Accessibility links

Breaking News

"Powers of Attraction" - RFE/RL Feature in the "RAND Review"

Based on a speech given at the RAND Corporation by RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin, "RAND Review" published an extensive article profiling RFE/RL.

"Powers of Attraction"
RAND Review - Spring 2009

One of the most notable differences between the foreign policies of the Obama administration and those of its immediate predecessor is the Obama team’s commitment to “a rebalancing of America’s national security portfolio” by putting greater weight on “soft power” relative to military and economic “hard power.”

As defined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye Jr., in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”

Of the many soft power resources available to the United States to help the nation rebalance its security portfolio, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) could be among the most effective. Its role has recently become more important than ever, according to Jeffrey Gedmin, president of RFE/RL, who recently spoke at RAND.

Same Mission, Broader Strategy

Established in 1949 and funded by the U.S. Congress, RFE/RL has had the same mission for decades — to “broadcast uncensored, accurate news and information to people in countries where their own governments deny them a free flow of information and ideas.”

What was once directed at Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is today focused on Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. Working from a broadcast center in Prague, RFE/RL airs nearly 1,000 hours of programming a week to 20 countries in 28 languages, from Albanian to Uzbek.

“We don’t do propaganda. We don’t do “psychological operations,’” said Gedmin. “We provide news and information that people cannot get from their host countries. That’s why people tune in to us.”

As a 21st-century media company, RFE/RL has moved beyond radio broadcasting. In addition to airing programs via AM, FM, shortwave, and satellite frequencies across 11 time zones, it also produces television programming with local partners and has an interactive presence on the Internet. “In May 2007, more than 2.5 million people visited our Web sites and listened to 600,000 hours of Internet audio broadcasts,” said Gedmin.

Although RFE/RL maintains bureaus in 17 of the 20 countries to which it broadcasts, Gedmin said that many of the local governments act to “impede our ability to produce honest, fair-minded journalism.” Local bureau correspondents often face imprisonment or worse. RFE/RL correspondents have been beaten or subjected to police intimidation throughout its broadcast region, been kidnapped in Afghanistan and Iraq, and been killed in Iraq and Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service was driven from its bureau in Tashkent in 2005 in the wake of the Andijan massacre, which the service covered extensively. In 2008, officials in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan banned RFE/RL from the local airwaves, while the Web sites of the Belarus Service, Kazakh Service, and Persian Service (Radio Farda) were subjected to cyberattacks and access blockages.

Paternal Libertarianism

Gedmin stressed the fine line that the organization must walk in being a surrogate news source. It is not the Voice of America (the broadcasting service of the U.S. government abroad), which emphasizes in-depth coverage of the United States in addition to international and regional news.

“We must be viewed as a legitimate, credible news agency, which is why we are deliberately independent of any branch of the U.S. government — the state department, the defense department, and Congress itself. Our oversight agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, provides a firewall between us and the U.S. government,” said Gedmin. “We cover the U.S. when it is part of the news story.”

Gedmin said he practices a philosophy of “paternal libertarianism” in running RFE/RL. On the libertarian side, “I don’t get deeply involved in micromanaging the journalists who work for us. They must be viewed as what they are: authentic, indigenous, home-grown voices for their countries.” On the paternal side, he is forced on occasion to step in to manage the “untidy process of adhering to journalistic standards,” especially since many of the organization’s journalists come from countries with a limited history of a free media.

Weight of Air

Gedmin readily concedes that there is no single, good measure for weighing the organization’s impact. “A short and ineffective answer is audience size,” he said, noting a 52 percent market share of radio listeners in Afghanistan in 2008. But the real impact is measured more in “anecdotal and impressionistic terms,” he said.

Evidence comes from testimonials of those who have heard the broadcasts abroad. For instance, one of the audience members at the talk at RAND described her experience as a child in Romania, listening with her family to the “warbly” sound of the broadcasts.

Gedmin recounted a story about three people on the road between Kabul and Kandahar listening to Radio Free Afghanistan on an old battery-powered radio. “We have to buy batteries for it, because we don’t have electricity here,” they explained. “We’re willing to give up three or four days of wages to buy those batteries and not eat for a day or two, because we need to hear trustworthy information about our country.”

Another measure of success is the degree to which repressive governments try to block access to RFE/RL programming. “We know we’re having an impact be-cause the governments of several of the countries to which we broadcast actively jam our signals,” Gedmin said. “Iran spends four times as much to jam us as we spend on Persian programming. The regime threatens our journalists and blocks our Internet site. That tells our journalists we are reaching their pressure points.”

The idea of RFE/RL, he said, is “to promote political evolution, not regime change.” The long-term goal is to “go out of business” as more and more countries evolve toward democracy and a free media.

But in the meantime, Gedmin argued for increased funding and for rewriting his organization’s congressional charter to allow for public-private partnerships as one way of raising funds. Current annual funding for RFE/RL is around $82 million, down from a high of $252 million during the Cold War. In the context of hard versus soft power, Gedmin noted that RFE/RL’s “budget is about the cost of four Apache helicopters.”