U.S. broadcasts target repressive regimes Radio networks beaming at 29 nations, 9 more than at pinnacle of Cold War

December 13, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- It is late afternoon, but in the studios of Radio Free Asia, Jenny Choi is reading the 7 a.m. news -- to North Korea.

Speaking softly in Korean, she and a co-anchor report on long-running Korean negotiations and a forthcoming visit by a U.S. envoy, and discuss the mysterious deaths of 71 cattle shipped to the famine-stricken nation. Every story is about North Korea.

"Today we have so much news," program director Jaehoon Ahn says.

Never mind that the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang sometimes jams Radio Free Asia's twice-daily broadcasts. Or that few North Koreans own shortwave radios. Or that most radios there are configured to tune in only government propaganda channels.

Growing networks

Such problems hardly discourage those who champion U.S. government broadcasts as a way of opening closed societies. Indeed, radio networks created to help fight communism not only survived the Cold War, but are growing as never before.

Radio Free Iraq and a Farsi language service for Iran were launched Oct. 30. Like Radio Free Asia, both are "surrogate" stations, reporting news that Baghdad and Tehran might otherwise censor about local corruption, human rights abuses and other sensitive topics.

Not surprisingly, the new networks infuriated their targets. Iran almost immediately recalled its ambassador from the Czech Republic for consultations and froze trade ties to protest the U.S. broadcasts, which are directed from offices in Prague. Tehran radio quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying the Czech Republic had "backed hostile action by America."

All told, the United States uses the airwaves to target at least 29 countries, from emerging post-Communist democracies to some of the world's most repressive regimes. That is nine more than at the height of the Cold War. The United States also sponsors the Voice of America, Washington's official broadcast arm. Voice of America transmits international and U.S. news, rather than local reports, in a record 52 languages, up from 36 a decade or so ago.

Costs have also grown. Congress approved $397 million for overseas broadcasting this fiscal year, the most ever.

No more 'bad guys'

"I think we have vastly more support in Washington today than we did five years ago," said Paul Gobel, Washington spokesman for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which broadcasts to the former Soviet republics and most of Eastern Europe. "And that's because the euphoria is over.

"When the Berlin Wall came down and then the Soviet Union collapsed, people were saying, 'History is over, capitalism and democracy have won, the bad guys are finished. Good job, everybody. Go home.' Well, it didn't work out that way," Gobel said.

Founded and originally funded by the CIA in the early 1950s, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was put under congressional control in 1971. But by 1994, with the Iron Curtain long down, Washington was ready to pull the plug. RFE/RL then cost $220 million a year, and a scandal erupted over reports that officials at headquarters in Munich, Germany, were drawing $200,000-plus salaries. Critics called it a gold-plated Cold War relic.

But allies began surfacing in high places. They argued that uncensored U.S. broadcasts had played a key role in bringing down communism, and that the job wasn't finished.

Among others, Vaclav Havel, the dissident-turned-president of the Czech Republic, weighed in with lavish praise, declaring that free and credible media were crucial for the transition to democracy. He offered the network a new home in the former parliament building in downtown Prague -- for $1 a month.

The result: After bitter debate, Congress cut RFE/RL's budget by two-thirds to $70 million. President Clinton backed off a pledge to eliminate the network by 1995. It moved from Munich to Prague, slashed its staff by nearly three-fourths, restructured itself and continued broadcasting.

Although RFE/RL is running the new Iraq and Iran services from Prague, transmission is from Greece, Germany and Britain. Initial broadcasts were only 30 minutes a day, but within a year, six hours daily are planned. As usual, the services will rely largely on exiles and emigres for reporters, and programs will use sensitive material smuggled out, as well as more traditional news sources.

Iranian officials began complaining even before the broadcasts began, calling them an obstacle to warmer relations with Washington.

An unlikely critic

But complaints also came from what would appear an unlikely source -- the Voice of America.

VOA officials noted that with few interruptions, they have been ,, broadcasting nonpolitical news and features to Iran and Iraq since 1942 and have a large following. So do the British Broadcasting Corp., German radio and other international networks.

"The fact is that in Iran, the VOA has a huge listenership," said former VOA Director Geoffrey Cowan. "They know they get balanced information about Iran. And we had a gigantic listenership in Iraq. That's how people get their news."

VOA's ire is mostly aimed these days at Radio Free Asia, which went on the air two years ago and broadcasts to Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Tibet and North Korea. Those countries already received VOA local-language broadcasts.

"The reality is RFA is very often jammed more than not," said Evelyn S. Lieberman, current VOA director. In any case, she added, "We already have high listenership in many of the places they're broadcasting to."

VOA says its research shows 83 million people listen to its shortwave broadcasts each week. And that, spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn gleefully added, "is more than watch ABC, CBS and NBC news combined."

RFA cannot demonstrate that it has a large audience, or indeed any significant audience at all. That has raised doubts on Capitol Hill.

"I'm very skeptical of how useful it is," said a senior congressional staffer who follows Asia.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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