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Informing Eastern Europe

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty should keep broadcasting to counter anti-democratic propaganda being aired by former communist operatives

THERE are several reasons why the Clinton administration's proposal to dismantle Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty is not a good idea. Many people have the notion that RFE and RL have been voices of the cold war - i.e., that they broadcast propaganda - and now that the cold war is over there is no need for such a broadcasting service.

This notion is wrong on two counts. The Radios for the most part eschew propaganda; they provided objective and accurate information to people who were denied such information. Secondly, though the cold war is over, the need for RFE/RL continues because Eastern Europe is living in a twilight era between communism and democracy. Communist parties no longer rule, but the mentality of communism is very much alive. Moreover, though the periodical press has flowered, very few publications offer reliable infor mation.

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Romania is a case in point. On one hand, as Harvard University Prof. Richard Pipes recently underlined, the Romanian pattern "retains the substance of communism under different labels," and on the other hand, jingoist and anti-Semitic weeklies are commonplace.

One of the most popular magazines is Romania Mare (Greater Romania), an ultranationalistic weekly edited by Corneliu Vadim Tudor, formerly an ardent supporter of Nicolae Ceausescu and now a member of the parliament. Another weekly, Europa, traffics in the same kind of hate mongering as Romania Mare, lacing its slanders with nostalgia for the Ceausescu era and denunciations of market-based economic reform as a Western perversion. Several independent publications revealed recently that their headquarters h ave been heavily bugged. The Romanian Secret Police (SRI) denied any involvement, but many observers of the Romanian political scene called SRI's denials "not exactly cogent."

In Romania, television is totally under the control of the Iliescu government, which many observers consider to be neocommunist, since it is staffed by many people who held high positions under former President Ceausescu. It controls the electronic media by means of a licensing procedure that is flagrantly biased.

The Paris-based Internews Agency says that local independent TV stations are being denied licenses, and most of those that receive licenses have no experience in broadcasting and have reputed ties to the government.

After signing a long series of offensive lampoons in ultranationalistic publications, the playwright Paul Everac, another devotee of Ceausescu's regime, has been recently appointed chairman of Romanian television. Many members of the independent Romanian press, as well as Western diplomats in Bucharest, consider that the current TV editorials signed by Mr. Everac are nothing more than vitriolic attacks against the democratic values of the West.

If Romania still needs a foreign broadcaster to provide accurate and objective information, why can't Voice of America do the job?

Years ago, I worked with both stations: on a permanent basis with VOA; and as a regular free-lance contributor to RFE. With all due respect to my former colleagues at VOA, much of their work is translating scripts written by Americans for distribution to all of VOA's language services. In short, VOA's Romanian service generates little of its own programming.

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By contrast, the language services of RFE/RL have much more autonomy - for the most part generating their own scripts. As a so-called "surrogate" service, RFE/RL is more attuned to the political and economic realities of life in contemporary Romania than VOA is. If RFE/RL were merged into VOA, the Romanian service of RFE/RL would probably lose its identity.

Dismantling RFE/RL or merging it into VOA is not likely to be cost-effective. Since RFE/RL is not directly under the control of the US government, it is a more credible source of information than VOA, and therefore it is a more effective stabilizing force in Romania. In short, RFE/RL is a hedge against the rise of an authoritarian government, the kind of government that we see in power in Serbia and Croatia, countries to which RFE/RL never broadcast.

If such a government came to power in Romania, it probably would fan the flames of ethnic hatred and precipitate a general European crisis that could be much more costly to the US than the cost of maintaining RFE/RL.

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