- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

PRAGUE — Seven Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty local language broadcasts into East European countries are being slashed, reflecting America’s shifting security concerns and tighter budgets.

The cuts, as directed by the Office of Management and Budget, trim $6 million from RFE/RL’s annual budget of approximately $70 million, said RFE/RL spokeswoman Sonia Winter.

The affected countries include Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — all of which are expected to join the European Union next May. They are also slated to join NATO next year, as are Romania and Bulgaria, which represent two more broadcast services being cut.

The Croatia service is also being discontinued, even though that country is still years away from joining either the European Union or NATO — and just returned its nationalist party to power in parliamentary elections last week.

The European Union has talked openly about a future entry date for Romania and Bulgaria.

More than six months ago Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, told Congress, “I am concerned that, following Romania’s invitation to join NATO, the reform momentum in Bucharest may have dissipated.”

Romanian officials have reflexively reverted to their communist-era ways of operating, said Soria Blatmann who heads the Europe desk for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

“Politicians are less accepting of [press] criticism now because they want to enter the EU in 2007,” she said. “There’s also a very big self-censorship because of a libel law that is very old.”

She said officials were more aggressively pursuing such legal claims over the past year.

The communist-era law makes it easy to sue journalists for libel or defamation and win relatively large awards. In addition, she said many of Romania’s TV and radio stations have been cowed because “they have huge debts to the state.”

Worse, Ms. Blatmann, added, “Investigative journalists trying to investigate corruption have been attacked and pressured.”

In Transparency International’s latest corruption-perception index, Romania ranked 83rd — tied with Malawi. That ranks Romania worse than Belarus, Iran and Armenia — three countries where RFE broadcasts will continue.

In addition, discontinuing RFE’s independent news and information service to Romania appears ill-timed because presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled next year.

“I think it’s important to have [RFE] there,” Ms. Blatmann said. “It’s always good to have a critical voice. If Romania wants to join the EU in 2007, they have to respect a free press.”

Oana Serafim, who heads the Romania/Moldova service, said RFE’s voice is critical in Romania.

In a country of 22 million people, nearly 1 million tuned in during October — the latest independent ratings figures that are available — she said. As official intolerance of a free press has accelerated this year, RFE’s listenership has shot up more than 25 percent.

And Romanian listeners are upset, she said, recalling one e-mail message she received that said: “We have to fight this.”

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