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P.J. O'Rourke Profiles RFE In 'World Affairs Journal'

P.J. O'Rourke looks at RFE's role in fostering civil society and the free flow of information across South Asia, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union for "World Affairs Journal." An excerpt is reprinted below, or read the entire article on the "World Affairs Journal" website.

Facts Meet Freedom: On The Air In Afghanistan

P.J. O'Rourke | World Affairs Journal

November/December 2010

At dinner in Prague with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s president, Jeff Gedmin, and half a dozen RFE/RL staffers, Gedmin said, to no one in particular, “Do you think at any time in the future history will look back and say, ‘I wish they hadn’t broadcast so much information’?”

It will be an unpleasant future if history says that. And it won’t be RFE/RL’s fault. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts information to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East in twenty-eight languages. Much of the information comes from the places where those twenty-eight languages are spoken. RFE/RL has five hundred and fifty employees in Prague—speaking the twenty-eight languages and then some—forty more back in Washington, and several hundred full- and part-time correspondents, editors, and technicians at bureaus in eighteen countries. Reporters are also working, sometimes clandestinely, in countries where RFE/RL bureaus aren’t allowed. The mission is to tell people living in those countries what is happening to them.

“I don’t know what’s happening to me” would be a statement of psychological or sociological distress in a liberal democracy, but it’s a plain statement of fact concerning the material world for anyone who doesn’t live in a liberal democracy. Government censorship of media, government influence on or ownership of media, and simple lack of infrastructure keep several billion people uninformed about the most important and intimate matters in their own lives. (And according to Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Iranian service, the Iranian judiciary has ruled that psychology and sociology should not be taught in schools.)

The concept of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is “surrogate broadcasting”—doing the job that independent media would do if there were any or enough of it in the places RFE/RL serves. Jeff Gedmin calls it “holding up a mirror.” It’s a Cold War idea. Radio Free Europe’s first broadcast was to Czechoslovakia in 1950, as the Communists were using show trials and purges to solidify their control in Prague.

Like its sister organization Voice of America, RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. government. But Voice of America is primarily about America. RFE/RL is primarily about Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, the Balkans, the North Caucasus region, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan...

Vaclav Havel, the first president of free Czechoslovakia, said, “I learned about America from VOA and learned about my own country from Radio Free Europe.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was talk in Washington about closing down Radio Free Europe. More thoughtful policymakers prevailed. With the New World Order came a new set of world disorders. Igor Pomeranzev, a Russian broadcaster for RFE/RL, told me what a Moscow cab driver told him: “In the old days, I listened to Radio Free Europe to get news about my country. Now—I listen to Radio Free Europe to get news about my country.”

RFE/RL no longer broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania (though it has added service to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and other places). The retrenchments may have been premature. Jay Tolson, RFE/RL’s news director, said the president of Romania told the BBC, which also had cut its Romania service, “You left too soon.”

Mardiros Soghom, RFE/RL’s deputy director of broadcasting strategy and operations, said that, in the matter of media independence, “Places like Latvia are losing ground. The trend lines are bad.” He was worried about a “reassertion of the Soviet sphere of influence” while, back in the U.S., there has been a “move toward more Middle East involvement” in concerns about media freedoms.

John O’Sullivan, RFE/RL’s executive editor, said, “Unless there’s a threat involved it’s hard to convince America it’s important.”

But there is a threat involved. O’Sullivan sees, in fact, two threats rising to replace the Cold War threat of international Communism. Jihadism is a threat of course, but so is what O’Sullivan calls “the politicized use of corruption.” Russia, most notably, has managed to harness corruption to increase the power of the state.

“Putin is combining the KGB elite with the oligarchs,” Soghom said.

The increase in state power is being used not just domestically but in foreign policy. And, O’Sullivan points out, politicized corruption and jihadism aren’t mutually exclusive. Witness the Taliban’s harnessing of Afghanistan’s opium crop.

The strange logic of jihadism and the strict solipsism of corruption are more difficult to combat, ideologically, than Marxism. Fortunately no ideology is needed. “We are carrying on an argument promoting liberty’s ideal,” Soghom said, “by just providing information.”

The most effective part of American foreign policy isn’t military or economic and it isn’t even really an ideal. It’s just an idea.

The idea is that nobody in the world thinks, “I wish I knew less. I wish other people could tell me anything, and I’d believe it because I don’t know any better. I wish other people could tell me what to do because they know what’s going on and I don’t. I wish other people could push me around.”

All the rights of freedom rest on freedom of speech, on information, on communication. Armand Mostofi, director of Radio Farda, said, “We try to provide a window to the free world.”

In return, the Iranian government spends, by the estimate of RFE/RL’s technicians, approximately $40 million a year jamming Radio Farda. This is roughly four times Farda’s annual budget. As a work-around, Farda uses shortwave, which is harder to jam, and Web sites on proxy servers, including one that was developed by Falun Gong supporters in China. Radio Farda has more than fifty thousand Facebook friends in Iran. The Iranian government has responded by buying Internet screening systems from China. The Iranian government has also responded with secret police legwork. An eyewitness phoned in a report of a demonstration against Iran’s rigged elections, and Iranian intelligence agents spent eleven months tracing the woman. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for giving information to Radio Farda—and for being at the demonstration. Iran’s minister of culture has written a book denouncing Radio Farda. Even the denunciation is secret. The print run was limited to three hundred—for official use only.

I asked why Iran was going to so much trouble. “What do they fear?”

“The truth,” said Mostofi, “about everything.”

Talking to Radio Farda staffers, I could understand that just the structure of the Iranian government is a truth that Iran would not like to have told. The mullahs and the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard seem to have sent themselves to night school, studying every style of totalitarianism. Mimicking the Brezhnev-era Soviet nomenklatura, they’ve created an elite on the take. The Revolutionary Guard Corps is, among other things, 125,000 bagmen skimming graft from the top posts in politics and industry. Iran’s dictators use the stratagems of theocracy with considerably more organizational skill than the Taliban. They employ the Stalinist technique of placing a “political officer”—a Revolutionary Guard member—with every military unit. Meanwhile, like the Nazi SS, they have the Revolutionary Guard as a military of their own. On the original fascist model, Iran is also organized from the bottom up, with the least employed and employable drawn into a militia force, the Basij, which has at least a nominal membership of 13.6 million. There are Basij branches within tribes, at offices, in colleges, high schools, grade schools, and summer camps. And all this is funded with petroleum reserves that allow the Iranian government to combine the “oil-archy” of Saudi Arabia with the isolationist Juche philosophy of North Korea.

Such a monumental structure of repression would seem hard to shake, but the smallest illuminations of ignorance appear to shake it. “Freedom of information for this regime is like sunshine for Dracula,” said Mostofi.

[continued on the "World Affairs Journal" website]