In a few days, Radio Free Asia, the little broadcasting network that some said couldn't - and others said shouldn't - get off the ground will be celebrating its first anniversary on the air.
Under financed by the United States Congress, under-manned, and overworked, the professional journalists and broadcasters charged with broadcasting under RFA's banner truthful information to the lingering communist lands and dictatorships of Asia began inauspiciously a year ago with a mere 30-minutes-a-day broadcast to China.
Now, in addition to expanded broadcasting to China they create and air programs for Vietnam, Tibet, North Korea, Laos, and Burma. Soon Cambodia will be added to the list.
It hasn't been easy. In 1992 a bipartisan commission that I chaired, appointed by Congress and President Bush, recommended establishing a new government-financed radio broadcasting service to mainland China and other communist countries in Asia. It was opposed by some diplomats and businessmen who didn't want to rock the China boat. Talking about democracy, they argued, might be a roadblock to American investment and diplomacy. The Voice of America, the excellent and powerful worldwide broadcasting arm of the United States, looked upon RFA as an upstart competitor. Then for the next four years, the RFA project became mired in political in-fighting and debate over its budget.
But in September last year, RFA went on the air. Now it broadcasts by shortwave radio from five sites in Asia and the United States. It is jammed by China, Vietnam, and North Korea, who accuse RFA of broadcasting "pornography," of speaking with "forked tongue," and of being financed by the Central Intelligence Agency. China has brought pressure to bear on Armenia and Kazakhstan to bar RFA from using transmitters in those countries. But despite such harassment, RFA's message is getting through to the peoples of its targeted countries. Letters from listeners in China are proof. RFA' s credibility has been established and its critics at home are fewer. The Voice of America has mellowed toward RFA and Congress is opening up its purse-strings - although not yet widely enough. Some American ambassadors who once thought RFA would complicate their missions now support it. Other fans range from Newt Gingrich to the Dalai Lama, who has visited RFA's headquarters in Washington and who listens to its Tibetan broadcasts in exile.
Patterned after Radio Free Europe, RFA's mission is to do for Asia what RFE did for Eastern Europe. The mission is to broadcast truthful information to countries where the governments-of-the-day ban free expression by their domestic news operations. While Voice of America broadcasts national and international news around the world, RFA's mission is to replicate the kind of radio service in the countries it targets that those countries would have were it not for government censorship. One Chinese radio broadcaster told RFA after listening to it for some time: "We listen with exuberance to your broadcasts, which are authoritative and give us the truth. All our broadcasters here are bored. All they care about is making money. And if we told the truth, who would pay us?"
Our commission, mindful of the mood of austerity in Washington, recommended a bare-bones budget for RFA, using leased transmitters instead of building new ones, and operating with a lean team of journalists and language specialists. But instead of the $30 million start-up we proposed, and an annual operating budget of $35 to $39 million, RFA got an initial $10 million.
Now, with a successful year's operation behind it, RFA is being nudged by some in Congress to expand to 24-hours-a-day broadcasting to China. It can do that, moving to 12 hours a day in Mandarin, four in Cantonese, two to four hours in Tibetan and other Chinese dialects for the rest of the cycle. But expanding its staff, and augmenting transmissions will require a budget of $45 to $50 million, not the $20 million some congressmen are contemplating.
The United States is prudent to try to maintain and develop relations with China. But RFA is a useful instrument for demonstrating that, along with the diplomatic and economic ties, concern for the well-being and human rights of China's people is an integral part of American foreign policy.
Congress should celebrate RFA' s first birthday by giving it the money - relatively small in the overall budget - needed to carry out this mandate.
* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.