The Embassy of the Czech Republic recently hosted an online panel discussion Radio Free Europe at 70: Its Importance Then and Now to look at the relevance of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL or the Radios) through more than 70 years of service. The panelists were former directors of RFE/RL Tom Dine (1997-2005) and Jamie Fly (2019-2020).
Radio Free Europe was founded in 1949 to broadcast to Soviet satellite countries, while Radio Liberty started in 1953 to target audiences in the Soviet Union. The two entities were merged in 1976. According to Wikipedia, their purpose was – and still is – to serve as “a free pro-democratic press in countries where the ‘free flow of information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed.’” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Free_Europe/Radio_Liberty)
The speakers highlighted the importance of a free press that functions independently without government influence in nations struggling to establish democracy. RFE/RL has preserved its editorial independence through ensuring its funding source and organizational structure support it. The speakers cited cases of foreign government complaints to the State Department over the Radios’ content and the Department has made a point of not accepting the complaints as it has no control over the stations.
After decades of operating in eastern and central Europe, RFE/RL now broadcasts in 23 nations and 27 languages across the globe. While the post-Soviet space is still a focus, its service also includes audiences in central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In countries where independent media is fighting to survive government control, RFE/RL content includes truly objective news and information to help citizens know their legal rights when governments exercise oppressive policies. The Radios have found their audiences to be loyal because their listeners trust the information and know it’s objective.
Since closing operations in many post-Soviet markets, including the Baltic countries in 2004 after 29 years of service, democratic backsliding has caused RFE/RL to reestablish at least an online presence in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. The agency is watching other nations for similar trends and is prepared to expand again as necessary.
The panelists noted that as long as the Kremlin is misbehaving and China remains a growing irritant to Western values, there will be interest in RFE/RL continuing its mission. As witnessed in the backsliding nations mentioned above, post-Soviet democracy is not fully established, and the Radios’ work will likely be relevant for decades to come.
The full video of the 60-minute event is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQR-o-T_2zw&feature=youtu.be.