Magazine | April 16, 2018, Issue

Still Broadcasting Freedom

RFE/RL in Kyrgyzstan (Photo: RFE/RL)
‘We believe that truth is the best propaganda’

One of the most interesting and admirable news organizations in the world is RFE/RL. Those letters stand for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The “radios,” as they’re also known, merged in 1976. Are they not a Cold War relic? Not at all — unfortunately. They are playing their old role, to a degree, as the Kremlin and others are playing theirs (to a degree).

Every day, the Kremlin and its partners spread propaganda, disinformation, and fake news. “Disinformation” is a term from the Cold War. It meant, not misinformation, which can be an honest mistake. (I tell you that the house is on Elm Street, not remembering that it’s on Maple Street.) Disinformation was, and is, a deliberate leading astray.

In 2016, the Kremlin fanned a story that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had been raped by Arab migrants. They tried the same trick in Lithuania, one year later. This time, they said a girl had been raped by German troops, serving in Lithuania as part of NATO. In March of this year, the Kremlin evidently carried out another chemical attack against targets in Britain. The flagship program of Russian state television, News of the Week, subsequently claimed that Theresa May, the British prime minister, had invented the nerve agent used (Novichok). The show also said, “English gentlemen may kill those they consider beneath them” — etc.

Thomas Kent, the president of RFE/RL, uses the term “false news,” rather than “fake news.” When people say “fake news,” they often mean news that is unwelcome to them, rather than actually fake or false. Jeffrey Gedmin, a past president of RFE/RL, speaks of “real fake news” — a funny term, but easy to understand.

In any event, the Kremlin and its partners spread fake or false news, and RFE/RL seeks to counter it. Team Putin seeks to undermine liberal democracy, and RFE/RL tries to encourage it. Furthermore, the radios highlight cases of injustice in unfree or only partly free countries, as they did of old. They are delivering news to people that their governments would rather keep from them — just as before.

Not too long ago, people were talking about shutting down the radios, as Tom Kent points out. What good were they? Why were they needed? Virtually no one says that now. Arch Puddington speaks of “the pressure of events.” A scholar at Freedom House in New York, Puddington literally wrote the book on the radios (Broadcasting Freedom, published in 2000). The pressure of events — Putin and Putinism — has made RFE/RL newly relevant, newly important.

Radio  Free Europe was founded in 1950 and Radio Liberty a year later. The former served Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe and the latter broadcast to the Soviet Union itself. These radios were staffed with émigrés, acting as “surrogate media,” as the RFE/RL phrase goes. In other words, the radios provided opposition media or independent media to places where those things were banned.

Jeff Gedmin quotes Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who, after the Fall of the Wall, would lead his country as president. Havel said that he learned about America from another U.S. service, the Voice of America. He learned about his own country from RFE/RL.

James L. Buckley is another past president of the radios — serving from 1982 to 1985. He loved the project, and he loved the job. There were headaches, though. One of them was infighting. The Polish émigrés might fight with the Romanian émigrés over grievances “that went back to the year 1112,” says Buckley. Also, you had politics back in Washington to contend with. (The radios were based in Munich.) But the people working at RFE/RL did “a superb job,” says Buckley. “They were able to transmit information that was regarded by the recipient as the most authoritative available from anywhere. Often, people in one part of Poland, let’s say, were totally unaware of what was happening in another part of Poland, a hundred miles away” — shipyard strikes, for example. And the radios let them know.

As Communism was unraveling, Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader in Poland, was asked what help the radios had been. He said he was at a loss to describe it. “Would there be an earth without the sun?”

Once the Cold War ended, many Americans thought the radios should dissolve — on grounds of mission accomplished. Others said, Not so fast: Let the radios continue to play their part while countries make a transition to democracy. Václav Havel was of this view. He invited RFE/RL to come to Prague, and occupy the Communists’ old parliamentary building. The radios’ budget had been slashed and the cost of staying in Munich had become prohibitive. Havel would charge them one Czech crown per year. So, the radios decamped to Prague, where they remain, though in different, nicer headquarters.

According to Arch Puddington — who would know — President Clinton was of a mind to shut the radios down. But “defense Democrats,” such as Lane Kirkland, the labor leader, and Ben Wattenberg, the onetime LBJ aide, prevailed on him to let them continue for a while.

Over time, countries graduated into democracy. They would not need the radios anymore. The Hungarian service ceased in 1993 and the Polish in 1997. Some people today believe that the radios should return to countries that have experienced “backsliding” — a slide away from democracy. This is a very touchy subject, and one for another article.

When Yugoslavia broke up, its constituents broke into war — protracted war, throughout the ’90s. The radios responded with broadcasts. They are broadcasting to those places still. You have a double-edged problem in the Balkans, says Kent: “influence from the East,” meaning Putin, and “extremist penetration,” meaning ISIS and kindred groups. Do governments in the region welcome RFE/RL? “They welcome us one day and criticize us the next,” says Kent.

The radios also broadcast to Iran. This service is known as Radio Farda, “Farda” meaning “Tomorrow.” They broadcast to Afghanistan as well — Radio Azadi (a word that means “liberty”). Pakistan, too, is targeted, or served, depending on your point of view. This is Radio Mashaal (“Torch”). The radios adapt to the “pressure of events,” to return to Puddington’s phrase. After the Kremlin seized Crimea in 2014, RFE/RL inaugurated special programming in Crimean Tatar.

If RFE/RL broadcasts to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, what about to Arab countries? These services fall under MBN, for Middle East Broadcasting Networks, an organization separate from RFE/RL. MBN is run by Alberto Fernandez, who is an interesting American story: A refugee from Cuba, he became one of the finest Arabists in the U.S. Foreign Service. Ryan Crocker, probably our most prominent Arabist, and a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, says this about Fernandez: “He appears on Arab talk shows and flings stuff around with the best of them.”

Anyway, RFE/RL never expired, even though the Soviet Union did. So when these radios were needed again, or desirable again, they were already up and running, as Crocker points out. This may not have been planned, but it was fortunate. As Fernandez is the right man for MBN, says Crocker, Tom Kent is the right man for RFE/RL: For one thing, “he knows Russia inside out.” Kent spent more than 40 years with the Associated Press, serving in a variety of posts, including Moscow bureau chief. He is something rare, it seems to me, and others: an old-fashioned newsman, with “old-fashioned” being a high compliment (along with “newsman”).

About its mission, the organization says this: “RFE/RL journalists report the news in 20 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.” What about balance? Is that an RFE/RL concern? Yes, but with this qualification: “We do not regard balance as meaning neutrality regarding the truth. When one side in a debate misrepresents the facts, ethical journalism requires pointing out falsehoods and stating what is factually correct.”

RFE/RL operates in 25 languages. It has more than 600 journalists at its headquarters in Prague, and approximately 450 journalists in 19 bureaus. In addition, the organization has more than 750 freelancers and stringers. They reach an audience of something like 26 million a week. That is an impressive number, but audience size is not the only or highest consideration. Many who consume the offerings of RFE/RL are reformers or would-be reformers or potential reformers in their societies. It was ever thus.

RFE/RL is funded by Congress through the aforementioned Broadcasting Board of Governors. Its budget is about $117.5 million. Gedmin points out that this is roughly the cost of three Apache helicopters. That is a lot of bang for the buck. James Kirchick, a writer who once worked for RFE/RL and is now at the Brookings Institution, recalls the words of James Mattis. Talking to congressmen last year, the secretary of defense said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

Kent says, “Sometimes people think of international media like us as soft power — but this isn’t soft power like sending around a symphony orchestra. What we put into the machine is legitimate, professional journalism. But what comes out of it looks like hard power to some of the regimes. They see it as a threat, and respond accordingly.”

The Azerbaijani government closed down the RFE/RL bureau in Baku, and the Pakistani government closed down the RFE/RL bureau in Islamabad. The radios still transmit to those countries from elsewhere. Many RFE/RL journalists are under threat. Saparmamed Nepeskuliev is in a Turkmenian prison. Stanislav Aseyev is held by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. And so on. Not only are journalists under threat, but so are their families. Such is the thirst of illiberal forces to shut down news and debate. Kent says, “We report on local politics, social issues, corruption, wars, and extremist movements in places where both governments and non-state actors would prefer to control the media. Our reporters take enormous risks because they believe their work matters and that free societies need a free press.”

When we speak of RFE/RL, we say “the radios,” out of habit and tradition. But the organization transmits through TV, the Web, and social media as well. You would be surprised, says Kent, how many people in northwest Pakistan have smartphones, on which they watch the radios’ YouTube channel.

One of the radios’ most successful projects is Current Time, a 24/7 television network in Russian. It was launched in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the start of war in eastern Ukraine. It is an alternative to Kremlin-controlled media. There are some 300 million Russian-speakers in the world, and Current Time goes wherever they are. That includes the Baltics, Moldova, Georgia, Central Asia — even Israel (where 1.5 million people speak Russian).

Kenan Aliyev is the executive director for feature programming at Current Time. A native of Azerbaijan, he joined RFE/RL in 1994 as a stringer. He says that there is a hungry audience for Current Time’s programming. “They are bombarded by state propaganda, and they need something else.” The Kremlin throws up obstacles to Current Time, denying it cable access, for example. The Kremlin’s own network, RT, has a much easier time in the United States. But Current Time manages to get through, via digital platforms and satellite.

“We don’t do propaganda,” says Aliyev. “We believe that truth is the best propaganda.” Vitaly Mansky, a well-known Russian filmmaker, has given this testimony: Current Time is “the only television in the world that tells us, in Russian, the truth about the current state of affairs.”

Tom  Kent says that RFE/RL reporters “have a strong sense of mission.” He also says that “governments and other political forces are becoming more and more expert at disinformation, at false news, which makes our blood boil” — and which adds to their sense of mission.

I am an American journalist and hardly the target audience of RFE/RL. But I’ve been reading them on the Web for about six months and find myself better off for it: informed and even enriched. Have a sampling from the last couple of weeks.

One story begins, “A Russian whistle-blower linked to slain Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has handed herself in to the police in Greece, saying she feared for her life.” Another story is headed “Putin’s Pals, the Night Wolves, Troll Bosnia and the Region.” It begins, “The motorcycle club whose members were at the vanguard of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, nicknamed ‘Putin’s Angels’ by the media, is on the road again.”

RFE/RL did an interview with the daughter of the man who wrote Putin’s doctoral dissertation. (The woman is living in Poland.) After Putin’s latest (sham) election, RFE/RL ran a headline that went, “RT’s Top Editor Toasts Putin: ‘He Used to Be Our President; Now He Is Our Leader.’” That word “leader” is a translation. The article explained that the editor was “using a Russian word often associated with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.”

Utterly fascinating is a report about a war — about two wars, actually, in Syria and Ukraine. It begins,

The Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria say they are not in the country for the money or to help Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“Syrians can’t stand Assad,” one Russian mercenary commander told RFE/RL. “Really. Only a tiny percentage of the population there supports him and the rest oppose him. Only Putin supports him. Russia supports him — no one else.”

There is a bigger motivation, the mercenary claimed. “If you are fighting under a Russian flag, with a Russian weapon, even if you are eating moldy food and are 10,000 kilometers from home, you are nonetheless fighting for Russia,” he said.

“There is no Syrian war,” he added. “There is no Ukrainian war. There is only a war between the Russian Federation and the United States.” 

In America, you often hear accusations of “Cold War nostalgia,” made by Left and Right. Only a fool would want another cold war (with its attendant hot wars). But, as before, if one side stirs up trouble, the other side can respond or not. You may not be interested in war, goes an old line, but war is interested in you. In any case, the U.S. radios serve an important function. Chances are, most Americans don’t know about them. If they did, however, I suspect a majority would be pleased and proud.

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