The Reagan administration wants to help Soviet propagandists get their message across to Americans. No, that is not a misprint.
United States Information Agency director Charles Z. Wick says, ``I'm talking to some American radio networks and stations to see what interest they would have in providing access for Soviet broadcasts. And I've found an enthusiasm. . . .''
But it is not exactly altruism that is behind the US effort. Instead, the US is now testing the limits of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's call for glasnost, or openness in the Soviet media.
Specifically, the question is whether Mr. Gorbachev will permit the Soviet Union to become open to ideas from the outside. And one measure, in the eyes of US government officials, is whether the Soviets are willing to stop jamming foreign radio broadcasts.
Mr. Wick's efforts to secure the Soviets broadcast time in the US is an enticement. In return, he expects the Soviet Union to stop jamming broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA), and also to provide the US government with air time on Soviet state-controlled, medium-wave stations.
``Reciprocity,'' says Wick, ``is implicit. They can't say they want to have it only one way.''
Wick says some American radio broadcasters have ``volunteered that they would be happy to furnish [access] without compensation in the national interest.''
Wick's efforts on behalf of the Soviets are the latest wrinkle in an ongoing campaign by the US to cajole and, if necessary, embarrass the Soviet Union into dropping the practice of jamming American radio broadcasts. It comes at a time when there seems to be a shift in Soviet thinking about the wisdom and utility of the practice.
Information from the outside has long been considered a dangerous thing in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin required that all radios be registered with the police. At the outbreak of World War II, all shortwave receivers were summarily confiscated by the Soviet authorities.
The first Soviet jamming of foreign broadcasts was in 1948, when the Kremlin tried to keep news of the Berlin blockade from reaching the Soviet people. Since then, the number of jamming transmitters has grown, and now numbers in the hundreds. Soviet officials have alternately denied they are jamming, or argued that the practice was necessary to stop ``anti-Soviet'' broadcasts.
Broadcasts from the US, Germany, Britain, Israel, and even Albania have been systematically interfered with. Particular targets are the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), Munich-based stations that are funded by the US government separately from VOA. However, the jamming of RFL/RL broadcasts would not be affected by the arrangement under discussion.
Lately, there has been a shift in the Soviet rationale for jamming. Gorbachev, in a speech earlier this month, became the first Soviet leader publicly to admit that VOA broadcasts are jammed. But what was surprising was the reason Gorbachev gave. It was, he said, because the Soviet Union lacked a transmitting base near the US mainland in order to broadcast its views to the US public.
At the Reykjavik summit earlier this month, Alexander Yakovlev, the new head of the Communist Party Central Committee's propaganda section, made a similar complaint to Wick. Because the Soviet Union is barred, under US law, from owning its own broadcasting facility here, Wick agreed to try to secure access to American commercial broadcasting outlets.
``We would want access to their medium-wave capacity in reciprocity for our facilitating their utilization of current American medium-wave facilities,'' he says.
Wick offers his own explanation of the reasons the new leadership in the Kremlin might accept such a plan.
``Under this [new policy of openness], they seem to be much more keenly aware than any prior regime of world opinion, and are much more realistic about their assessment of world opinion. And perhaps they feel that the price that they have to pay for the cessation of jamming would be not an unreasonable compensation for a better world image.''
But embarrassment may also play a part.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), under prodding from the State Department, conducted an investigation that named the governments of the Soviet Union, Poland, and Czechoslovakia as the source of jamming on some 37 frequencies to counter VOA and RFE broadcasts.
Another ITU report, according to a senior US official, will shortly be released that documents even more widespread jamming.
Jamming will also be brought up by the American delegation to the Vienna review session of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe next week.
Faced with the potential for embarrassment at all these places, one US official speculates the Soviets ``obviously decided to bring the matter up themselves'' at Reykjavik and in the Gorbachev speech.
Meanwhile, RFE/RL is gearing up to get its message to the Soviet bloc across even clearer. Congress granted RFE/RL an additional $18 million to update antiquated transmitters.