Friday, February 10, 2006

Journalism the World Needs

There were many causal factors behind the downfall of communism in 1989; certainly personally deserves much of the credit, though he was actually trying to reform his government so radically that the might survive.

I used to go to the Soviet Union about once a year, where I always met with some dissidents who opposed the regime at great personal risk. They all told me that the main reason why public opinion in their country turned against Communism was the enormous impact made by from abroad, especially by the BBC, the (Radio Free Europe/ (RFE/RL). It was illegal to listen to these broadcasts, but millions of people did so anyway. For example, the physicist (see photo) had been subjected to internal exile in . He told me that the men in his village there would go out fishing on the lake with their radios, where it was safe to listen to foreign broadcasts. Until 1988 the regime kept trying to jam the programs, but they never fully succeeded, so the Russian people became aware of the ' movement.

One day Orlov went to a house to borrow a tool and struck up a conversation with the woman there, who recognized his name. She recounted that when she had been in high school in Novosibirsk, she and the other girls would go to the washroom to listen to the BBC, which always kept them up to date with the dissidents’ activities.

The reason they listened was that these stations told the truth about matters that the Communist dictatorship preferred to hide. Broadcasting by , they acquired enormous credibility.

For many years, the United States and the Soviet Union were both “courting” Yugoslavia’s President . In order to avoid offending him, RFE/RL refrained from broadcasting into his country. Some observers have suggested that the reason Yugoslavia did not break away from Communism when the other European states did in 1989 was because public opinion had not been exposed the foreign short wave programming.

When it comes to making an impact on public opinion around the world today, there are still broadcasts beaming out to almost every country, but the reportage now lacks credibility. This decline can be blamed directly on the US government – which is a pity because a great deal depends today on spreading democratic values, especially in Islamic societies.

In 1942 when the Voice of America went on the air for the first time in German, it made this promise: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth." That promise of truthfulness is no longer being kept. The Voice of America instead is broadcasting messages that are clearly , and its content is accountable to Congress. (Mark Hopkins,

Besides VOA, Congress pays some $400 million per year to broadcast Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, plus numerous newer services such as Radio Free Asia in local languages.

RFE was originally the broadcaster for the National Committee for a Free Europe, which was founded in 1949 to transmit short-wave programs from Munich into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Until 1971, its funding came through the , though this was not acknowledged. Thereafter it became a non-profit-making corporation funded openly by Congress and overseen by the International Broadcasting Bureau. In 1975 RFE merged with Radio Liberty, a similar US-funded organization that had been founded in 1951.

In 1993, with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, some American politicians believed that RFE/RL was no longer needed and should be disbanded. Instead, its headquarters was moved to Prague from Munich at the invitation of the Czech president, who had been a dissident himself and remained grateful for its work. Its bureaus now exist in all the Eastern European countries that used to try to jam its programs.

In 1999, these services were transferred to the control of the US State Department, overseen by a nine-member board of governors, who oversee all U.S. global radio and television programming. The board is accountable to the president and Congress.

Unfortunately, the board members lack experience in , and they do not agree about the proper responsibility for broadcasting. In theory, their “arms-length” relationship to Congress protects the broadcasters from censorship and political pressure. In reality, however, the board’s terms of reference require them to make US broadcasting promote the government’s foreign policies. In one annual report, for example, the mandate is expressed this way: "Our broadcasts promote democracy, encourage trade and investment, educate about health, expose human rights abuses and set an example of the power of a free press for the world."

But the question is: Just how “free” is the press under this arrangement? Not very. The content is biased. The most promising way of fostering democracy from abroad in dictatorships is by means of fair, balanced overseas broadcasting. Some other societies now recognize the importance of this approach. Norway, in particular, is broadcasting into such countries as Burma, allowing for the dissdemination of all points of view. At a time when democratic societies are engaged in a "war against terrorism,' one essential objective must be to persuade Islamic populations in particular to think critically and recognize the value of free speech. American radio and TV shows should encourage a wide diversity of content. Anyone who wishes to criticize the United States should be encouraged to do so. There is nothing wrong with having commentators who also defend the official government policies – so long as there is balance, truth, and fairness. Other points of view should be expressed freely. Only programming of this nature can regain the credibility that was once accorded to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, and that is still enjoyed by the BBC World Service.


Anonymous Kermit said...


Great post.

FYI, most educated/middle class Iranians have satellite dishes on their roofs. Using these, they are able to watch CNN, BBC World, and EuroNews, as well as Al Jazeera, stupid Iranian Los Angeles-based talk shows, Arab music television channels, and tons of other stuff. These dishes are technically illegal but generally tolerated. The commonly-held story about why the Etellaat (intelligence service) or other entities periodically sweep neighborhoods to confiscate them is that supposedly one of Rafsanjani's sons controls the black market for the satellite equipment and uses the sweeps to increase sales. I believe it.

As a tangential aside, just wait for the US to eventually make a deal with Rafsanjani, who is widely hated by Iranians but liked by Bushies. There is joke name that people call him, playing on his name- "Rasman ja'ani"- which means basically "common criminal". He is the Don Corleone of Iran. You want a deal done, you go to Rafsanjani. If he becomes president again, he may allow women to show a little hair, but nothing will happen about Iran's rampant corruption.


5:51 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

I'm glad you mentioned that. I knew that TV reception is possible throughout the Middle East, so the situation there cannot be compared to some Asian dictatorships. In Burma people are actually afraid to listen to the programming that Norway broadcasts. They apparently do their best to enforce the bans. And of course the Chinese are trying to suppress communication but, despite the deplorable collaboration by Google and Yahoo, are losing ground to freedom.
BTW, I tried to reply to your phone message, Kermit, but the number is a pager that's out of service.

4:23 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Feb. 14th, and I still have it wrong. Nobody recognizes you at that number.

2:31 AM  

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