Thursday, May 8, 2008

Window on Eurasia: What the Demise of RFE/RL's Newsline Means

Paul Goble

Baku, May 8 – Tomorrow, the regional specialists at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty will put out the last issue of Newsline, the daily publication that over the last 11 years helped shape the broadcasts of that station and more importantly both informed analysts in the West and served as a check on the actions of governments in the post-Soviet world.
Yesterday, the president of RFE/RL informed the analysts there that because of budgetary shortfalls, he had no choice but to fire them and thus end what has been the journal of record for developments in a part of the world that remains vitally important however much some may believe we can safely ignore it.
Indeed, three of the justifications that many may offer for this policy decision – and budgetary injunctions like this one reflect policy choices, however much some, especially in the current environment, will try to hide behind these supposedly "objective" numbers – are problematic at best.
First, it will be said that the radios have won the war they were created to fight and that the U.S. is now engaged in another and very different battle. On the one hand, anyone who has followed developments in the post-Soviet world with Newsline's help knows that many in the West have been far too quick to proclaim victory over what communism did in this region.
And on the other, those who have tracked, again with Newsline's help, what many Russians now say about the West or keep track of what Moscow is doing to support rather than limit Iranian nuclear ambitions – including providing Tehran with advanced anti-aircraft weapons – knows that the issues of the past and the issues of today are deeply interconnected.
Second, it will be said that with the Internet, anyone can keep up with what is going on almost everywhere. But this is an even more serious misconception than the first. When most of the analysts who have produced ""Newsline" began their careers, they had to read 100 pages of opaque Soviet materials to get one page of information they could use.
Now, it is often the case that a single page on a single Russian or Uzbek or Georgian website can produce 100 pages of information that someone might be able to use. That puts a premium on analytic judgment, on knowing what is important and what is not as the flow of information increases.
Many academics and government analysts have not been able to cope with this shift from an information-short to and information-surplus environment. Some have simply given up entirely, narrowing their focus to a tiny group of questions and thus often missing the ways in which those questions fit into a broader pattern.
And others are content to rely on the increasingly sparse reporting in the public press or slick inserts to major newspapers that some of the post-Soviet governments can now afford to keep up with the flow of events. But the happy talk quality of such reporting while tragically not that different from some other media in the United States now obscures and confuses rather than reveals and explains.
The regional specialists who produced Newsline were not unique in having managed this difficult transition successfully, but they were able to do it far better than most others and on a far broader range of topics than any other group writing on a regular basis about this region for the public.
And third, it will be said that Newsline, however valuable it may be for a limited group of people is not something that the American taxpayers should be paying for given all the other burdens we as a people have assumed, that if this product is as valuable as some of us believe than the private sector should somehow step up to the plate and pay for it.
Such arguments are not new. I recall at one point in the past some in the U.S. international broadcasting fraternity thought that perhaps the private sector in the Central Asian countries might be able to pay for advertising to keep Western services going. I recall thinking and even saying at the time that I could just imagine how that would work.
A voice would come up saying, "Today's RFE/RL Uzbek news broadcast is being brought to you by the Uzbek Interior Ministry: Visit us before we visit you."
But all joking aside, this notion that anything worth doing should be done by the private sector is one of the most dangerous developments in public life in the United States in the last decade. It represents a direct attack the republic, the res publica or public thing, in which people play a role not because they have money or because they pay taxes but because they are citizens, part of a collective enterprise in which they have the right as citizens to decide what they will collectively do.
In an age of single-issue politics and attack ads, that is not an easy thing to sustain, but that it is difficult does not mean that it is not worth trying. And at the same time, it means that every defeat of this political principle like the "budgetary" decision to close Newsline is a defeat that strikes at the heart not only of what we know about Russia and the other countries of the region but about who we are as a people.
As many of the readers of my Windows series know, I worked in the research department at Radio Liberty in Munich in 1989-90 and as director of the communications division at RFE/RL in Washington in the late 1990s. In both capacities, I worked closely with the analysts who prepared the Daily Report and then Newsline, and I remain honored by my association with them.
That constitutes "full disclosure," as people today are wont to say, and consequently, many will dismiss what I say. But to anyone who does so, I would ask that you visit the RFE/RL website, read a week's worth of Newsline and compare its reporting about the post-Soviet region with that in any other publication. You won't agree with every choice or every analytic line – I didn't and don't as many of the analysts there know – but you will be compelled to admit that Newsline is simply more comprehensive and thus in important respects more useful than any other single source on this part of the world.
Those who have been producing it deserve our thanks and our support; they do not deserve to be dismissed and their great publication Newsline closed.
In reflecting about this unfortunate development, I find that the words that Michigan Governor "Soapy" Williams offered to a visiting Soviet delegation nearly 50 years ago involuntarily come to mind.
He told his visitors that "we will stop telling the truth about you when you stop lying about us." But with the closure of RFE/RL's Newsline tomorrow, it will be far more difficult for us to do the former and, what is even worse, far easier for the successors of that delegation to continue to do the latter.

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