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"RFE/RL Indispensable in 20 Countries"

"Süddeutsche Zeitung" Nr.202, Saturday, August 30, 2008, page 21

(click here for the original text in German)

The Fortress

Paid for by America, Headquartered in Prague, Indispensable in 20 Countries: A Visit to Radio Free Europe

Brief moments of disquiet make it clear that this is not a normal radio station. In front of the office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President Jeffrey Gedmin, a man is in a great hurry to be let through. It is RFE/RL's director of security, who says he needs to urgently pass on an important piece of information. Later in the day, the director of RFE/RL's Armenian Service announces the news at a meeting of the editorial staff. He tells his colleagues that the previous evening, the chief of the Yerevan bureau was beaten up in the street by an unknown person. And the attacker told the victim why: because he works for RFE/RL. Jeff Gedmin issues a statement later in the day: "Obviously, this is not a coincidence, but a targeted attack on our people and our program."

This is not an isolated case. Since the American radio station was founded in 1950, its employees and facilities have been attacked by its enemies time and again. And although times have changed, the organization still requires special secu rity measures at its headquarters in Prague. The current offices at the upper end of Wenceslas Square are cordoned off with concrete barriers. Guards in black uniforms check everybody who approaches. And no sign on the outside reveals that this is the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The organization has only been here since 1995. Originally, Radio Free Europe was located in Munich, Germany, near the English Garden. In the beginning, the CIA funded the operation, which caused substantial controversy when it became known. Since 1971, the station has been openly financed by the U.S. Congress. In 1973, RFE was merged with Radio Liberty, which is still broadcasting exclusively to Russia and the former Soviet republics, from Belarus and Ukraine to Moldova, Georgia, and the North Caucasus all the way to Central Asia. After the collapse of communism, RFE/RL gradually discontinued programs for the citizens of the former communist states in Central and Eastern Europe. The Baltic republics, for example, are not covered anymore. Most recently, the Romanian Service ended its broadcasts at the beginning of August this year.

During our conversation in his office, Jeff Gedmin describes what RFE and RL do as "surrogate broadcasting": media as a provisional measure, as a substitute where good journalism is lacking. "In countries where there are no free and independent media or where such media have not yet been fully established, we play a certain role."

That has always been the case, which is why Jeff Gedmin emphasizes that the station is "anything but" the mouthpiece of the U.S. government. Unlike its sister organization Voice of America, RFE/RL's mission is not to explain Washington's view of world affairs and to promote a positive image of the United States.

Instead, events in the target countries themselves are the primary topic. During my stroll through the building, the editors of the 18 different services repeatedly point out that their objective is accurate, independent, nonpartisan, and balanced reporting for the approximately 30 million listeners in 20 countries, which are addressed in 28 languages.

The approximately 500 journalists in the headquarters in Prague, among them many emigres, hail from these countries. Another 1,500 employees and freelancers work as reporters in their target areas. They are trained according to the traditions of Anglo-Saxon reporting and President Gedmin impresses upon them that success is guaranteed by one thing only: "credibility, credibility, credibility."

Of course, the 50-year-old stands for reporting that doesn't run contrary to the interests of the United States. Jeff Gedmin was already well-known before he started his job in Prague in the spring of 2007. The trained musician and political scientist, who studied in Munich, Salzburg, and Jena, worked for the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where he developed a useful network. He was considered a neoconservative, and he co-initiated petitions supporting the Iraq war, among other things.

For six years, until 2007, he was the director of the Aspen Institute Berlin. In Berlin he explained the perspective of the United States in general - and of the Bush administration in particular - to TV audiences and to readers of his newspaper columns.

The fact that the activity of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is in the American interest is something that Gedmin stresses -- particularly in Washington, in order to prevent further budget reductions. The annual budget was cut from $230 million (1995) to $80 million today. In a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation, Gedmin emphasized that the free flow of information is "American soft power at its best." This soft form of exercising influence by means of spreading good information is supposed to also propagate ideas of democracy and market economy.

In earlier times, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were vilified by their adversaries as CIA propaganda stations. During the Cold War, the headquarters in Munich was considered to be a hotbed of conspirators and spies. For example, until 2007, an investigation was conducted against the Czech Pavel Minarik, who worked at Radio Free Europe and who was an officer of Czechoslovakia's secret service from 1969 until 1976. Allegations that he planned a bomb attack in Munich were found by a court in Prague to be unsubstantiated. But in 1981, an explosive device did blow up in the station's building in Munich.

The communist regimes hated the station because it undermined the censorship of their own state media. Thus, the Eastern European governments tried to interrupt the programs in any manner possible and persecuted employees - a phenomenon that has not disappeared despite the sea change in Europe. Since then, the end of communism has caused the station to redefine its operational area. "We have moved east and south," says Gedmin. In Europe, Radio Free Europe only broadcasts to four countries in the Balkans now. Iraq was added in 1998, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iran in 2003. Iran has refused to allow the establishment of a bureau in the country, as has Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In Russia, local employees, as well as local broadcasting companies with which RFE/RL cooperates, are under severe pressure. "Three years ago, we had 26 partners in Russia, now we only have six left", says Gedmin. "Sometimes the health inspector showed up, sometimes it was the fire department, sometimes the tax inspector, discouraging our partners from cooperating with us."

Time and again, RFE/RL journalists are at risk as well. Since the spring of 2007 alone, two reporters were murdered and one colleague kidnapped in Iraq, another colleague in Turkmenistan temporarily disappeared in a psychiatric ward. Uzbekistan's state media denounced the entire editorial staff of RFE/RL as being criminal and published photos and personal information of its members. A young reporter was shot and murdered. Iranian journalists at the headquarters in Prague were summoned to interrogations in their home country; they were threatened that there might be consequences for their relatives. Not to mention physical attacks, wiretapping measures, and everyday harassment.

One can safely assume that intelligence services are trying to infiltrate editorial staffs with agents. Last but not least, the government in Iran spends a lot of energy and money to interrupt the programs of Radio Farda and to shut down its website. The Belarusian Service, too, has experienced severe "cyberjamming" -- on several occasions websites were so overloaded with spam that they could not be accessed anymore.

It is rare that RFE/RL reporters can move relatively freely and have nothing more to fear from their government than being recruited. Currently, Georgia is such a case. The short recent war in the country highlighted the value and significance of impartial reporting.

The impact is difficult to measure. Some services have relatively small listenership; the employees of Radio Free Afghanistan on the other hand enjoy a market share of 65 percent. Afghanistan is radio country, while in Iran the website plays a significant role - it has to appear under a new address every day. In addition, text messages have become an important link to the listeners. Kenan Aliyev, the director of the Azerbaijani Service, waves his mobile phone during lunch and says, "This is the future."

The immediate future lies in the Prague district of Hagibor, 3 kilometers away from the current seat of the institution. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the building at Wenceslas Square, which housed the federal parliament in communist times and which was given to the radio for a symbolic price by their former regular listener, Vaclav Havel, is not considered safe enough anymore. Therefore, a move is scheduled for the winter. The new building will be equipped with state-of-the-art broadcasting equipment, and is already considered to be the best secured one in Europe by the Prague media. KLAUS BRILL