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The War Of the Airwaves

As the Cold War seemed to evaporate, and Soviet journalists emerged from many long years of pitiful subservience to the Communist Party, there was a growing hope that something approaching a truthful press might be developing in Moscow. There were flashes of journalistic courage - even passage of a law protecting the rights of the press.

But when push came to shove in Lithuania, truth was one of the first casualties along with the Lithuanians shot down by Moscow's paratroopers.

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One of the saddest aspects of the Lithuanian crisis has been the speed with which the Gorbachev regime discarded glasnost and clamped down on the press. The version of events in Lithuania propagated by Moscow's powerful and far-reaching press apparatus bears no relation to the actual facts.

For the truth, many Soviets have had to rely on broadcasts from the West - the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Moscow television described the army's killing of pro-independence demonstrators in Lithuania as a defensive action. It charged that Soviet troops were first fired on from the radio and television building in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius - a charge refuted by eye-witnesses.

Other distortions carried by the official Soviet media were that the Lithuanian government intended to assassinate Soviet military and civilian officials, and that the Lithuanian population had no confidence in its government and had called on Moscow to intervene.

According to the Bush administration this ``inaccurate and one-sided coverage'' has done a ``great disservice to the Soviet people and has served to exacerbate an already difficult situation.''

Rulers who repress know that it is essential to try to control the means of communication. So in addition to broadcasting nationally its own one-sided version of events in Lithuania, the Gorbachev regime has been pumping out propaganda over the television station it seized in Vilnius.

But at week's end, pro-independence broadcasters had succeeded in rigging a new antenna at the parliament building and were putting out a competing version of events, albeit through a signal with limited range.

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All this underlines the importance of the international radio services, like the Voice of America, and the BBC, that broadcast factual information to countries whose regimes seek to manipulate the news.

With the decline of the Cold War, some people have been questioning the utility of the radio broadcasts, and indeed there may be reason for them to change their programming and methods of operation. But the speed with which the Soviet Union resorted to lies and distortion in its coverage of the Lithuanian story surely proves there is a strong need for international radio broadcasting from the West that tells the truth.

At the peak of the cold war, the principal mission of radio broadcasting funded by the United States government was to penetrate the closed communist societies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

But even if tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continue to lessen (by no means a sure thing in light of what is happening in Lithuania and Latvia) there is still work aplenty for Western radio in the rest of the world.

The war with Iraq underlines the dangerous emergence of such regional tyrants as Saddam Hussein.

He has shown himself acutely aware of the importance of trying to dominate the airwaves. In Iraq his regime controls press, radio, and television and pumps out only the story that Saddam Hussein wants his people to read, hear, and see.

So there should be a continuing mission for the West to keep broadcasting throughout the world the cool, clear words of truth that have had such a devastating effect on the empire of communism.

Lithuania and Iraq have reminded us of an important lesson: Beyond the clash of arms, another significant war goes on - the war of the airwaves designed to mold and move public opinion.

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