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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Time to Close Radio Liberty? Not So Fast!

One of the less-noticed items in Bill Clinton's list of government spending cuts calls for the closure of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. The two broadcasting networks were children of the Cold War. The service for the countries of Eastern Europe Began in 1951, and Radio Liberty, or Svoboda, began its broadcasts of news and propaganda in 1953.


Over five years, the cuts will save $644 million, some 1, 600 staff are to be laid off, and the rump of the two networks will be merged into the U. S. Information Agency.


But it looks as if the principle of broadcasts to authoritarian countries will be maintained. During his election campaign Clinton called for a new Radio Free Asia, to be beamed at China. The funds for Radio and TV Marti, aimed at Castro's Cuba, have also been maintained.


Obituaries for Svoboda may be a little premature. A lively lobbying campaign is under way to persuade Congress to save the service.


Behind the arguments over money lie some serious disputes over the nature of journalism. President Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, is on the short-list of people to run USIA, and he makes no secret of his insistence that America's interests are best-served by a studious objectivity in foreign broadcasts.


"The kind of argument you could make for an American propaganda radio is very hard to sustain when the Cold War is over. What we need now is an American version of the BBC, with a reputation for telling the truth, balanced and fair coverage", Salinger told me recently.


"The standards of fairness and objectivity we set for the media in the United States ought to apply to our services overseas".


That's a fair point, but most of the 30 million Russians who tune in daily would reckon that Radio Liberty has been living up to those standards for some time. Indeed, the network's defenders say that Bill Clinton will soon be getting personal letters from Boris Yeltsin, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, saying the American radio should be saved. They will argue that the stations offer an honorable and useful addition to a media spectrum hard-hit by financial crisis, and Yeltsin will remind Clinton of the key role Radio Liberty played during the Moscow coup.


The radio stations plow on with their own expansion plans, for broadcasts in Albanian, and to start new services for former Yugoslavia, where the nationalist official Serbian media is widely blamed for whipping up ethnic hatred.


"Communism may have been defeated, but democracy has not been so well rooted in these countries that we can just leave", comments Wheelam Kratch, the New York-based programming director.