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Broadcasting Abroad – Columbia Journalism Review

The opinions expressed by those quoted in the “Hearts and Minds Media” piece reflect the very different views people often have of the purpose of RFE/RL and VOA. Some assert that the government imposes on their editorial independence to promote US policy. Others claim the broadcasts should promote American policy—and complain that the programming isn’t effective because it doesn’t create specific policy outcomes.

People have been pushing and pulling at the networks for more than seventy years now, arguing about the broadcasters’ mission. The truth is that despite all the political froth, the networks have largely hewed to the course mandated for them by law: reliably reporting the news, based on independent editorial judgment, for countries where free, professional media do not exist. The broadcasts—and content on the Web, TV, and so forth—enable closed societies to see what free media can look like. The programming also advances basic human rights in places where freedom is in severe jeopardy.

If not for international broadcasting by the US and a few other democratically minded countries, large swaths of the world would be left only with news controlled by oppressive local regimes, or from Russia or other authoritarian states. For the millions in those countries, RFE/RL, VOA, and other US-supported networks are a lifeline of true information. —Thomas Kent, former president and CEO, RFE/RL

I spent eight years working for RFE/RL and wrote a history of the station’s Cold War period. I’ve also worked for many years at Freedom House, where the role of a free press in both democracies and authoritarian settings was an important focus. Given CJR’s concern for the future of a free press in the current alarming environment, I was taken aback by the disapproval directed at VOA and RFE/RL, which have made major contributions to freedom of thought.

The presenter said of Malali Bashir, a journalist for RFE/RL’s Afghan service, that her focus on women’s education and rights was a reflection of “American values”—a statement that the Taliban makes about her in its denunciations. Bashir was a hero to many Afghan women before the Taliban achieved power and I suspect remains a hero today. 

I found it difficult to grasp the points being made by the whistleblower, Dan Robinson. His main point seems to be that some VOA journalists have recently found themselves in situations that have presented political or physical danger. The commentary seemed to suggest that station managers and higher-ups in the American government are not taking seriously the dangers their journalists encounter; I can assure you from my experience with RFE/RL that this is far from reality. I also think it is important to note that RFE/RL journalists do not see their role as any different from that of correspondents in the mainstream international press—and that includes the risks involved.

Hannah Gurman, an NYU professor interviewed, included RFE/RL and VOA as examples of America’s failed global-relations policy. I think it’s only fair to note that during the Cold War, Radio Free Europe’s audience in Soviet satellite countries provided a valuable service, keeping people aware of what was going on in their homelands and around the world. The reporters and commentators who worked for RFE back then were treated as heroes when the wall came down and communism collapsed. Of course, media conditions today are different than they were back then—and there are certainly serious discussions to be had about the role that different media models might play given the sophisticated propaganda systems in Russia, China, Iran, and elsewhere. —Arch Puddington, emeritus scholar at Freedom House and the author of Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.

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