwhile, the agency began receiving money directly from Congress’ annual budget process.

After the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, a new set of challenges confronted RFE/RL. As press freedom began to take root in the former communist bloc, the agency faced obsolescence. Indeed, its entire raison d’etre had disappeared as Eastern Europe’s media vacuum filled up with new outlets of news and information. Congress responded accordingly and slashed RFE/RL’s annual budget to $75 million from its peak of $227 million. The agency has since re-organized as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, though it continues receiving money from Congress and allows the State Department to determine where to broadcast. The government, though, does not interfere with the agency’s editorial content.

That content could be described as analogous to that of National Public Radio in the United States or the British Broadcasting Company in the United Kingdom. Service throughout Eastern Europe was and still is broadcast in the local tongue by native speakers.

"These were American-sponsored but distinctly Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Russian… or Ukrainian national radio stations," wrote RFE Emeritus Director George R. Urban in his book, Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy. The services were "’surrogate’ in the sense that their broadcasters identified fully with the interests, culture, history, and religion of the nations under Soviet or Soviet inspired rule," he continued. "Speaking in the first person plural, they… were in effect national ‘home’ services speaking from abroad."

The fall of communism has allowed RFE/RL’s reporters greater access to the region.

"We are actually in these places, with bureaus, a whole host of stringers," RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1998.

Though Communism may no longer haunt the region, political instability still does. RFE/RL has attempted to re-invent itself by broadcasting to trouble spots like Kosovo and the former Soviet Union. All in all, RFE/RL now broadcasts in 27 different languages, including an Arabic transmission into Iraq. Sister agencies also broadcast into China (Radio Free Asia) and Cuba (Radio Marti).

"During the last several years it has been argued that our broadcasting services have done their job so well that they are no longer needed," said Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) during an April 25 speech honoring RFE/RL’s 50th anniversary. "But the argument is terribly shortsighted. It ignores the people of China and Cuba, of Vietnam and Burma, of Iraq and Iran and Sudan and North Korea… It ignores the fragility of freedom and the difficulty of building and keeping democracy."

Even in "free" Eastern Europe, press standards leave much to be desired, at least by the liberal standards of the West. Though countries like Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic all have made giant leaps toward building democratic institutions during the past ten years each has entered NATO and is moving toward entry into the European Union (EU) a free press has been slow to take root.

The Czech Republic, for example, has laws regulating TV and radio stations’ political content for "balance." Meanwhile, privately held broadcast stations operate at a competitive disadvantage in that country because the state-run TV network receives heavy subsidies while enjoying the respect and brand loyalty that come from being an "official" source of news. Plus, an arduous, state-imposed licensing process provides an additional entry barrier to would-be broadcasters. Moreover the relatively small number of Czech speakers, roughly ten million, limits the potential audience and profitability of such a venture. In short, a convergence of profit considerations and bureaucratic obstacles has stunted the growth of a robust, competitive press in that country.

While the Czech case may be undesirable in the eyes of many Westerners, it certainly is less dramatic than the situation faced elsewhere in the region.

During the conflict in Chechnya, for example, a journalist was killed after he wrote about the corruption and organizational failures within the Russian army. Elsewhere, in places like Belarus, journalists are arrested with alarming regularity. Meanwhile, thugs like Slobodan Milosevic have jammed radio and TV transmissions, including those of RFE/RL. Meanwhile, an elaborate security system awaits visitors to RFE/RL headquarters in Prague. Metal detectors and other devices were installed there in response to threats from Saddam Hussein, and other rogue leaders. For all the shortcomings of the Central European press, the situation deteriorates very dramatically as one travels east.

RFE/RL nearly turned its back on this troublesome region. During a spate of post-Cold War budget cutting, Washington debated whether to fold the agency and stop its broadcasts altogether. Former President Clinton had proposed closing RFE/RL shortly after taking office in 1993. Budget-cutters deployed the term "bureaucratic inertia" to explain RFE/RL’s persistence after the collapse of communism.

"We don’t need to send a free press from Munich to Budapest any more than the Canadians need to broadcast from Ottawa to Salt Lake City," Tom Korologos, Chairman of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.

Yet an outcry came from Eastern Europe to continue the service. According to the Times, the presidents of Estonia, the Czech Republic, Tatarstan, and Poland all wrote to Mr. Clinton and appealed to him to continue funding for RFE/RL. The president later backed off his proposal, though he did make drastic cuts to the agency’s budget.

RFE/RL, taking the hint from Mr. Korologos, did indeed cut off its service to Budapest as well as to Poland when adjusting to Cold War politics and budgetary constraints. The agency also managed to save money during its move to Prague, the result of the Czech Republic’s low costs of living and relatively weak currency. But even as RFE/RL learned the art of thrift, it has managed to endure by reshaping itself to meet the challenges presented by the region’s flashpoints.

The service plans to stay in operation until those areas no longer present a threat to the peace and stability of that region.

"I can see in the second decade of the 21st Century where we start closing down, particularly in the northern tier of Central Europe," said RFE/RL president Thomas A. Dine in 1998. But the most unstable areas that have been the heart of instability in the 20th Century are the republics of the Former Soviet Union and the Balkans. Southeastern Europe Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and the Former Yugoslavia… those are areas still not up on two feet."

For all its eagerness to promote press freedom in Eastern Europe, though, RFE/RL has faced a number of ethical dilemmas during its half-century of broadcasts.

The most notorious episode came during the Hungarian uprising of 1956. During the revolt, RFE broadcast material that later was deemed to have helped incite the attempted coup. The broadcast was judged by many observers to have crossed a line from objectivity to outright activism. It was also seen as a flagrant attempt by the US to interfere in the politics of a foreign country.

"US behavior during the 1956 Revolution proved the cynics right," John P.C. Matthews commented in the Budapest Sun in 1993.

RFE/RL claims to have learned from the Hungarian debacle, and points to its more even-handed coverage of the 1968 Prague Spring uprising as evidence to support this claim. Even to this day, RFE/RL officials admit that there is tension between their desire to serve as an example of a free press, and their urge to create a free press where none existed before.


Scott Rubush is a former associate editor of FrontPageMagazine.com. He also edits a daily web log at ScottRubush.com.


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