Put Cold-War Radio Relics Out to Pasture

WHEN Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty became part of the cold-war arsenal of the United States in the years after World War II, East and West were locked in a titanic struggle centered on Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. No one thought these stations would still be around 40 years later. Today, with the cold-war thermometer at room temperature, President Bush wants the Berlin Wall torn down and Soviet troops out of Poland. The US should do its part by taking steps to close these broadcasting relics.

Those who want to keep these stations broadcasting will argue that conditions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union could change as fast as they have in China, that although today it might seem reasonable to shut down the transmitters, tomorrow the leaders of those countries might reverse glasnost and crack down on their media.

Such worries ignore the question of whether there is any justification for these stations, which consider themselves to be a part of the internal media environment of the countries to which they broadcast. They are not subject to the constraints of social responsibility that govern the operations of media systems inside any country. Interested in radical, though not necessarily violent, political change, they are a destabilizing force. This is not in US interests, particularly not at a 1989 operating cost of $191 million.

The Voice of America already offers these countries a strong dose of alternative news in their native languages. VOA has reporters in several of the East European capitals, including Moscow.

At the end of last year, when the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia joined their comrades in ceasing to jam Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, it was clear that they no longer viewed these stations as a threat to their internal life. As one Soviet journalism expert in Moscow put it, there's more interesting material in the Soviet media these days than there is on Radio Liberty.

That doesn't mean, of course, that Radio Liberty, which broadcasts to the Soviet Union, or Radio Free Europe, which broadcasts to the countries of Eastern Europe, doesn't still provide some news unavailable on domestic media. But there are 37 other radio stations broadcasting to the Soviet Union from 28 different countries. There would be no gap if Radio Liberty stopped its broadcasts. The same is true for Radio Free Europe.

A model for dealing with RFE/RL can be found in the approach to the Jackson-Vanik amendment on free emigration. This approach will help alleviate the worries of those who fear the reversibility of glasnost. This approach can be particularly effective now, when many of the East European countries are creating institutional safeguards for more freedom of the press.

The US should encourage movement toward a broadening of the media agenda and of political participation. Let Congress set up an independent professional commission to evaluate the legal steps these countries are taking toward creating a diverse and open media environment. Once satisfied that the legal groundwork is in place in a particular country, the commission should declare a two-year period during which the media operations would be monitored. After two years, if overall performance were rated good, the RFE or RL broadcasts to that country would cease.

When the Committee for a Free Europe was set up by the CIA to run RFE/RL, one of its first activities was to encourage refugees to conduct research. Ever since, one of the lesser known functions of RFE/RL has been its research activities. They have been appreciated by many persons in the scholarly community.

The money saved by closing down the various broadcast services of RFE/RL should be used to support research and training of Soviet and East European scholars and specialists in the US. That will serve United States interests in Eastern Europe far more than supporting the activities of 'emigr'e journalists.

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