Radio To Stay Tuned To

“Radio Free Europe? Does that still exist?”

That was the question; the speaker was an Important Public Broadcaster, visiting Europe for a few days last week. It wasn’t a surprising query, as these things go, or an ignorant one. Not many other Americans know that Radio Free Europe still exists, so why should he?

Nevertheless, the query bothered me, because Radio Free Europe — the Cold War news service that was, for decades, the only source of independent information in Eastern Europe — does exist. In fact, it’s as important as it ever was, at least in the 21 countries and 28 languages in which it is still often the only source of independent information: Farsi for Iran, Arabic for Iraq, Dari and Pashto for Afghanistan, plus Turkmen, Azeri, Belarusan, Georgian, Chechen, Tajik, Albanian, Serbian and Russian, among others. The fact that you haven’t heard anyone mention RFE lately, let alone the achievements of its Afghan journalists– they provide much of the news in much of that country — says more about the poverty of the American foreign policy debate in general (and this election-year debate in particular) than about almost anything else. In RFE, we have an American institution that is admired, even beloved, in many difficult parts of the world; and yet we are slowly, methodically, starving it to death.

Reputation to the contrary, RFE is not American propaganda radio. It is better described as “surrogate radio”: a broadcasting service that supplies local, national and international news, in radio, Internet and sometimes video form, in countries where other local news is weak or unavailable. Most of the programming is written by local journalists, who follow local politics in the local languages. Many of them live in the countries they cover, sometimes at great risk. When the Newseum was opened in Washington last week, the names of four RFE journalists — a Turkmen, two Iraqis and an Uzbek — all killed in the past two years, were already inscribed on a plaque there. In the past year alone, RFE has dealt with staff kidnappings in Iraq and Afghanistan, disappearances in Turkmenistan, official harassment in Russia and Belarus, and blackmail from Iran.

Occasionally, RFE journalists even have to be smuggled out of their home countries. But when this happens, they wind up in Prague, where, for anachronistic post-Cold War-era reasons (President Vaclav Havel gave RFE a building there after 1989) the organization now has its headquarters. Once there, they can’t go home, they can’t get green cards, they don’t speak Czech, and, now that the dollar has collapsed to a degree not fully appreciated in Washington, they can’t support themselves, either. RFE, which at its peak received $230 million annually in congressional funding, now gets $75 million in rapidly devaluing currency. That money pays for transmitters, salaries, security and anti-jamming technology as well as programming and Web content in 28 languages. To put that in perspective, as RFE President Jeff Gedmin likes to say, $75 million is also the price of four Apache helicopters.

Which is an apt comparison, since, if RFE vanishes, we may need a lot more helicopters to replace it. Many analysts — our defense secretary among them — pay much lip service nowadays to the need for “soft power,” the non-military initiatives and institutions that, once upon a time, helped us win hearts and minds in remote places, even when we wouldn’t or couldn’t send an army. Each of the presidential candidates has implicitly agreed, claiming that when he or she is elected, foreign policy is going to be conducted differently, more diplomatically and so on. But what does that entail? Will “diplomacy” mean we force Slovenia and Norway to send a dozen more soldiers to Afghanistan? Or should diplomacy” mean that we help the people who are trying to foster civilized public debate in Afghanistan as an alternative to warfare? When I was at the RFE office in Prague several weeks ago, the Afghans there showed me the enormous, old-fashioned canvas mailbags that arrive every week from Afghanistan, full of letters thanking the presenters, offering arguments, making comments — and asking why there isn’t more service, more coverage, more than 12 hours of daily service from Radio Free Afghanistan.

RFE does have a good number of admirers in Washington, as well as a few constructive critics, usually people who wish it did more things better. What it does not have, however, is an advocate: someone, in Congress, the White House or on the campaign trail who remembers that Americans have done soft power rather well in the past, that the collapse of the dollar is more than a minor irritant for rich tourists, that with better transmitters we could reach more Iranians, and that we could easily swap a few helicopters for better-informed Afghans. “Yes” is the answer to the Important Public Broadcaster’s question; Radio Free Europe still exists. But if no one remembers to support it, politically and financially, Radio Free Europe won’t exist much longer.

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