In Georgia, the future of Radio Free Europe, and sister station Radio Liberty, is looking precarious. This summer the Georgian government’s central broadcaster shut down two of RFE/RL’s most popular political programmes. The broadcaster said it was part of a wider restructure, but civil society organisations condemned the move and suggested the station wanted to eliminate critical viewpoints. The move and the subsequent outcry highlight the role RFE continues to play, namely to often act as a platform for free expression in parts of Europe where these values are strained.
Radio Free Europe and Russian station Radio Liberty, which it merged with, have been broadcasting to eastern Europe and Russia since 1950. While its remit originally was to fight communism, it now states its function as serving the cause of democracy more generally.
Today in Chechnya, for example, RFE is the only station where you will hear reports from journalists and stringers in the Chechen language about the influence of Isis and the persecution of gay people. It is the only Western international station operating in Moldova, even if it broadcasts for only a few hours a day. In Armenia, its TV provides a counterbalance to government-controlled media, as well as broadcasting to the wider diaspora. And in Kazakhstan, it provided special coverage of the early parliamentary election last year with six hours of live-streamed video on its website.
John O’Sullivan, executive editor of RFE between 2008 and 2012, argues passionately that “the radios”, as he calls the stations, have key roles to play in making sure people have a strong source of news and hear different viewpoints, and in holding governments to account with local journalists reporting on the ground.
“At the moment, there is a moral war between all these countries and the argument that commercial stations can do this job is fine, except they can’t do the job of the radios,” he told Index. “CNN is … never going to have a lot of correspondents in Armenia and never going to have correspondents in Chechnya. It’s going to be doing a story once every three months. Those audiences need it every day.”
Originally set up as an intelligence services-led project, RFE aimed to counter what the US government saw as superior propaganda coming out of the Soviet Union. Although primarily funded by the CIA, it was promoted to the US public as a project for truth and freedom to which they should contribute. Future US president Ronald Reagan, a young actor in the early 1950s, fronted up the public service advertisement, encouraging donations with the exhortation: “This station daily pierces the Iron Curtain with the truth, answering the lies of the Kremlin and bringing a message of hope to millions trapped behind the Iron Curtain.”
Victoria Phillips, who runs the RFE research project at Columbia University, told Index: “These men [who founded RFE] … really did believe in the power of truth and freedom of ideas, and when I read about some of those people, you don’t like the fact that they tried to invade places, and they had coups, but in the end the core was a belief in the power of ideas, and if ideas are allowed to vent then good will take place…”