Accessibility links

Breaking News

German, French Papers on RFE/RL, Documentary Premiere

The prominent German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and French newspaper "20Minutes" both ran articles February 4 that focused on RFE/RL and the premiere that evening of a new documentary, "To Russia With Love: Radio Free Europe and the Cold War" on the "Arte" television channel.


Fearing The Free Press
[Translated from German, "Die Furcht vor der freien Presse"]

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung--February 4, 2009, page 35

During the Cold War, Radio Liberty aimed its programs at Eastern Europe. Today, the radio station is based in Prague and looks further east – to Iran and Afghanistan.

Prague, February 3

A large photograph of Wenceslas Square hangs in Jeffrey Gedmin's office. It was taken on August 21, 1968, when hundreds of angry Czechs surrounded a Soviet tank. One of the demonstrators is holding a small transistor radio to his ear. During the invasion, there was a closed circle of communication: Radio Free Europe was informing and, at the same time, being informed by its listeners who were setting the course of events with their actions. The coverage of the Soviet invasion was marked by balanced, unbiased reporting and ranks among the American radio station's brightest moments. Its reporting earned Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/FL) great respect, and that played a key role in Vaclav Havel's offer to Bill Clinton in 1993 to relocate the station from Munich to Prague. One year later, RFE/RL moved into the former Czechoslovak Federal Parliament building on Wenceslas Square.

The history of RFE/RL's Munich era is the subject of an excellent documentary by Christian Bauer, which is being shown on Arte ("To Moscow With Love"). The move to Prague, however, seemed to be the beginning of the end for the radio. Created in 1949 as an instrument to fight the Cold War, it has now already outlived its era by twenty years. The Eastern European programs were ended one-by-one: the Hungarian program in 1993, in 1997 the Polish, in 2002 the Czech, in 2004 the programs for Bulgaria and the Baltic region, and last year the Romanian program. In Munich the station had a yearly budget of $250 million. Today, only $80 million remain. Is RFE/RL a run-out model whose fate has been sealed by the changeover from George W. Bush to Barack Obama?

RFE/RL is overseen by a committee whose nine members are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. The new board will include five democrats and four republicans and has not been appointed yet. Jeffrey Gedmin has been heading the radio station since 2007 and belongs to the ranks of neo-conservative intellectuals that dominated during Bush's administration. As the director of the Aspen Institute, his support of the American intervention in Iraq made waves in Berlin, and he was a frequent guest of German talk shows. Nevertheless, he is relaxed about the change in Washington and points out that Thomas Dine, a Democrat, was still heading the organization six years after the change from Clinton to Bush. And Gedmin is not at all worried that the radios' operation may be terminated. Over the years, RFE/RL has not lost any of its relevance, but, rather, it has been charged with new assignments: programs in 28 languages cover an area reaching from Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova in the west to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the east, from Russia in the north to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in the south. The Russian Federation and other successor states of the Soviet Union, which Radio Liberty covered originally, were joined by Iran and Iraq in 1998, and, following the attacks on the World Trade Center, programming to Afghanistan was taken up again.

Gedmin can't imagine that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of all people will fail to see the value of Radio Liberty. Both bet on "soft power", and according to Gedmin, "the broadcaster is soft power. It operates cheaply and represents the universal values that America upholds. It worked during the Cold War and it works just as well today." The radio is nothing less than an effective "weapon of mass attraction" at Obama's disposal.

Gedmin and Akbar Ayazi, the director of "Radio Free Afghanistan", unroll a five-meter-long paper scroll sent to Prague by a young man from an Afghan village. The letter contains thoughts on politics, culture and the role of women, as well as drawings and caricatures, surely the result of several weeks of work. In Ayazis' office, there are two large canvas bags stuffed with listeners' letters. He explains that often several people join forces in a village to write a letter together. In Afghanistan, the radio station has a 60-percent audience share and about a hundred correspondents report for the station in the country. Sometimes listeners call in to complain about the Minister of Public Health or a school principal, for example. "Free media are like oxygen to any civil society," says Gedmin. Radio Farda's editors receive about 500 SMS messages each day from Iran. And the listeners do not only comment on political issues, but also complain, for example, about the radio station's music selection.

The "Voice of America" reports the American point of view, and the BBC is a neutral "window on the world", says Gedmin, "but we are a mirror of societies". RFE/RL provides independent reporting and commentary in countries where media freedom is non-existent or curtailed to a large extent. And that even includes countries which are considered strategic partners of the US. Gedmin cites Azerbaijan as an example: President Aliyev complained that RFE/RL reports on human rights violations in his country even though he [the President] was siding with America. In January, Azerbaijan barred foreign companies, RFE/RL amongst them, from using national broadcasting frequencies. Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan refuse to allow the radio station to establish a bureau.

The reporters are taking great risks. In Russia, harassment tends to be largely bureaucratic, but in other countries they are putting their lives at stake. During Gedmin's 2-year tenure, two journalists have been killed and three kidnapped. Since the start of the year, four reporters have been assaulted in Central Asia, two of them in Kazakhstan. Iranian journalist Parnaz Azima, who visited her ill mother in Tehran, was held in custody for seven months and was accused of "anti-Iran propaganda." Before leaving, she was urged once again to only provide light international news. These governments do not only want to inhibit political reporting, says Gedmin, they fear any free reporting on the economy, culture and science.

Gedmin considers recruitment and training of reporters to be his most difficult tasks; at the same time, he is fascinated by the diversity of the Prague headquarters. For example, around forty Iranian colleagues represent a wide political spectrum, from monarchists to left-wing social democrats. There is a 76-year-old expatriate who left Iran thirty years ago and a 26-year-old colleague who has been [living] in the West for only three months. Trained journalists work along with a professor of literature from Tehran, who, for fifteen years, drove a tax in Paris. What connects them all is their desire for pluralism, the desire for an open and tolerant society which safeguards personal freedom. This desire, says Gedmin, existed during the Cold War and still exists today.

Karl-Peter Schwarz


Airwaves that set you free
[Translated from French, "Des ondes qui rendent free"
20Minutes--February 4, 2009

Listening to the radio kills. Listening to the radio liberates. Two slogans which to some extent describe what Radio Free Europe (RFE) meant to its listeners, according to an eponymous documentary airing this evening at 10:45 p.m. on Arte. Financed by the CIA, then by the American Congress, but actually run by journalists from Soviet bloc countries, RFE was "a window on reality" from its creation in 1950 until the end of the Cold War. Despite threats made by Communist regimes against its broadcasters and listeners, RFE was listened to in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, thanks to clandestine transmitters. Up until last year there was still a Romanian service. But "it is the goal of RFE to put itself out of business," according to Julian Knapp, a member of the current management. RFE now broadcasts to Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. "Where, as elsewhere in the past, information is not free." So it is inappropriate to wish it a long life.

A. Coffin