Right Voice for America

ABRAHAM M. HIRSCH

August 11, 1993|By ABRAHAM M. HIRSCH

The future of the Voice of America (VOA) and of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is still undecided. The public interest is to have a single effective, representative and affordable institution that speaks to foreign audiences on behalf of the American people.

It appears that high-level horse-trading now has resulted in a plan to divvy up language services broadcasting to target audiences in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, some remaining alive with RFE/RL, others with the VOA.

Congress has yet to decide on the proposal, but cutting up the baby is not a viable option. Two American ''ambassadors'' over the airways are by far less effective than one.

Although both VOA and RFE/RL are funded by the U.S. Government, they have very different characters.

VOA dates back to the darkest days of World War II, and was conceived primarily to counter German and other Axis war propaganda.

As an official American radio station it was a novelty, and it quickly gained esteem because it brought the war news with detachment and without passion, something that elsewhere only the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) came close to achieve.

RFE/RL was a Cold War instrumentality operating with CIA support. Its programming to eastern Europe and Soviet audiences was provocative, serving as much to undercut the claims of Communist regimes and be thorns in their sides as to give the Free World's side of the story.

Now the Cold War has ended and the U.S. seeks to find appropriate modes of maintaining relationships with the various post-Soviet and post-Iron Curtain governments. A lot of trial and error still lies ahead, but it is clear that the RFE/RL mode fosters confrontation rather than the conciliation and persuasion we seek through our public diplomacy.

RFE/RL's corporate home is in Munich, Germany.

When the dollar was high and the deutsche mark cheap, and Germany still susceptible to American influence, there were perceived advantages to it for broadcasting services beamed to eastern Europe and parts of the Soviet Union. Munich was so much closer to the audience, as well as to refugees and escapees who could bring information about conditions inside the target audience area.

Now all this has changed. The target areas are no longer shut hermetically. Germany is fully sovereign and pursues more and more (as well she should) a foreign policy distinctly German (not American, or Western in general), responsive to its national interests.

We cannot take for granted that Germany will continue to allow a foreign power to use its territory as a platform from which to originate political broadcasts. That is why we can ill afford, financially or politically, to continue to have a major diplomacy tool on German territory.

The VOA with its staffs of American broadcasting specialists is uniquely prepared to be effective in the post-Soviet and Iron Curtain milieu, as well as elsewhere where autocracy and democracy are still locked in battle.

VOA has seen it all, and has had marked success in reaching over 80 foreign audiences with broadcasts that support U.S. views and promote democracy and justice. Its permanent staffs of language and broadcasting specialists have the institutional experience of broadcasting as the voice of the American people and their government.

All over the world, VOA is a brand name signifying reliability, authoritativeness, accuracy and objectivity in news coverage; balanced projections of significant American thought and institutions; and clear explications of American policies in many fields. Such responsibilities can only be handled by one governmental or semi-governmental body singularly for this role.

For some 50 years, VOA has been America's ambassador over the airwaves. Replacing it makes no sense. But for years there have been calls to make VOA even more effective by dissolving the ties that bind it to USIA and giving it the status of an autonomous body with strong policy links to the official foreign-policy institutions (including USIA).

This is a good time to examine how to make VOA the U.S.'s Corporation for Public International Broadcasting.

Headquartered in Washington, and following a policy guidance from foreign affairs agencies as well as domestic entities active in arts and humanities, it would manage all U.S. broadcasting activity (which increasingly comes to include television along with radio).

Abraham M. Hirsch, a retired AID Foreign Service officer, worked at the Voice of America from 1986 to this year.

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