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December 15, 2008

The Power of Words

In William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Brutus says in mock humility:

I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
To stir men’s blood; I only speak right on.

A more modern writer, Peggy Noonan, reminds us, however, that words do have the power to stir men's blood.

"A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep! A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart."

President-elect Obama's elegant speaking ability undoubtedly contributed to his election victory just as Ronald Reagan's speaking ability contributed to his election in 1980. Reagan was known as "the great communicator." Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker also believes in the power of words and makes a plea for keeping the battle of ideas alive on the world stage in the form of Radio Free Europe ["Mightier Than the Sword," Washington Post, 21 November 2008]. She writes:

"The word is powerful. In fact, one might even say the word is power. No one is more acutely aware of this than Jeffrey Gedmin, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Yes, it's still around. The Cold War that prompted the creation of Radio Free Europe may have ended. And The Wall did come tumbling down. But the voice of liberty still travels over the airwaves the old-fashioned way -- as well as by television, Internet and even text messaging -- to reach pockets where freedom is uncommon currency. Today, the nonprofit, U.S.-funded RFE reaches 30 million people, in 28 languages, in 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Central Asian republics. All for the relatively low price of $83 million. That is approximately the cost of four Apache helicopters and, inarguably, provides a significant bang for the buck."

The first indication that Radio Free Europe could impact international events was during the Hungarian Revolt of 1956. As noted in Wikipedia, "During the uprising, the Radio Free Europe (RFE) Hungarian-language programs broadcast news of the political and military situation, as well as appealing to Hungarians to fight the Soviet forces, including tactical advice on resistance methods. After the Soviet suppression of the revolution, RFE was criticized for having misled the Hungarian people that NATO or United Nations would intervene if the citizens continued to resist." The power of radio was again demonstrated on two occasions in the early 1990s. First, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which operated in 1992-93, established a radio station that broadcast news, civic education and variety programs in the lead-up to elections. It became the most popular and credible station in the country. On the darker side, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines incited Hutus to take up arms and slaughter their Tutsi neighbors. As a result, nearly half a million people were killed by common citizens using cudgels, machetes, and other simple weapons. It is this power to incite and excite that leads to Parker to believe that Radio Free Europe is worth saving.

"There's something charming, even quaint, about the notion of Radio Free Europe, which was created in 1949 to broadcast news and current events programs to countries behind the Iron Curtain. (In 1975, RFE merged with Radio Liberty, which had been broadcasting to listeners inside the Soviet Union since 1951.) There's nothing charming, however, about the need that still drives the enterprise -- millions of people without access to information that isn't state-controlled."

It was that "need" that convinced UNTAC commanders to establish an independent radio station in Cambodia. It was supported in its efforts by a Japanese non-governmental organization that collected and distributed nearly 300,000 transistor radios. People were so desperate to learn what was really going on in the country that near riots broke out when the radios were distributed. Parker writes about the anecdotal evidence that Radio Free Europe still makes a difference in the places it broadcasts.

"Gedmin, who took over RFE in 2007 after a stint with the Aspen Institute in Berlin, has hundreds of stories about RFE's works of 'public diplomacy.' To those who tune in, that disembodied voice from afar can be a literal lifeline -- or a path to justice. Call it 'Sleepless in Sherberghan.' Here are two quick takes from Afghanistan, where RFE/RL boasts a 60.6 percent market share:

• A couple of months ago when a young girl was raped -- a common and underreported event -- President Hamid Karzai heard about it on Radio Free Afghanistan and instructed his staff to get details. As a result, the girl and her family were provided assistance, and the government demonstrated a strong position against the all-too-common trend of older men raping girls with impunity.

• In Kabul, the parents of a critically ill girl called the radio station when all else failed. Voila, doctors materialized.

"Contrary to misperceptions that began decades ago, RFE/RL is not a propaganda arm of the CIA, though the CIA did for a time funnel funding from Congress. That arrangement ended in 1971. Nor does Gedmin's crew try to spread anti-Muslim messages, as some critics have suggested. That is, unless one considers it anti-Muslim to insist that women not be stoned or that gay teens not be hanged. Gedmin describes his own philosophy as 'paternal libertarianism.' Otherwise, RFE/RL is a news organization like any other that reports on events and issues, including women's rights."

I have written before that social changes (especially those empowering women) are often met with disdain and violence. This is certainly true in Afghanistan, where the fundamentalist Taliban are the primary antagonists, and in Iran, where the Mullahs are desperately clinging to power.

"In Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents routinely attack radio towers and insist on equal time for their doubtless heart-warming message. In Iran, the government jams the signal, except between midnight and 6 a.m. (a money-saving strategy), and tries to intimidate the 40 Iranian correspondents, who live and work in Prague. The Iranian journalists often receive letters ordering court appearances and fines, followed by threats to confiscate family members' homes in Iran. Last year, correspondent Parnaz Azima, a beloved Iranian scholar best known for translating Ernest Hemingway, was detained for several months when she returned to Iran for a visit. The Iranian government finally released Azima, who holds dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship, but erected bureaucratic obstacles to prevent her from visiting her elderly mother. If she returns, in all likelihood, she would be arrested for such crimes as reporting on 'sensitive' stories. Azima, says Gedmin, is Iran's 'worst nightmare': a woman with standing who refuses to play by the rules."

Parker believes that "keeping voices such as Azima's free and available to others" is worth putting funding for Radio Free Europe relatively high any funding priority list. She notes that "relatively speaking, $83 million is peanuts, as is the sum total of $800 million (less than the cost of one stealth bomber) that America spends on all international broadcasting efforts." The Bush administration's effort to engage in a "war of ideas" was mostly stillborn because of its unilateral foreign policy, but Parker and Gedmin still believe that the war "is best fought with the 'weapon of the word.'" Which leads Parker to conclude, "Give that man six Apaches." Communication is another form of connectivity and, when done right, can be a powerful tool in the international community's kit. The U.S. Government should work with other nations in this area if, as Gedmin asserts, RFE/RL is "a news organization like any other that reports on events and issues." As the Obama administration works to strengthen old friendships and make new ones, public information could be a bridge to the future.

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