As Russian President Vladimir Putin forcefully extends his footprint in eastern Europe and Fallujah fell to al-Qaeda, the Obama administration has been dialing back the U.S. broadcasting outreach in eastern Europe and Iraq.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors FY 2015 budget request favors expansion in Africa as “an emerging top priority for U.S. foreign policy” and concentration on the Asia rebalance “with video and digital initiatives targeting next-generation audiences” particularly in Burma, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam.
“This agency has a strategic imperative to tie its priorities to global realities, making the most of relatively scarce resources while responding to shifts in audiences, technology use and media markets,” BBG Chairman Jeffrey Shell said in a March 4 statement. “As we wrestle with difficult budget trade-offs, excellence in journalism remains our most important objective. Hundreds of millions of people around the world count on our journalists for accurate news and information.”
But the $721 million budget request, a $12 million decrease from what was enacted in FY 2014, axes key diplomatic programs.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) wrote Shell on Feb. 26, noting that it had come to his attention that the BBG intended to close Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Balkans Service and Radio Free Iraq.
“These services are a valuable asset for the United States. They were formed to act as an independent voice in regions of the world where the United States has strategic interests such as southeast Europe and Iraq,” Wicker wrote. “I urge you and your colleagues on the BBG to consider withholding action on these proposed closures until the appropriate congressional oversight committees complete their due diligence on this issue.”
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) wrote the BBG the day after the budget release and after the board voted to close the Balkans and Iraq services.
“Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) were established during the Cold War as a way to broadcast unbiased news to Eastern Europe to combat Communist propaganda coming from the then-Soviet Union. Eventually, it was revealed to be a CIA-front organization in the 1960s, and the funding responsibility shifted to Congress, where it has remained. Since then, RFE/RL’s coverage has expanded to many other countries and languages as a source of free speech and Western thought,” Schock wrote.
RFE/RL was located in Munich from 1949 to 1995, at which point it relocated to Prague. The Balkans service launched in 1994 and has grown on radio, TV, and Internet platforms to Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo, with over 150 affiliate stations carrying their programs, according to the RFE/RL.
The Iraq service began in 1998, and is also broadcast to diaspora communities.
“The ongoing situation in Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula has reinforced the importance of these services in recent weeks, and has underscored the original pretext upon which these broadcast services were established. Furthermore, there is the concern that these broadcasts, originally developed with great purpose, investment, and thought will not be easily reestablished once closed down,” Schock wrote. “These broadcast services promote the values of freedom of speech and democracy: values that must remain in the forefront of Iraqi thought, especially as our troops withdraw and that are needed in the Balkans more than ever, as expansionist policies threaten to unmake all the progress that has been made over the past two decades.”
Before deciding to shut down the services, the congressman requested that the BBG “study the negative ramifications anticipated in the broadcast regions with this closure, including any potential effects the closure would have on the strategic interests of the United States in these regions, as well as how the closure could be viewed negatively by American allies within the area.”
“The loss of an independent media voice in southeast Europe and Iraq could be extremely detrimental to the continued survival of freedom and democracy there, as well as to the general welfare of the people who reside therein,” Schock continued.
“If the values of democracy, free speech, and liberty lose their foothold in these regions, it will become an increasingly hostile world for the United States, and a far more difficult world for the people of Iraq and the Balkans. It is for these reasons that I urge the Broadcasting Board of Governors to overturn their decision to shut down the RFE/RL Balkans’ Service, and Radio Free Iraq. I believe that it is imperative that these services be restored, and I respectfully request that the Board of Governors reconsider their initial course of action.”
RFE/RL agreed to scale back its Moscow services in 2012 to comply with a Russian law banning broadcasting by entities with more than 48 percent foreign ownership.