Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is one of America’s best investments in peaceful backing of freedom abroad, which brings security at home. Funded by U.S. taxpayers through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), RFE/RL “serves as a ‘surrogate’ free press in 21 countries where the free flow of information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed.” One of these countries is Russia under the repressive rule of President Vladimir Putin.
RFE/RL management ought to be congratulated for posting online in Russian (Radio Svoboda), English and in other languages an important commentary by a former Soviet dissident and prominent Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov.
In “Pride Versus Prejudice In The West,” Mr. Kovalyov wrote:
“Throughout its history, my country — the Soviet Union — conducted cruel and arbitrary mass purges; participated in international political terrorism; fostered new totalitarian regimes; committed aggression; and violated fundamental principles of law. Russia has returned to that behavior.”
In his op-ed for RFE/RL, Mr. Kovalyov expressed guarded optimism about the West resisting Russian expansion in Ukraine. He is, however, deeply concerned, about the power of the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation machine.
“The grounds for my concerns are widespread myths about Russia that have become rather prevalent in the West. These myths have been reinforced by experienced and skilled masters of deception from the special departments of the FSB (the Russian successor to the KGB).”
RFE/RL has been in the forefront of uncovering and reporting on Putin propaganda and setting the historical record straight. It has done more than that. RFE/RL provides “what many people in those countries cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.”
Mr. Kovalyov’s thoughtful commentary posted on RFE/RL’s websites shows that the organization has overcome many of its previous problems and responds well to new challenges despite an inadequate budget and harmful bureaucratic interference from Washington, which continues.
When in 2012 the former RFE/RL management had inexplicably fired dozens of Radio Liberty human rights activists in Russia, former director of RL Russian Service, Italian journalist Mario Corti, contacted Mr. Kovalyov. In response to requests for help, Mr. Kovalyov immediately joined Lyudmila Alexeyeva and other prominent Russian democratic opposition leaders in defending the fired journalists. As Washington bureaucrats hid in their offices unwilling to respond to the escalating management crisis at Radio Liberty, three members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors at that time–Ambassador Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan–went to Moscow, met with representatives of fired journalists and Russian opposition leaders, and restored good management to RFE/RL. Many of the dismissed reporters were rehired by Kevin Klose whom the BBG board appointed to lead RFE/RL. Mr. Klose has since retired, but RFE/RL remained under good interim management led by John Giambalvo, who recently resigned as Interim Co-Manager, and Nenad Pejic.
Another Russian opposition leader who in 2012 had came to Radio Liberty journalists’ defense was former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. He was later assassinated in Moscow. Had it not been for Mr. Kovalyov, Lyudmila Alexeeva, Boris Nemtsov and numerous other Russian human rights defenders and democratic political leaders, RFE/RL would now be without some of its best journalists. As a media organization, RFE/RL always had some internal problems. Some problems remain, but it appears now to be on the right course.
RFE/RL still faces threats and difficulties. Under pressure from the bloated Washington bureaucracy of the BBG, known as the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), RFE/RL had to shut down its Radio Free Iraq, an incredibly shortsighted move considering that ISIS is committing genocide in large parts of Iraq under its control.
Needless to say, the Russian security agencies keep a close eye on RFE/RL operations and personnel; it does not have enough funding (much of BBG’s budget is wasted on the IBB bureaucracy) ; and, ironically, it still has to deal with Washington officials who did nothing to protect it in 2012, but who now want even greater control while lacking expertise, sophistication and courage needed for “surrogate” media outreach.
In his RFE/RL commentary, Mr. Kovalyov warns of global threats from disinformation and complacency. He notes that “the occupation of Crimea has already been almost forgotten by the public.”
“There was a time when Europe imagined that the Cold War ended with the demolition of the Berlin Wall. It’s not true. Russia only took a breather. Imagine a postwar Germany that left the Gestapo untouchable. Or a Stasi lieutenant colonel chancellor of Germany.”
Stasi was the name of the East German secret police. Mr. Kovalyov was referring to President Putin as a former KGB officer and the fact that his KGB mafia helps to keep in him power at home by bombarding the Russians and the West with propaganda and disinformation.
“Effective resistance to the advance of the ‘evil empire’ demands a maximum effort now. The day after tomorrow may be too late,” Mr. Kovalyov warned.
Effective peaceful resistance to Putin’s destabilization efforts means keeping RFE/RL courageous, unbureaucratic and well-funded.
Ted Lipien is a former acting associate director of the Voice of America (VOA) which is also overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). He is now director of independent NGO, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) which supports free flow of information to closed and semi-closed societies.