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Bayles Praises RFE/RL In 'World Affairs Journal'

Writing for "World Affairs Journal," Martha Bayles explains RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster in Kyrgyzstan, praising the quality of RFE/RL reporting. The full article is available here, and excerpt is reprinted below.

A Teachable Moment

Marth Bayles | World Affairs Journal

[...] Finally I found it—in a place most Americans wouldn’t think of looking, even though it is paid for by our tax dollars: the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Today, insiders joke that RFE/RL is actually “Europe-Free Radio,” because rather than send radio signals from Munich into Eastern and Central Europe (RFE) and the USSR (RL), the Prague-based operation now uses a variety of media to reach all of the former Soviet republics, as well as Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the border region of Pakistan.

The first thing I noticed was that, unlike the BBC, RFE/RL posts an English page for each of its 28 language services. This is much more user-friendly, and while not all the Kyrgyz stories are translated into English, a good proportion are. The coverage is neither snarky nor superficial—the best stories aren’t pulled to make room for the next headline. Why does RFE/RL lavish so much attention on its Kyrgyz coverage? Because its primary audience is not affluent professionals with enormous buying power, it is the people of Kyrgyzstan.

The name for this is “surrogate broadcasting,” and it’s not easy. First of all, there’s the practical challenge of getting radio or Internet service into a country where the government is at best semi-cooperative. In the old days, RFE/RL used short-wave radio to reach deep behind the Iron Curtain. But today very few people own short-wave receivers, so RFE/RL must transmit locally on FM. This requires a license from the host government, and just as Putin withdrew the licenses for the Russian service a few years ago, so did Bakiyev shut down the popular Kyrgyz service in 2008, when RFE/RL refused to accept state censorship.

The Kyrgyz service continued on privately owned channels, but they, too, were shut down a few months ago—for reporting on the unrest that boiled over last week. Now interim president Otunbayeva is allowing the return of what Newsweek calls “the most trusted source of news for most Kyrgyz people, despite repeated government attempts to jam it.”

On the one hand, America has been supporting the repressive dictator Bakiyev, because of our interest in keeping the Manas air base. On the other, America has been providing the Kyrgyz people with their most trusted source of news. This seems a paradox, but really it’s a teachable moment, not only for the BBG but also for Congress.

Many Americans, including quite a few on Capitol Hill, assume that the purpose of surrogate broadcasting is to reinforce the short-term policy goals of the United States. If we’re going to spend tax money yakking at these people in their own language, the reasoning goes, then we should be yakking about really important stuff, like how much we need Manas to fight terrorism in Afghanistan.

As it happens, this is not the only purpose of surrogate broadcasting. As a government-funded entity, RFE/RL can never divorce itself entirely from America’s short-term interest. But at the same time, surrogate broadcasting should not be reduced to state propaganda. Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock the ideal of journalistic objectivity—to argue that, because the 21st-century consumer no longer relies on a few trusted sources but rather surfs hundreds, adroitly weighing the bias of each, then all that’s required is that every source identify itself clearly. In the words of Harvard’s David Weinberger, “Transparency is the new objectivity.”

True enough, for a thin stratum of news hounds in nearly every country. But not everyone belongs to this stratum. There are billions of people in the world who, despite rising levels of media savvy, are still seeking a news source they can trust—especially about what is happening in their own country. Here is the lesson from Kyrgyzstan: The best way to serve both the short- and long-term goals of the United States is to provide people in unfree societies a model of what our own free and responsible media used to look like.