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Interview with Jeffrey Gedmin in "World Politics Review"

An Interview with RFE/RL Chief Jeffrey Gedmin

By Juliana Geran Pilon

World Politics Review

While many observers of U.S. foreign policy have in recent years lamented the state of U.S. public diplomacy, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is widely seen as a bright spot amid a dim post-Cold War record of communicating and promoting U.S. values and interests to the world outside the United States. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty serves as a "surrogate" free press in countries around the world where such doesn't exist, charged with promoting "democratic values and institutions by disseminating factual information and ideas," as its mission statement puts it.

Through the Internet and over the radio, RFE/RL broadcasts in 28 languages in 20 countries. It has a significant presence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, including in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At the helm of this organization is Jeffrey Gedmin. Before taking over as president of RFE/RL in March 2007, Gedmin served for six years as president of the Aspen Institute in Berlin. For five years before that, he led the American Enterprise Institute-sponsored New Atlantic Initiative, a now-defunct coalition of international institutes, politicians, journalists and business executives aimed at "revitalizing and expanding the Atlantic community of democracies." World Politics Review contributor Juliana Geran Pilon spoke to Gedmin this month in Washington.


WPR: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was praised for having played a role in defeating communism and ending the Cold War. Why should the American taxpayer still support Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) today?

GEDMIN: Simply put, because RFE/RL supports the spread of freedom in a way that each and every American can be proud of. We just had a reporter kidnapped and then released after four days in captivity with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Our man was moved around during that period of time. What he encountered was astonishing. He witnessed time and again how local villagers, community and tribal leaders all urged the Taliban to release him. They all said the same thing to the kidnappers, This reporter works for the most respected, most trusted radio station in the country. Americans believe in freedom. Every time I tell someone how our journalists take such extraordinary risks in the line of duty and in the name of freedom, they can't help but be impressed.

WPR: You say you're supporting freedom. Aren't you accused abroad in some circles of spreading American propaganda?

GEDMIN: The mischievous or ill-informed will make such an allegation.. We don't do propaganda. We don't do "psyschological operations." We broadcast uncensored, accurate news and information to people in countries where their own governments deny them a free flow of information and ideas. Or as in in the case of Afghanistan, we're working in a country where professional, independent media are not yet fully established. We're doing this in 28 languages -- in Afghanistan in Dari and Pashtu -- in 21 countries today. Our broadcast region includes Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan of course, the Caucasus region, and Central Asia.

WPR: How do you know there's a market for what you're selling? How can you be sure people are interested in this kind of journalism?

GEDMIN: We rely on audience research, imperfect though it may be in many of our countries. In Afghanistan, we estimate 60 percent audience share, which is considerable. We have a smaller, but decent size audience in Iran where the regime jams our radio signals, blocks our Internet set and seeks to intimidate our journalists and listeners. It's inspiring to see how much people value that which we take for granted free societies. The head of our Afghan service received a letter recently from a woman now living abroad, but from Afghanistan originally. She had returned home to Kabul for a short visit. She relates the story of trying to buy vegetables from a vendor in a market. The guy won't give her the time of day. He's glued to the radio. For five minutes, 10 minutes. She finally gets his attention, finally gets service. When she asks why he had ignored her when he had a chance of losing sale, he replies: "You need vegetables, I need something else." I'm happy to report that the man was listening not just to any radio station, but to Radio Liberty, known as Radio Azadi in Afghanistan.

What kind of programs are you producing that attract this kind of loyalty?

GEDMIN: It varies, of course, market to market according to the tastes, the needs and preferences of our audiences. In any given country you'll find us doing music, satire and political talk shows, programs on health care, social issues, culture, business, economics. There's a lot of interaction with our audiences. Whether radio, television, Web, Web blogging, Web video, cell phone text messaging -- we do everything we can to give our customer an active voice and sense of participation. They're not shy either. Our Iranian service can get as many as 500 cell phone text messages overnight, when the day shift arrives in the morning.

WPR: But back to my original question. Why should Americans pay for this?

GEDMIN: What we're doing, promoting this free flow of information and ideas, this is the oxygen of civil society. It's hard to imagine a more direct, effective way of supporting human rights, promoting democracy and the rule of law. That's an American interest. We reach 25 million people in our 21 countries with a budget of $80 million. It's a bargain. PBS in one city like New York enjoys a budget of $200 million.

WPR: Can you explain how the governments of countries where you broadcast respond to RFE/RL?

GEDMIN: It depends. In 19 of our countries we actually maintain bureaus. In these partially free countries, we do everything we can to maintain cordial relations with host governments. That is, cordial relations -- as long as doing so does not impede our ability to produce honest, fair-minded journalism. In fact, some of these governments try in a number of ways to slow us down. They usually employ "softer" methods. They'll send the fire inspector, the health inspector, the tax collector to try to catch us on technicalities. Others use "harder" methods, too. Take Iran or Turkmenistan. Or Uzbekistan where the state of press freedom can be likened to that of North Korea. In places like these, anyone who collaborates with RFE/RL faces imprisonment, or worse. Uzbek state television recently aired a program that denounced our Prague-based journalists -- our operational headquarters is in Prague -- as traitors. The program went on to list, in a most menacing way, the addresses of journalists' family members inside the country. .

WPR: How do you keep your reporters safe?

GEDMIN: It's not easy. It's one of the most important responsibilities we have. Since I've been President of RFE/RL the last year and a half, we've had two reporters killed and one kidnapped in Iraq. We've had two colleagues kidnapped in Afghanistan. We've had colleagues threatened and beaten in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Turkmenistan, a middle school history teacher who participated in our programs was picked up by the KGB and jailed in a psychiatric ward. How do we respond? We are working closely with the U.S. State Department, with embassies abroad, with human rights leaders and NG0s. Sometimes a particular problem requires quiet diplomacy. Other times you want to turn up the heat and confront a regime publicly.

WPR: Does the United States government or Congress have a say in what you broadcast?

GEDMIN: In the sense that our funder, the U.S. Congress, decides what it finances, yes. But if you're asking whether they tell us what to put in the programs, the answer is no. It may sound strange, even implausible. But it's true and it's a crucial point. Credibility is everything in this business. Our board, the Broadcast Board of Governors (BBG) -- they oversee all U.S. International broadcasting -- serves by law as a firewall to protect our editorial independence. The moment our audiences think we're pushing propaganda, that we're the mouthpiece of the U.S. government or a particular faction in Washington, we're dead in the water. I'm happy to say I've not encountered a single instance where someone in Washington has tried to meddle in our editorial affairs.

WPR: To some that may even sound like too much freedom. So anything goes for Radio Liberty?

GEDMIN: I believe in a kind of paternal libertarianism in running this incredibly unique company. Of course, we have clear guidelines for journalistic ethics, we have prudent monitoring and mentoring throughout the company. We have as RFE/RL our intellectual and moral compass. But ultimately our Iranians, for example, will have their own authentic voice in which they speak to their fellow countrymen in Iran. To be credible, it can't be the voice of Jeff Gedmin, it can't be the voice of Washington.

WPR: Do you have advice for President Obama on how to improve America's image in the world?

GEDMIN: America has a great story to tell. RFE/RL is one of many. We need to get these stories out. We also need to lead by example. I think much of the world is still yearning for effective American leadership. The new administration has a great opportunity. The president-elect himself is an exceptionally gifted communicator. I'd say, Mr. President, be clear about American interests. Whenever possible, work to fuse these interests with the interests of others. Never apologize or back down from principle or our core values as a nation. Don't worry about being popular. The rest will follow.

Juliana Geran Pilon teaches politics and culture at the Institute of World Politics. Her newest book is "Why America is Such a Hard Sell: Beyond Pride and Prejudice" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).