Assault on RFE

AS the Clinton administration's foreign policy comes under a more severe review, so should its efforts to strip down Radio Free Europe, one of the most effective policy instruments the United States still has in East Europe and the post-Soviet states.

The sizable role RFE played in bringing down communist regimes showed the power of truth and ideas in the battle for hearts and minds behind the Iron Curtain. Given the dangerous rightward direction East Europe and Russia are going, one would think RFE would get more serious attention and support. If the current nationalist-fed crisis in the Balkans should teach anything, for example, it should teach the incredible power that broadcast lies and propaganda can have in inciting the hatred that leads to bloodshed and war. The insanity in the former Yugoslavia began in the Belgrade and Zagreb media.

Yet the White House still labors under the assumption that the post-cold-war world is a sunnier place of expanding markets and transitions to democracy - and that RFE is a cold-war dinosaur to be phased out. The plan under way by White House and Congress, led by Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, will cut RFE and Radio Liberty from $210 million to $70 million in a single year, move RFE headquarters from Munich to Prague, cut the staff from 1,500 to 700, and put the entire operation under US Information Agency control.

The result of this quite misguided effort is likely to be a loss of credibility for RFE, which, unlike Voice of America, is still seen in the East as a serious source of news and commentary. Top staffers in the Russian area such as Elizabeth Teague and Alexander Rahr are leaving in protest.

Sadly, the White House policy does not take into account the power of media in European spheres. Not enough regard is evident for the ``bully pulpit'' of liberal, democratic, and multiethnic voices RFE provides - its basic values. Nor does the new direction account for how needed accurate information and diverse viewpoints still are in the East, where new press freedoms are waning. The shaky position of Boris Yeltsin and the media savvy of fascists like Zhirinovsky are a warning.

One of the tragedies of RFE has been the waste, fraud, and abuse of RFE management during the late 1980s. Mr. Feingold has made much of these problems. Yet steps can be taken to correct them (and are), without damaging the possibilities of RFE. The president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, does not agree with the junior senator from Wisconsin that RFE should be cut. An administration so attentive to the power of media perception at home should certainly recognize its importance abroad.

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