Broadcasting to Hotspots: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Today

Speech by Thomas Dine, President, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

May 06, 2004

There's a Washington conversation that I have over and over again. Someone asks me what I do. I say, "I'm the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty." The person then says one of two things: "I didn't know Radio Free Europe still existed," or "But isn't Europe already free?" Today I want to address these misconceptions about RFE/RL: that Europe is free; that RFE/RL focuses solely on Europe; in short, that RFE/RL is a Cold War relic and not relevant to today's world.

To start, though, let me give you a brief overview of who we are. RFE/RL broadcasts to 19 countries in 28 languages, none of which is English. 19 of our 28 language services are directed at majority-Muslim populations. We have bureaus in every one of our countries but Iran and Turkmenistan.

We are a "surrogate broadcaster," which means that our mission, unlike that of Voice of America, is to broadcast news and information about the individual countries listening to us, not about the United States—unless the news from Washington involves one or more of our countries. In addition to radio, RFE/RL is very prominent on the Internet—nearly all of our broadcast services operate top-notch local-language websites, and our main website averages about 6 million page views a month. We are also on television in a handful of countries.

Let me now address the first question, "Isn't Europe already free?" People often forget that the eastern border of Europe is not Warsaw or Bucharest or even St. Petersburg—it's the Ural Mountains, two time zones east of Moscow. To put it another way—the geographic center of Europe isn't Germany or Austria. It's Ukraine.

We can divide our European countries into two groups: the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union.

It is a mistake to believe that the arrest of Milosevic marked the end of the turmoil in the former Yugoslavia. Most of it is politically and economically crippled; the odds of further ethnic bloodshed are high; corruption is pervasive; and the emergence of a free press has been stunted.

In Serbia, the euphoria that greeted the ouster of Milosevic has given way to a prevailing attitude that can best be described as a noxious brew of nationalism and self-pity. The strongest party is now the ultra-nationalistic Serbian Radical Party, and vestiges of Milosevic's criminal regime survive nearly intact—the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic last year was merely the most tragic example of its continuing influence. Meanwhile, the economy is a shambles, and since foreign investors want little to do with Serbia, there is no improvement in sight.

Furthermore, Serbia's territorial integrity is anything but certain. In Montenegro, about half the people want to secede from the federation with Serbia, while the other half want to stay. And in Kosovo, the worst ethnic violence since NATO's military action erupted in March of this year. Analysts say that, far from being an isolated incident, this latest outbreak of hostilities was the tip of the iceberg. When you consider that unemployment in Kosovo is between 60% and 70%, and that a majority of the population lives in poverty, it's hard to be hopeful that tolerance will prevail. If ethnic violence does recur in Kosovo, it will certainly destabilize another of our broadcast countries—Macedonia—where 25% of the population is ethnic Albanian.

Finally, Bosnia and Herzegovina has also been unable to move beyond nationality-based infighting. Local government bodies are strictly loyal to members of their own nationality, and the nationalistic ruling parties resist market reforms because they fear they will lose their grip on power. For the politicians in power in Bosnia, the war is not over, but merely in remission.

The reason RFE/RL plays such a critical role in the Balkans is that it is the only local-language media outlet that speaks to, and for, all the ethnic groups; the rest of the media have come to serve as inflammatory voices of intolerance. The uniqueness of our programming is reflected in our outstanding ratings—our numbers in the former Yugoslavia are consistently among the highest in our broadcast portfolio.

The second group of our European countries is, as I mentioned, the former Soviet Union, and, if I haven't depressed you enough already, I have to tell you that the former Soviet Union makes the former Yugoslavia look like Switzerland. Everyone in this room remembers the sense of hope we felt when the U.S.S.R. collapsed. Fifteen nations had been freed from Moscow's control, and each of them would pursue its own path not only towards an independent national identity, but towards freedom and democracy. Alas, with the exception of the three Baltic republics, the freedom-and-democracy part hasn't proven true.

Let's begin with the three countries of the Caucasus, where our weekly listenership ratings are very high, close to 20%. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia was certainly considered one of the republics likeliest to succeed. It was a Christian country with close ties to the West, a highly educated populace, and a cohesive, talented diaspora. But, after an initial period of reform, Armenia has regressed into a corrupt oligarchy. No wonder it has lost nearly a third of its population to emigration since 1992.

Azerbaijan, too, seemed promising, mainly because western investors were flocking there for its oil. However, it, too, has succumbed to oligarchy, and in fact last year, Azerbaijan earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first former Soviet republic in which power was transferred from father to son.

To complete the Caucasian triumvirate: Georgia experienced happy news at the end of last year, when a peaceful protest movement led to the collapse of Eduard Shevardnadze's corrupt government, and the election of a true democrat, Mikhail Saakashvili, to the presidency. Unfortunately, President Saakashvili has inherited a mess. Two provinces want to secede from Georgia and unite with Russia; a third region, Adjaria, has demanded more independence from Tbilisi; its infrastructure is decimated; and corruption is endemic among its workforce.

In the early hours of this morning, the Adjaria crisis came to an end when its warlord was persuaded by Minister Ivanov of Russia to step down and seek asylum in Moscow. Our Georgian Service broadcast all last night and this morning, live.

The next country in RFE/RL's European portfolio, Moldova, is the poorest nation in Europe. In 2001, Moldova became the first former Soviet state to elect an unreformed Communist president; every year, President Voronin pays his respects at the monument to Lenin in the capital. To visit Moldova is to take a trip to a Twilight Zone in which there are lots of old people, lots of children, and almost no one in between—they've all left to go find work in other countries. Over the last our years, our Moldovan Service has doubled its listenership.

Further north, we have Belarus, Europe's most repressive nation. Belarus is run by a psychopath named Alexander Lukashenka, who openly admires Stalin and who did business with Saddam Hussein. Needless to say, Lukashenka isn't very fond of RFE/RL, which is probably why this year our Minsk bureau has been burglarized, threatened with eviction, and visited by the tax police.

Russia is one of the great underreported stories in the world today. Here we have a former superpower that, having experimented with democracy, has reverted to autocracy. My Moscow colleagues tell me that they have not felt such a climate of enforced orthodoxy since the 1970s. Putin is so powerful, and so feared, that no one in the Russian government arrives at work before noon, and no one leaves before 10 p.m.—because that is the schedule that Putin keeps. The last time the Kremlin observed this ominous practice was during the rule of Stalin.

Just this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Russia one of the ten worst places in the world to be a journalist, citing President Putin's use of sham lawsuits and corporate maneuvers to virtually eliminate independent media. Television and radio are now little more than an arm of the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Putin continues to go to great lengths to obstruct coverage of the war in Chechnya, something we at RFE/RL experienced in 2000, when our reporter Andrei Babitsky was kidnapped in Chechnya by Russian FSB, disappeared for over 5 weeks, and finally dumped out of the trunk of a car in Mahashkala, Dagestan one cold February day.

We complete this survey of our European broadcast area with the biggest disappointment of all: Ukraine. With a well-educated population of 48 million, Ukraine had the potential to become one of the great nations of Europe. Instead, under the corrupt rule of President Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine has become an embarrassment. It has forged commercial relationships with Iran, Syria, Libya, and Iraq. The Kuchma administration has also aggressively subverted the democratic process, employing an array of dirty tricks and brutal tactics. It is no wonder that "Ukraine fatigue" has become a term of art in the State Department and at the EU.

Ukraine will elect a new president in October. But Kuchma is so determined to keep his cronies in power that he has unleashed a severe crackdown on independent media—and his main target is RFE/RL. In February, our most important affiliate network in Ukraine, after being taken over by supporters of Kuchma, kicked us off the air. In March, a Kyiv station that had begun to air RFE/RL programming two days earlier was raided and closed by the authorities. And on that very same day, the director of another station was killed in a car accident while on his way to a meeting with an RFE/RL representative. With an election just months away, Kuchma feels he cannot afford to have RFE/RL around.

I give you this tour of Eastern Europe not only to show that Europe is not free, but because something very important is at stake here. Right now, the United States is engaged in a massive effort to promote democracy in the Middle East. But I worry that by focusing on the Middle East, we are neglecting to finish the job much closer to home, in Eastern Europe. We suffer from a sort of "political attention deficit disorder"; we pay attention whenever missiles are launched, but once the bombs stop falling, we stop watching. Most Americans think that Europe has been taken care of, and we can now move on to the Middle East. But, as I have just described, a large part of Europe has not been taken care of.

Furthermore, experts agree that one of the pillars of Putin's political identity going forward will be an increasingly assertive foreign policy in places that used to report to Moscow. Since the former republics of the Soviet Union have such shoddy governments now, and are in such dire straits economically, I am very apprehensive about what Eastern Europe may look like in the near future. We cannot discount the possibility that not one but several dictatorships will be reborn in the heart of Europe.

To address the second widespread misconception about RFE/RL, that we are solely engaged with Europe: the facts are otherwise. About half of the countries to which we broadcast are in Asia. And they, too, desperately need what RFE/RL offers.

Let's start with Iran, because this has been a depressing talk so far, and Iran is a country I have high hopes for—an exciting crucible. Iran may be run by religious fanatics, but its population is young, pro-West, and pro-democracy. 70% of the Iranian population is under the age of 30. The regime is doomed, as a simple matter of demographics.

Because of the extraordinarily youthful skew of Iran's population, we decided to try something a little different with Iran. In December of 2002, we launched a joint venture with our sister entity, Voice of America, called Radio Farda. Radio Farda is a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week station that combines, in a fast-paced format, eight hours of serious news coverage each day with a mix of Western and Iranian pop music.

The response has been extraordinary: over 20% of Iranians between the ages of 18 and 29 listen to Radio Farda at least once a week. Over 40,000 visitors a day use the Farda website to listen to the station over the Internet. Thousands of messages a week pour into Farda's telephone call-in service. And 76% of the Iranian people consider it a reliable source of news and information. So much for the Great Satan. The theocrats are obviously scared, and last year they started jamming Farda's broadcast signal, blocking access to its website, and incarcerating our correspondents.

Another Asian hotspot is Afghanistan. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, members of the House of Representatives asked us to create a broadcast service to Afghanistan. Four months after the attacks, Radio Free Afghanistan was up and running, broadcasting 12 hours a day in Dari and Pashto to that beleaguered country.

Reminiscent of scenes in movies when someone who's been crawling through the desert for days finally finds water and gulps it down with tremendous intensity, the response to our broadcasts in Afghanistan has been overwhelming. This is because under the Taliban, the people weren't just denied objective news and information—they were denied radios. In Kabul now, 54% of Afghans listen to us weekly, and in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif that figure climbs to 68%. Nothing in my job makes me happier than reading the messages we get from our listeners, male and female. Radio Free Afghanistan has made an immediate difference in the lives of the newly free Afghan people.

But recall the "political A.D.D." that I mentioned earlier. I am worried that the United States and its allies are not following through on their promise to rebuild the country. Afghanistan today does not have functioning institutions. Outside Kabul, security is worse than it was under the Taliban. Aid workers are being murdered at an alarming rate, and as a result relief organizations are drastically scaling back operations. The capital barely has contact with, let alone control over, the rest of the country, which is run by regional warlords. And our correspondents believe the Taliban is regrouping. Obviously, Afghanistan will remain one of our most important broadcast targets for years to come.

I'm going to skip over Iraq, where we broadcast in Arabic and Kurdish, for two reasons. First, I think it's safe to say that everyone in this room is well aware of what's going on there. Second, to my enormous regret, the Administration's FY05 budget calls for the termination of Radio Free Iraq at the end of this fiscal year. It is now up to Congress to decide whether to acquiesce or continue funding it to the tune of $2.2 million a year. Whatever the outcome, I am delighted with what RFI has accomplished in its five years; the latest research shows that a whopping 34.4% of Iraqis listen to us each week.

I'll conclude this tour of our Asian broadcast area with the five Central Asian former republics of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The most benign of the bunch are Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where reporters do operate with relative autonomy, provided that they don't make any trouble for the people in power. Unfortunately, that's as good as it gets in Central Asia today. Each of the other three states has, since obtaining independence from Moscow, morphed into a post-Soviet version of The Sopranos, where one crime family rules through intimidation and violence.

In Kazakhstan, it's the Nazarbayev family, and they don't like it when journalists stick their noses in their business. In the last three years, newspapers have been burglarized, their employees beaten, and their offices burned to the ground. Three independent TV stations were shut down in 2002 alone. Journalists who dare investigate the corrupt business practices of the Nazarbayev family are sent to jail. Soon RFE/RL may be the only independent media outlet operating in Kazakhstan—the rest are all controlled by the President's daughter, Darigha.

Uzbekistan is run by the Karimov family, and conditions there are worse than they are in Kazakhstan. Journalists who report on the crime, corruption, and poverty plaguing Uzbekistan are routinely fired—and they're the lucky ones; many have been arrested, injured, and jailed. In many cases, it is publicity by RFE/RL that saves these brave journalists from lengthier prison sentences. I myself felt a surge of intense contempt for the Uzbek regime last year, when a group of 20 thugs, no doubt working for the government, surrounded one of our correspondents as he reported on an incident at Tashkent's central market, beat him, and stole his equipment.

The final Mafia state in Central Asia is Turkmenistan, and, though it may be hard to believe after the foregoing discussion, Turkmenistan is the worst of all of them. The dictator of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, has constructed a cult of personality there that would have made Romania's Ceausescu blush. Every newspaper lists Niyazov as its founder. All editors are personally appointed by Niyazov. Censorship is total. The most important news story, every day, is the magnificence of Niyazov.

We have correspondents in Turkmenistan, but they must work in secret, using pseudonyms. Unfortunately, they do not always succeed in remaining anonymous. In the past year alone, several of our reporters in Turkmenistan have been abducted, beaten, and jailed. And our stringer in Moscow was savagely beaten just last week. That these brave men and women are willing to risk their lives so that their compatriots can at least hear a little bit of truth every day never fails to move me. They are true heroes.

As you can see, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has as much to do with Asia as it does with Europe. In fact, since we are funded by the government, our priorities as an organization largely track its priorities, and right now the biggest priority of the government is combating terrorism. That's why I always have to laugh when people claim that RFE/RL is a relic—especially since 19 of our 28 broadcast languages are directed at predominantly-Muslim populations.

In fact, as part of the War on Terror, RFE/RL hopes to redouble its radio, television, and Internet efforts to the five Central Asian states over the next 12 months. Although these former Soviet states may seem to have little to do with Islamist terrorism, we at RFE/RL believe that Central Asia could well be the next front in the global War on Terror. Already, at least two terrorist organizations are operating within these countries, seeking to establish Islamic theocracy. Most importantly, these Central Asian nations are exactly the kind of places that can become breeding grounds for terrorism. Remember that almost all of the terrorists of 9/11 came not from Muslim countries whose governments professed hatred of the United States (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan) but from Muslim countries whose governments are friendly with the United States: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The same is true of these Central Asian states, where west-friendly autocrats rule over Muslim populations, and where the U.S. government has made alliances of necessity while pursuing the larger goal of toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

As the people living under these regimes become more and more bitter about the hopelessness of their lives, they are drawn to more radical belief systems. The best way to combat the growth of such radicalism is not to make society less free, as these Central Asian dictators have done, but to make it more free. RFE/RL looks forward to intensifying the fight to make Central Asia a freer, and therefore safer, place.

I hope that I have succeeded today in getting my message across. RFE/RL is not a Cold War relic, but a modern media organization communicating to the world's most unstable hotspots. Today we cannot know what the next Afghanistan will be—-just as we can't know where the next Srebrenica massacre will occur, or where the next militant Islamic revolution will erupt. But the likelihood is that many people there are listening to RFE/RL, and they are grateful that we have not stopped fighting for our shared values: the free flow of information, human rights, freedom and democracy.