Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
May 7 2004
“Broadcasting to Hotspots: RFE/RL Today”
Woodrow Wilson Center
Thomas A. Dine President, RFE/RL, Inc.
There’s a Washington conversation that I have over and over again.
Someone asks me what I do. I say, “I’m the head of Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty.” The person then says one of two things: “I
didn’t know Radio Free Europe still existed,” or “But isn’t Europe
already free?” Today I want to address these misconceptions about
RFE/RL: that Europe is free; that RFE/RL focuses solely on Europe; in
short, that RFE/RL is a Cold War relic and not relevant to today’s
To start, though, let me give you a brief overview of who we are.
RFE/RL broadcasts to 19 countries in 28 languages, none of which is
English. 19 of our 28 language services are directed at
majority-Muslim populations. We have bureaus in every one of our
countries but Iran and Turkmenistan.
We are a “surrogate broadcaster,” which means that our mission,
unlike that of Voice of America, is to broadcast news and information
about the individual countries listening to us, not about the United
States-unless the news from Washington involves one or more of our
countries. In addition to radio, RFE/RL is very prominent on the
Internet-nearly all of our broadcast services operate top-notch
local-language websites, and our main website averages about 6
million page views a month. We are also on television in a handful of
Let me now address the first question, “Isn’t Europe already free?”
People often forget that the eastern border of Europe is not Warsaw
or Bucharest or even St. Petersburg-it’s the Ural Mountains, two time
zones east of Moscow. To put it another way-the geographic center of
Europe isn’t Germany or Austria. It’s Ukraine. We can divide our
European countries into two groups: the former Yugoslavia and the
former Soviet Union.
It is a mistake to believe that the arrest of Milosevic marked the
end of the turmoil in the former Yugoslavia. Most of it is
politically and economically crippled; the odds of further ethnic
bloodshed are high; corruption is pervasive; and the emergence of a
free press has been stunted.
In Serbia, the euphoria that greeted the ouster of Milosevic has
given way to a prevailing attitude that can best be described as a
noxious brew of nationalism and self-pity. The strongest party is now
the ultra-nationalistic Serbian Radical Party, and vestiges of
Milosevic’s criminal regime survive nearly intact-the assassination
of Prime Minister Djindjic last year was merely the most tragic
example of its continuing influence. Meanwhile, the economy is a
shambles, and since foreign investors want little to do with Serbia,
there is no improvement in sight.
Furthermore, Serbia’s territorial integrity is anything but certain.
In Montenegro, about half the people want to secede from the
federation with Serbia, while the other half want to stay. And in
Kosovo, the worst ethnic violence since NATO’s military action
erupted in March of this year. Analysts say that, far from being an
isolated incident, this latest outbreak of hostilities was the tip of
the iceberg. When you consider that unemployment in Kosovo is between
60% and 70%, and that a majority of the population lives in poverty,
it’s hard to be hopeful that tolerance will prevail. If ethnic
violence does recur in Kosovo, it will certainly destabilize another
of our broadcast countries-Macedonia-where 25% of the population is
Finally, Bosnia and Herzegovina has also been unable to move beyond
nationality-based infighting. Local government bodies are strictly
loyal to members of their own nationality, and the nationalistic
ruling parties resist market reforms because they fear they will lose
their grip on power. For the politicians in power in Bosnia, the war
is not over, but merely in remission.
The reason RFE/RL plays such a critical role in the Balkans is that
it is the only local-language media outlet that speaks to, and for,
all the ethnic groups; the rest of the media have come to serve as
inflammatory voices of intolerance. The uniqueness of our programming
is reflected in our outstanding ratings-our numbers in the former
Yugoslavia are consistently among the highest in our broadcast
The second group of our European countries is, as I mentioned, the
former Soviet Union, and, if I haven’t depressed you enough already,
I have to tell you that the former Soviet Union makes the former
Yugoslavia look like Switzerland. Everyone in this room remembers the
sense of hope we felt when the U.S.S.R. collapsed. Fifteen nations
had been freed from Moscow’s control, and each of them would pursue
its own path not only towards an independent national identity, but
towards freedom and democracy. Alas, with the exception of the three
Baltic republics, the freedom-and-democracy part hasn’t proven true.
Let’s begin with the three countries of the Caucasus, where our
weekly listenership ratings are very high, close to 20%. When the
Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia was certainly considered one of the
republics likeliest to succeed. It was a Christian country with close
ties to the West, a highly educated populace, and a cohesive,
talented diaspora. But, after an initial period of reform, Armenia
has regressed into a corrupt oligarchy. No wonder it has lost nearly
a third of its population to emigration since 1992.
Azerbaijan, too, seemed promising, mainly because western investors
were flocking there for its oil. However, it, too, has succumbed to
oligarchy, and in fact last year, Azerbaijan earned the dubious
distinction of becoming the first former Soviet republic in which
power was transferred from father to son.
To complete the Caucasian triumvirate: Georgia experienced happy news
at the end of last year, when a peaceful protest movement led to the
collapse of Eduard Shevardnadze’s corrupt government, and the
election of a true democrat, Mikhail Saakashvili, to the presidency.
Unfortunately, President Saakashvili has inherited a mess. Two
provinces want to secede from Georgia and unite with Russia; a third
region, Adjaria, has demanded more independence from Tbilisi; its
infrastructure is decimated; and corruption is endemic among its
In the early hours of this morning, the Adjaria crisis came to an end
when its warlord was persuaded by Minister Ivanov of Russia to step
down and seek asylum in Moscow. Our Georgian Service broadcast all
last night and this morning, live.
The next country in RFE/RL’s European portfolio, Moldova, is the
poorest nation in Europe. In 2001, Moldova became the first former
Soviet state to elect an unreformed Communist president; every year,
President Voronin pays his respects at the monument to Lenin in the
capital. To visit Moldova is to take a trip to a Twilight Zone in
which there are lots of old people, lots of children, and almost no
one in between-they’ve all left to go find work in other countries.
Over the last our years, our Moldovan Service has doubled its
Further north, we have Belarus, Europe’s most repressive nation.
Belarus is run by a psychopath named Alexander Lukashenka, who openly
admires Stalin and who did business with Saddam Hussein. Needless to
say, Lukashenka isn’t very fond of RFE/RL, which is probably why this
year our Minsk bureau has been burglarized, threatened with eviction,
and visited by the tax police.
Russia is one of the great underreported stories in the world today.
Here we have a former superpower that, having experimented with
democracy, has reverted to autocracy. My Moscow colleagues tell me
that they have not felt such a climate of enforced orthodoxy since
the 1970s. Putin is so powerful, and so feared, that no one in the
Russian government arrives at work before noon, and no one leaves
before 10 p.m.-because that is the schedule that Putin keeps. The
last time the Kremlin observed this ominous practice was during the
rule of Stalin.
Just this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Russia one
of the ten worst places in the world to be a journalist, citing
President Putin’s use of sham lawsuits and corporate maneuvers to
virtually eliminate independent media. Television and radio are now
little more than an arm of the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Putin continues to
go to great lengths to obstruct coverage of the war in Chechnya,
something we at RFE/RL experienced in 2000, when our reporter Andrei
Babitsky was kidnapped in Chechnya by Russian FSB, disappeared for
over 5 weeks, and finally dumped out of the trunk of a car in
Mahashkala, Dagestan one cold February day.
We complete this survey of our European broadcast area with the
biggest disappointment of all: Ukraine. With a well-educated
population of 48 million, Ukraine had the potential to become one of
the great nations of Europe. Instead, under the corrupt rule of
President Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine has become an embarrassment. It has
forged commercial relationships with Iran, Syria, Libya, and Iraq.
The Kuchma administration has also aggressively subverted the
democratic process, employing an array of dirty tricks and brutal
tactics. It is no wonder that “Ukraine fatigue” has become a term of
art in the State Department and at the EU.
Ukraine will elect a new president in October. But Kuchma is so
determined to keep his cronies in power that he has unleashed a
severe crackdown on independent media-and his main target is RFE/RL.
In February, our most important affiliate network in Ukraine, after
being taken over by supporters of Kuchma, kicked us off the air. In
March, a Kyiv station that had begun to air RFE/RL programming two
days earlier was raided and closed by the authorities. And on that
very same day, the director of another station was killed in a car
accident while on his way to a meeting with an RFE/RL representative.
With an election just months away, Kuchma feels he cannot afford to
have RFE/RL around.
I give you this tour of Eastern Europe not only to show that Europe
is not free, but because something very important is at stake here.
Right now, the United States is engaged in a massive effort to
promote democracy in the Middle East. But I worry that by focusing on
the Middle East, we are neglecting to finish the job much closer to
home, in Eastern Europe. We suffer from a sort of “political
attention deficit disorder”; we pay attention whenever missiles are
launched, but once the bombs stop falling, we stop watching. Most
Americans think that Europe has been taken care of, and we can now
move on to the Middle East. But, as I have just described, a large
part of Europe has not been taken care of.
Furthermore, experts agree that one of the pillars of Putin’s
political identity going forward will be an increasingly assertive
foreign policy in places that used to report to Moscow. Since the
former republics of the Soviet Union have such shoddy governments
now, and are in such dire straits economically, I am very
apprehensive about what Eastern Europe may look like in the near
future. We cannot discount the possibility that not one but several
dictatorships will be reborn in the heart of Europe.
To address the second widespread misconception about RFE/RL, that we
are solely engaged with Europe: the facts are otherwise. About half
of the countries to which we broadcast are in Asia. And they, too,
desperately need what RFE/RL offers.
Let’s start with Iran, because this has been a depressing talk so
far, and Iran is a country I have high hopes for-an exciting
crucible. Iran may be run by religious fanatics, but its population
is young, pro-West, and pro-democracy. 70% of the Iranian population
is under the age of 30. The regime is doomed, as a simple matter of
Because of the extraordinarily youthful skew of Iran’s population, we
decided to try something a little different with Iran. In December of
2002, we launched a joint venture with our sister entity, Voice of
America, called Radio Farda. Radio Farda is a 24-hours-a-day,
7-days-a-week station that combines, in a fast-paced format, eight
hours of serious news coverage each day with a mix of Western and
Iranian pop music.
The response has been extraordinary: over 20% of Iranians between the
ages of 18 and 29 listen to Radio Farda at least once a week. Over
40,000 visitors a day use the Farda website to listen to the station
over the Internet. Thousands of messages a week pour into Farda’s
telephone call-in service. And 76% of the Iranian people consider it
a reliable source of news and information. So much for the Great
Satan. The theocrats are obviously scared, and last year they started
jamming Farda’s broadcast signal, blocking access to its website, and
incarcerating our correspondents.
Another Asian hotspot is Afghanistan. In the wake of the 9/11
terrorist attacks, members of the House of Representatives asked us
to create a broadcast service to Afghanistan. Four months after the
attacks, Radio Free Afghanistan was up and running, broadcasting 12
hours a day in Dari and Pashto to that beleaguered country.
Reminiscent of scenes in movies when someone who’s been crawling
through the desert for days finally finds water and gulps it down
with tremendous intensity, the response to our broadcasts in
Afghanistan has been overwhelming. This is because under the Taliban,
the people weren’t just denied objective news and information-they
were denied radios. In Kabul now, 54% of Afghans listen to us weekly,
and in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif that figure climbs to 68%.
Nothing in my job makes me happier than reading the messages we get
from our listeners, male and female. Radio Free Afghanistan has made
an immediate difference in the lives of the newly free Afghan people.
But recall the “political A.D.D.” that I mentioned earlier. I am
worried that the United States and its allies are not following
through on their promise to rebuild the country. Afghanistan today
does not have functioning institutions. Outside Kabul, security is
worse than it was under the Taliban. Aid workers are being murdered
at an alarming rate, and as a result relief organizations are
drastically scaling back operations. The capital barely has contact
with, let alone control over, the rest of the country, which is run
by regional warlords. And our correspondents believe the Taliban is
regrouping. Obviously, Afghanistan will remain one of our most
important broadcast targets for years to come.
I’m going to skip over Iraq, where we broadcast in Arabic and
Kurdish, for two reasons. First, I think it’s safe to say that
everyone in this room is well aware of what’s going on there. Second,
to my enormous regret, the Administration’s FY05 budget calls for the
termination of Radio Free Iraq at the end of this fiscal year. It is
now up to Congress to decide whether to acquiesce or continue funding
it to the tune of $2.2 million a year. Whatever the outcome, I am
delighted with what RFI has accomplished in its five years; the
latest research shows that a whopping 34.4% of Iraqis listen to us
I’ll conclude this tour of our Asian broadcast area with the five
Central Asian former republics of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The most benign of the bunch are Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where
reporters do operate with relative autonomy, provided that they don’t
make any trouble for the people in power. Unfortunately, that’s as
good as it gets in Central Asia today. Each of the other three states
has, since obtaining independence from Moscow, morphed into a
post-Soviet version of The Sopranos, where one crime family rules
through intimidation and violence.
In Kazakhstan, it’s the Nazarbayev family, and they don’t like it
when journalists stick their noses in their business. In the last
three years, newspapers have been burglarized, their employees
beaten, and their offices burned to the ground. Three independent TV
stations were shut down in 2002 alone. Journalists who dare
investigate the corrupt business practices of the Nazarbayev family
are sent to jail. Soon RFE/RL may be the only independent media
outlet operating in Kazakhstan-the rest are all controlled by the
President’s daughter, Darigha.
Uzbekistan is run by the Karimov family, and conditions there are
worse than they are in Kazakhstan. Journalists who report on the
crime, corruption, and poverty plaguing Uzbekistan are routinely
fired-and they’re the lucky ones; many have been arrested, injured,
and jailed. In many cases, it is publicity by RFE/RL that saves these
brave journalists from lengthier prison sentences. I myself felt a
surge of intense contempt for the Uzbek regime last year, when a
group of 20 thugs, no doubt working for the government, surrounded
one of our correspondents as he reported on an incident at Tashkent’s
central market, beat him, and stole his equipment.
The final Mafia state in Central Asia is Turkmenistan, and, though it
may be hard to believe after the foregoing discussion, Turkmenistan
is the worst of all of them. The dictator of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat
Niyazov, has constructed a cult of personality there that would have
made Romania’s Ceausescu blush. Every newspaper lists Niyazov as its
founder. All editors are personally appointed by Niyazov. Censorship
is total. The most important news story, every day, is the
magnificence of Niyazov.
We have correspondents in Turkmenistan, but they must work in secret,
using pseudonyms. Unfortunately, they do not always succeed in
remaining anonymous. In the past year alone, several of our reporters
in Turkmenistan have been abducted, beaten, and jailed. And our
stringer in Moscow was savagely beaten just last week. That these
brave men and women are willing to risk their lives so that their
compatriots can at least hear a little bit of truth every day never
fails to move me. They are true heroes.
As you can see, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has as much to do
with Asia as it does with Europe. In fact, since we are funded by the
government, our priorities as an organization largely track its
priorities, and right now the biggest priority of the government is
combating terrorism. That’s why I always have to laugh when people
claim that RFE/RL is a relic-especially since 19 of our 28 broadcast
languages are directed at predominantly-Muslim populations.
In fact, as part of the War on Terror, RFE/RL hopes to redouble its
radio, television, and Internet efforts to the five Central Asian
states over the next 12 months. Although these former Soviet states
may seem to have little to do with Islamist terrorism, we at RFE/RL
believe that Central Asia could well be the next front in the global
War on Terror. Already, at least two terrorist organizations are
operating within these countries, seeking to establish Islamic
theocracy. Most importantly, these Central Asian nations are exactly
the kind of places that can become breeding grounds for terrorism.
Remember that almost all of the terrorists of 9/11 came not from
Muslim countries whose governments professed hatred of the United
States (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan) but from Muslim countries whose
governments are friendly with the United States: Saudi Arabia and
Egypt. The same is true of these Central Asian states, where
west-friendly autocrats rule over Muslim populations, and where the
U.S. government has made alliances of necessity while pursuing the
larger goal of toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
As the people living under these regimes become more and more bitter
about the hopelessness of their lives, they are drawn to more radical
belief systems. The best way to combat the growth of such radicalism
is not to make society less free, as these Central Asian dictators
have done, but to make it more free. RFE/RL looks forward to
intensifying the fight to make Central Asia a freer, and therefore
I hope that I have succeeded today in getting my message across.
RFE/RL is not a Cold War relic, but a modern media organization
communicating to the world’s most unstable hotspots. Today we cannot
know what the next Afghanistan will be-just as we can’t know where
the next Srebrenica massacre will occur, or where the next militant
Islamic revolution will erupt. But the likelihood is that many people
there are listening to RFE/RL, and they are grateful that we have not
stopped fighting for our shared values: the free flow of information,
human rights, freedom and democracy.