Facts Meet Freedom: On the Air in Afghanistan

By O'Rourke, P. J. | World Affairs, November-December 2010 | Go to article overview

Facts Meet Freedom: On the Air in Afghanistan


O'Rourke, P. J., World Affairs


At dinner in Prague with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's president, Jeff Gedmin, and half a dozen RFE/RL staffers, Gedmin said, to no one in particular, "Do you think at any time in the future history will look back and say, 'I wish they hadn't broadcast so much information'?"

It will be an unpleasant future if history says that. And it won't be RFE/RL's fault. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts information to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East in twenty-eight languages. Much of the information comes from the places where those twenty-eight languages are spoken. RFE/RL has five hundred and fifty employees in Prague--speaking the twenty-eight languages and then some--forty more back in Washington, and several hundred lull- and part-time correspondents, editors, and technicians at bureaus in eighteen countries. Reporters are also working, sometimes clandestinely, in countries where RFE/RL bureaus aren't allowed. The mission is to tell people living in those countries what is happening to them.

"I don't know what's happening to me" would be a statement of psychological or sociological distress in a liberal democracy, but it's a plain statement of fact concerning the material world for anyone who doesn't live in a liberal democracy. Government censorship of media, government influence on or ownership of media, and simple lack of infrastructure keep several billion people uninformed about tile most important and intimate matters in their own lives. (And according to Radio Farda, RFE/ RL's Iranian service, the Iranian judiciary has ruled that psychology and sociology should not be taught in schools.)

Tile concept of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is "surrogate broadcasting"--doing the job that independent media would do if there were any or enough of it in the places RFE/RL serves. Jeff Gedmin calls it "holding up a mirror." It's a Cold War idea. Radio Free Europe's first broadcast was to Czechoslovakia in 1950, as the Communists were using show trials and purges to solidity their control in Prague.

Like its sister organization Voice of America, RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. government. But Voice of America is primarily about America. RFE/RL is primarily about Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, the Balkans, the North Caucasus region, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan ...

Vaclav Havel, the first president of free Czechoslovakia, said, "I learned about America from VOA and learned about my own country from Radio Free Europe."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was talk in Washington about closing down Radio Free Europe. More thoughtful policymakers prevailed. With the New World Order came a new set of world disorders. Igor Pomeranzev, a Russian broadcaster for RFE/RL, told me what a Moscow cab driver told him: "In the old days, I listened to Radio Free Europe to get news about my country. Now--I listen to Radio Free Europe to get news about my country."

RFE/RL no longer broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania (though it has added service to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and other places). The retrenchments may have been premature. Jay Tolson, RFE/RL's news director, said the president of Romania told the BBC, which also had cut its Romania service, "You left too soon."

Mardiros Soghom, RFE/RL's deputy director of broadcasting strategy and operations, said that, in the matter of media independence, "Places like Latvia are losing ground. The trend lines are bad." He was worried about a "reassertion of the Soviet sphere of influence" while, back in the U.S., there has been a "move toward more Middle East involvement" in concerns about media freedoms.

John O'Sullivan, RFE/RL's executive editor, said, "Unless there's a threat involved it's hard to convince America it's important."

But there is a threat involved. O'Sullivan sees, in fact, two threats rising to replace the Cold War threat of international Communism. …

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