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Keeping the Voice of Democracy on the Air : Need for Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe remains strong

April 11, 1993

Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, which for more than 40 years have broadcast news and entertainment to the states of the former Soviet Union and to Eastern Europe, are in danger of being silenced as part of President Clinton's budget-cutting plans. Their loss would not only deprive tens of millions of access to information of primary importance to their lives; their loss would also be inimical to the goals of American foreign policy, high among which is the promotion of democracy and order all across Europe.

Who says so? For one, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev argues it would be "wrong, absolutely wrong," to shut down Radio Liberty, which he calls "a stabilizing influence in an unstable time." Georgs Andrejevs, foreign minister of Latvia, for another. He describes Radio Free Europe's Latvian-language programs as "the most powerful force for democracy in Latvia."

Communism's collapse in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has not driven all communists from official life nor has it assured the benefits of pluralistic politics and democratic institutions to peoples who have never known much of either. Communists--most would insist today on being called former communists--remain highly influential in Romania and Serbia, in Russia and the Baltic states and elsewhere. Re-emerging after nearly half a century of inactivity are their ultranationalist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic counterparts on the far right, who also believe in rigid state controls and the suppression of dissenters and persecution of minorities. The totalitarian mentality, in short, is alive and kicking amid the uncertainties and disruptions of the post-Marxist era in Europe.

In these circumstances the democratic movement needs all the help it can get, and uncensored, unbiased information is a vital source of such help.

Radio Liberty (RL) and Radio Free Europe (RFE), broadcasting from Munich, have a combined annual budget of $220 million. That pays for thousands of hours of broadcasting each year in 23 languages. Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., chairman of the board that supervises the two services, calls them "the most cost-effective instruments we have for influencing events" in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. That assessment will be scrutinized by Congress, which has scheduled hearings this month and next on the future of the two stations. Almost certainly, we think, it will stand up.

The argument that the Cold War is over and that institutions like RL and RFE therefore ought to be abolished is both shortsighted and self-deluding. The stations originated as instruments of U.S. foreign policy, their objective being to help fill the great factual voids produced by the communists' monopoly over all sources of information. Unsettled conditions in much of Europe east of Germany continue to make this a valid and necessary foreign policy goal.

"Tomorrow, information will become more important to Russia than bread." Maya Plisetskaya, former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, wrote those words to Hillary Rodham Clinton last month in a letter asking that the stations be kept alive. She was making a plea; she may also have been voicing a prophecy. Congress would do well to listen.

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