Radio Free World


July 13, 2004, 8:57 a.m.
Radio Free World
Liberty-starved countries see a boom in clandestine radio.

By Nir Boms & Erick Stakelbeck

Although it often seems like a solitary outpost of democratic sanity, the U.S. is not alone in waging the war of ideas.

Since 9/11, over a dozen privately owned, pro-democracy radio stations have emerged in freedom-starved countries like North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Cuba.

From the earliest days of World War II to its peak during the Cold War, clandestine radio played a critical role in the fight for liberty. Today is no exception.

Iraq’s Radio al-Mustaqbal figured prominently in the CIA’s covert plans to topple Saddam Hussein throughout the past decade. Likewise, Voice of the People of Kurdistan played an integral part in the Pentagon’s psychological war prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq last March, eventually helping to secure the surrender of 9,000 Iraqi soldiers at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Following the fall of Saddam, these clandestine outlets, now fully licensed, joined the rapidly growing Iraqi media market, which is comprised of over 50 fledgling radio and television stations. Among them is Radio Dijla, Baghdad’s only private, commercial radio station. Operating out of a modest house in the Baghdad suburbs, Radio Dijla allows listeners a forum to freely express their views and concerns, a concept unheard of in Iraq just 15 months ago.

In Afghanistan, where an estimated 96 percent of all households own a radio unit, clandestine radio has also begun to blossom. After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, a pair of successful Afghan-Australian businessmen, Zaid and Sadd Moshen, returned to Afghanistan and developed the first commercial FM radio station in the country’s history.

Called “Arman” (the Afghan word for home), the station addresses issues such as human rights, women’s rights, national reconciliation, and the importance of private-sector contribution and social responsibility.

Beginning in 1979, Iran saw a similar rise in pro-democracy broadcasting spurred by the ascension of Ayatollah Khomeini’s tyrannical regime. Today, there are no fewer than 16 clandestine, anti-government radio stations operating over Iranian airwaves.

One of the most successful of these subversive outlets is KRSI radio, which began broadcasting into Iran from Los Angeles in 1999.

“Every time we hear of a political prisoner being arrested, we announce his name, write to the U.S., U.N., and the human-rights community, and start a campaign,” says Ali Reza Morovati, one of the founders of KSRI. “Now the people in Iran have a voice, and I sense that even the ayatollahs are being more cautious.”

An important newcomer to the clandestine-radio arena is Syria. Last week, the U.S.-based Syrian Reform party launched “Radio Free Syria” in order to “educate the Syrian public on issues of democracy, freedom and the cessation of violence.” The station, which is available on shortwave frequency and the Internet, plans to air cynical and humorous programs criticizing Syria’s ruling Baath party as well as on-air plays written by dissident Syrian playwrights.

“Radio Free Syria will help us unite and consolidate the reformers inside Syria with the reformers pressuring the regime from the outside,” says Farid Ghadry, president of the Syrian Reform party and Syrian Democratic Coalition.

Elsewhere, a dissident station called Radio Free North Korea began operating out of Seoul this past April,  thanks to the efforts of a small group of North Korean defectors. “Our program aims to help North Koreans know better about their actual situation and to let the rest of the world know about the reality of the North Korean government,” says Kim Sung-Min, the station’s president and chief writer. “(Our aim is also) to finally lead the nation to become a democratic nation like South Korea.”

A precedent of sorts exists for the efforts of Sung-Min, Ghadry, and Morovati: It can be argued that the U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty helped hasten the fall of the Iron Curtain and defeat Soviet Communism during the 1980s. Unlike these programs, however, the purveyors of clandestine radio operate without state funding.

“What we’re seeing is a true grassroots effort to democratize these countries without the help of state dollars,” says Nick Grace, Washington managing editor of Clandestine, a monitoring project that tracks subversive media around the world. “Commercial opposition broadcast radio predates September 11. However, it is clear that the war of ideas awakened a number of pro-democratic groups around the world to the effectiveness of the media as a weapon to spark a change in their respective countries.”

Over the last two years, the U.S has become much more engaged in its attempts to foster democracy around the world, particularly in the Middle East. Institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy and Voice of America, along with projects like the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), have almost quadrupled their funding over this period. MEPI, according to State Department statistics, received $29 million in 2002 and $100 million in 2003, while $145 million has been committed for 2004.

But only $3.2 million, or 3.3 percent, of MEPI’s funds were directed to help indigenous NGOs, and none of this money was allocated to voices of opposition in countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Iran (which is currently ripe for change, in large part because of its burgeoning pro-democracy movement).

While U.S. policymakers have invested millions in radio and TV stations that aspire to deliver a “natural” voice aired out of Washington, they’ve bypassed opportunities to help genuine pro-democracy advocates that often struggle merely to stay on the airwaves. If the U.S. wishes to be truly effective in its efforts to spread democracy, it should reconsider this strategy.

Nir Boms is a senior fellow at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance. Erick Stakelbeck is senior writer for the Investigative Project.

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