'Free' Radio Still Serves a Purpose



Once again the most successful international information-broadcasting programs ever run by the U.S. government are facing extinction. The Clinton administration is planning to phase out Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty this year.

From their founding in 1949 and 1951, Radio Free Europe (which broadcasts to Eastern Europe) and Radio Liberty (which broadcasts to the Soviet Union) have had a precarious, controversial, gloriously successful existence -- and made some powerful enemies.

The diplomats of the State Department have always found them a nuisance and an interference with the department's management of foreign policy. Only their audiences have been enthusiastic about these independently run, U.S.-financed radios.

By now, so many leaders of so many new democracies in Eastern Europe have heaped so much credit on the two stations that no one publicly questions their essential contribution to ending the Cold War. Lech Walesa, now the president of Poland, described Radio Free Europe as indispensable to Solidarity: ''The degree [of its importance] cannot even be described. Can you conceive the earth without the sun?''

And Vaclav Havel, now president of the Czech Republic, said of Radio Free Europe, ''You are the surrogate of the free and independent communication media that ought to exist over here, but don't.'' With this comment Mr. Havel described the radios as being exactly what they are intended to be: surrogates for providing the indigenous news and information that would have circulated in Eastern European and Soviet societies had they not fallen under totalitarian controls.

But who needs surrogate media now that the Cold War is over? Can't the countries do the job themselves? Can't the Voice of America do the job, as recommended by a presidential commission that reported to George Bush in August 1992?

I believe the presidential commission and the Clinton administration are mistaken when they conclude, first, that the radios are no longer needed, and, second, that the Voice of America can do the same job.

The Cold War is over, but democracy is not yet firmly rooted in formerly Communist societies. Information, news and public discussion are needed now in this time of transition. The radios can fill this need while local independent journalists and media are developing.

The Voice of America does not and cannot do the same job. It does not provide news and information from inside the countries it serves, but works from American perspectives and policies. But it is information about internal affairs that is especially needed in this time of transition to democracy.

Studies in 1991 of the two U.S.-sponsored broadcasting systems make the point: A random sample of Radio Free Europe programs in Hungary found that they devoted more than 42 items, or 40 percent of their first-run broadcast time, to Hungarian affairs, as compared to three items or 4 percent of VOA's first-run time. A comparable survey of Russian broadcasting revealed the same pattern. Voice of America dealt mainly with American topics, but 85 percent of Radio Liberty's day had a Soviet focus. It is this local focus that makes the broadcasts of the independent radios more interesting and believable to Hungarian and Russian audiences.

The two stations will not be needed in Eastern Europe forever, but they are needed now while democratic media take root in the countries that they have served for four decades. And they are urgently needed now in the former Yugoslavia to provide reliable information and news to these societies closed by repression and torn by war.

That is not all. If the Clinton administration is seriously committed to strengthening and extending democracy, then it will want Radio Free Asia to do for China, Tibet, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and other closed Asian countries what Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty did for Eastern Europe. That will not be achieved with a cautious approach fashioned inside the U.S. government. It is a job for an independent agency with its own priorities.

The incompatibility of conducting foreign policy and running international broadcasting led the British to make the BBC World Service an independent agency. Should the Clinton administration desire to improve the quality of U.S.-financed international broadcasting, it should consider moving the Voice of America out of the U.S. government rather than phasing out Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

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