PRAGUE The ground war in Afghanistan is essentially over, but the battle for the airwaves is just beginning.
Before recessing for the holidays last week, Congress earmarked $19.2 million to restart local-language radio broadcasts into Afghanistan. The bill, which was part of the annual military spending bill and anti-terrorism package, now awaits President Bush’s signature.
More than half of the money $10 million will go toward relocating a Spain-based transmitter to Kuwait and setting up an AM transmitter in Kabul. The rest of the money will finance the first year of broadcasts from the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty here in the Czech capital.
Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican, who introduced the House bill along with 57 co-sponsors from both parties, called the legislative success “a great day for American public diplomacy. I have been calling for a Radio Free Afghanistan for five years now.”
Indeed, after the 1989 collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, Czech President Vaclav Havel, among others, lauded the RFE broadcasts for providing dissidents with news that wasn’t censored by the Warsaw Pact governments.
With the struggle for democracy still being waged across the former Soviet bloc, RFE/RL’s 22 broadcast services transmit a variety of news and information programming in 26 local languages across Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Ironically, the Radio Free Afghanistan was discontinued in 1993, shortly after the communist government of Mohammed Najibullah fell to the mujahideen.
A renewed RFA would broadcast up to 12 hours a day in the local languages of Pashtu and Dari. Since the RFE/RL headquarters already employs several native speakers for its Tajikistan service, it expects to begin broadcasting at about one hour a day by the end of this month, according to RFE/RL President Thomas Dine.
But the plan has its detractors. For now, the interim government in Kabul appears united, but deep fissures along tribal lines lie just below the surface. Anthony Cordesman, an expert on South Asian security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, questioned the value of an RFA service, calling it a “feel-good thing.”
“The problem is, who is going to listen?” Mr. Cordesman said. “You already have a strong BBC and VOA [presence].”
Sonia Winter, the RFE/RL spokeswoman in Prague, said Voice of America broadcasts less than one hour of news and information per day. Mr. Royce’s spokesman Bryan Wilkes said British Broadcasting Corp. airs a wide variety of news from around the world, whereas an RFA service would broadcast news about Afghanistan to Afghans.
Mr. Cordesman remains skeptical, “The Afghans aren’t looking for outside advice and news. The issue is, what do you say to the Afghan people?”
He is not the only one with doubts. Anthony Borden, director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and Edward Girardet, director of Media Action International in Geneva, argue that the money would be better spent developing independent news organizations and training would-be Afghan journalists.
“An entire infrastructure of media needs to be developed,” Mr. Borden said. “And crucially, training, training, training, especially practical on-the-job work that will transfer for the long-term the basics of independent, professional reporting. An entire new professional cadre of journalists needs to be created.”
Finally, the plan is also stirring controversy here in Prague because the RFE/RL headquarters is a security nightmare. The Czechs are eager to move the headquarters not only because it stands just yards away from the tourist center, but also because new security measures have worsened chronic gridlock in the heart of the city.
Unlike the last security alert in 1998, the RFE/RL management is now prepared to acquiesce. Ms. Winter said, “It’s our host country, and if the Czech government wants us to move we’ll consider it seriously.”