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'RFE/RL Has Turned Towards Asia ' - report in "La Croix"

Radio Free Europe Has Turned Towards Asia

Created during the Cold War by the United States, Radio Free Europe played an important role against the communist regimes. Now in Prague, it continues to promote the same message of freedom.

“La Croix”, 13 January 2009, p. 25

[Translation from French: “Radio Free Europe s’est tournée vers l'Asie”]

PRAGUE – From our special correspondent.

It is a large cube in the centre of Prague – a building with typical 1970s communist architecture. In the days of Czechoslovakia, it housed the Federal Parliament. Today, 500 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty employees work in the former parliamentary committee rooms that have been converted into radio studios. Soundproof booths have been placed on the old grey wall-to-wall carpeting. Digital consoles have replaced parliamentary assistants' desks, and the station emblem can be seen everywhere – an orange logo in the shape of a torch, evoking the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a powerful institution in Central Europe, having played an essential role during the Cold War. At that time, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) had its premises in Munich. From the German studios, editorial staff made up of émigré Czechoslovak, Russian, Polish and Romanian dissidents, offered their home countries uncensored information. RFE/RL was one of few to do this work on a large scale. Memories of these broadcasts go a long way towards explaining present-day pro-American sentiments in Central Europe, as many there remember listening to this forbidden radio station in their kitchen during the evening.

RFE/RL broadcasts had such an impact in fighting the communist regimes that some even tried to silence them. In February 1981, the Munich studios were the target of a bomb that killed a Czechoslovak technician. Nowadays there is reason to believe that this attack was organized by the terrorist Carlos on the direct order of Romanian President Nicolae Ceaucescu.

In 1995 the studios moved to Prague for economic reasons, and because Czech President Václav Havel had offered to make the building available to the radio station for a symbolic rent of one dollar a year. "The premises are not very suitable," says Ludmila Wannek, journalist at the Ukrainian department. "We will be on the move again later this year." The radio station will settle into a tailor-made building on the outskirts of Prague’s city centre.

As the radio station crossed the old Iron Curtain in 1995, many departments were closed down. RFE/RL ended its broadcasts in Czech, Polish, Romanian and Hungarian, but opened departments for Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, and maintained those for Central Asia, Russia and Belarus. The station broadcasts in 28 languages and produces a thousand hours of programming per week, aimed at countries as diverse as Montenegro, Moldavia, Kazakhstan and even the Russian region of Tatarstan, for which RFE/RL has a Tatar department.

The station has also modified its broadcasting methods. During the Cold War it primarily went out on the shortwave band. Nowadays it focusses more on broadcasting by satellite and on the internet and it has entered into agreements with local radio stations which rebroadcast its programmes on FM.

On the Afghan Department floor, around ten people are busy talking in subdued voices under the artificial light of neon lamps. A map of Afghanistan is pinned to the wall. Men and women are working side by side, in a hushed collegial atmosphere. "We produce twelve hours of programming a day in Pashto and Dari," the two main languages of the country, explains the Director Hashem Mohmand. "We have 70% of the audience ratings; we are the top radio station in Afghanistan. Even the Taliban listen to us and want to express themselves on our airwaves. Sometimes we broadcast their communiqués. But we do place them in their context to maintain a balance."

He shows the bags of mail which the station receives from Afghanistan: dozens of letters, drawings, poems and calls for help. And he explains his editorial line – the same for all broadcast services: Promote democracy and the rule of law; only give out verified information; and alternate entertainment programmes with very frequent news bulletins."

For Afghanistan today, just like Poland in the past, the aim is still the same: "We are trying to create the kind of radio that local independent media would be creating if they existed in their respective countries," explains Julian Knapp, Deputy Director of Communications at RFE/RL. The approach is different to that still maintained by the BBC. British radio is concerned above all with providing access to international news in all languages. RFE/RL is more involved in relating what is going on in the smallest village, for which it has a large number of local correspondents – a hundred or so for Afghanistan alone. RFE/RL speaks to Russians from Russia and Moldavians from Moldavia, while the BBC speaks to the entire world about what is happening worldwide.

So Radio Free Europe editorial departments are a perfect vantage point for getting to know what is happening in territories where few free media can operate. This has long earned RFE/RL the reputation of being a "nest of spies, " and until 1971 the station was indeed financed directly by the CIA. In that year it came under the protection of the US Congress, claiming to have broken with its origins. But this past continues to weigh on its image. "It is a historical fact and nobody tries to deny it," says Julian Knapp. "But this has been made public, and to say that our work is spying is absurd. That is just the kind of argument used against us by governments that do not appreciate what we are doing. And there are many of them, because non-democratic powers simply cannot like our work."

RFE/RL often finds itself facing pressure from the authorities. On 30th December, for example, the government of Azerbaijan took a decision to completely ban foreign radio stations from the national airwaves. "In Turkmenistan, one of our correspondents died after being imprisoned the year before; in Uzbekistan the national television station broadcast a report in which our journalists were treated as 'enemies of the state'. Their photos were shown and their addresses were given," says Julian Knapp.

So maintaining a radio station of this kind requires powerful political support from Washington. And RFE/RL does indeed benefit from this. A few months ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the radio station headquarters. Next spring new President Barack Obama is to pay a visit to the Czech capital, just as the Czech Republic is holding the six-monthly presidency of the EU Council. Everybody at the station hopes he will include a visit to RFE/RL in his schedule.

Alain Guillemoles