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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : Even Behind Iron Curtain the Voice of Liberty Called

<i> Eugene Levin, formerly a Soviet journalist and civil-rights activist, is now a journalist and commentator for the Russian-lauguage weekly, Panorama. </i>

For many of us, the road to freedom began with the radio “voices” that broadcast over the years to the people of the former Soviet Union. Radio Liberty stood out--it brought a more reasoned and knowledgeable analysis and a greater variety of information.

Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens, addicted to the breath of freedom, turned to their short-wave receivers, listened in secret and dared to hope. They learned of the rape of Czechoslovakia, of aggression in Afghanistan, of the latest reports from the underground “Chronicle of Current Events.” They heard transcripts of closed trials of dissidents, appeals from Andrei D. Sakharov, miraculously preserved notes by Gulag prisoners, the defiant letters by Soviet Jews and excerpts from the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Radio Liberty’s achievements are acknowledged by scholars, politicians, artists and lovers of democracy across the political spectrum in the West, as well as in formerly totalitarian regimes. But now there is a proposed reorganization that might gut Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in the name of economy. Pleas to preserve the stations come from individuals as diverse as Milos Forman, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Nobel Prize Laureate Eli Wiesel, Polish President Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, James Michener, Czech President Vaclav Havel, Geraldine A. Ferraro, former Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov and even Mikhail S. Gorbachev--who reminded Washington that his only source of truthful information during his imprisonment in August, 1991, was Radio Liberty.

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A congressional bill might accomplish what the secret services of socialist countries were unable to do for the past 50 years--dismantle Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. This would be accomplished by restructuring all U.S. international broadcasting and consolidating Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, the Public Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America into one government agency that would “provide the President with flexibility in using international broadcasting resources to meet the foreign-policy needs of the United States.”

There are two reasons for this bill: the need to cut costs and the new international situation. But lost in all this are the fundamental differences between Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America.

Voice of America is part of the U.S. Information Service. It represents the official government point of view. VOA tells foreign listeners about American life and society, while paying much less attention to international affairs. One factor affecting the contents of VOA’s programming is its dependence on government--White House and congressional--financing.

The effect of this dependence is often telling. In the early ‘90s, the State Department, attempting to mollify the Soviet Union, ignored actions in the Baltic republics as citizens sought to throw off the Soviet yoke. Voice of America, apparently on State Department instructions, also ignored the events in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

In another example, in early 1990, when a Voice of America commentator referred to Iraq as a “terrorist state,” Saddam Hussein complained to the State Department. Then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III ordered that Iraq and its ruler no longer be criticized on the air, because the White House was trying to develop a friendly relationship with the dictator.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are financially independent and not subject to government dictate. They can afford to have dissenting views on a number of internal and external issues. Could it be that this ability is worrying the new occupants of the White House?

The congressional bill, proposed by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Russell D. Feingold Jr. (D-Wis.) suggests another possibility: that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty be absorbed into the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a non-government body that distributes federal funds to National Public Radio, American Public Radio, Public Broadcasting Service and public radio and television stations nationwide. It was established to prevent direct government interference with broadcasting content. CPB-funded programs are usually high in quality, with professional production values--but also tend to be subjective in their approach to news and analysis.

It is unlikely that those who espouse a more liberal point of view can adequately represent the variety of opinions that exist on any number of political, economic and social issues of contemporary America. It is also unlikely that CPB, after spreading its “dovish” wing over the “hawks” of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty would allow conservative views to be as freely expressed as they now are.

Richard Carlson, former director of the Voice of America and current chairman of CPB, agreed that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty must not be eliminated, that the need for their services is as great as ever. As a cost-cutting measure, Carlson suggested the headquarters be moved from Munich to Washington.

The political uncertainty in the former Soviet Union and the lack of stability in Eastern Europe prove there is still a great need to continue the work of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

The defense of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty is certainly not the most important issue facing the immigrant community today. Some of us are concerned with finding affordable housing, others are looking at the possibility of doing business with Outer Mongolia, the chances for refinancing their house or planning a trip to Hawaii. But it is important to stop and remind ourselves that without Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, there might not be any business opportunities in Outer Mongolia or vacations in Hawaii.


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