Shortwave Democracy


By Nir Boms and Erick Stakelbeck

Published June 28, 2004

Although it often seems like a solitary outpost of democratic sanity, the United States is not alone in waging the war of ideas. Since September 11, more than a dozen privately ownedpro-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 more than 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 express their views and concerns, a concept unheard of in Iraq just 15 months ago. 

In Afghanistan, clandestine radio also has begun to blossom. After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, a pair of successful Afghan-Australian businessmen, Zaid and Saad Moshen, returned to Afghanistan and developed the first commercial FM radio station in the country’s history. Called “Arman” (the Afghan word for hope), the station addresses issues such as human rights and social responsibility. 

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

“Whenever we hear of a political prisoner being arrested, we write to the U.S., the U.N. and the human- rights community and start a campaign,” says Ali Reza Morovati, one of the founders of the Los Angeles-based KRSI Radio, which began broadcasting into Iran in 1999. “Now the people in Iran have a voice, and I sense that even the Ayatollahs are being more cautious.” 

Earlier this month, the U.S.-based Syrian Reform Party launched “Radio Free Syria.” The station, which is available on a shortwave frequency and the Internet, plans to air cynical and humorous programs criticizing Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party as well as on-air plays written by dissident Syrian playwrights. 

Elsewhere, “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. 

A precedent of sorts exists for Mr. Sung-Min’s efforts: 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 grassroots effort to democratize these countries without the help of state dollars,” says Nick Grace, founder of, a monitoring project that tracks subversive media around the world. “Since 9/11, the war of ideas has awakened a number of pro-democratic groups to the effectiveness of the media as a weapon to spark change in their respective countries.” 

Over the past two years, the United States 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 the Voice of America, along with projects like the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), have almost quadrupled their funding over this period. According to State Department statistics, $145 million has been committed to MEPI for 2004 alone. 

But only $3.2 million, or 3.3 percent, of this money has been directed to helping indigenous nongovernmental organizations, and none has been allocated to voices of opposition in countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia or Iran. 

While U.S. policy-makers 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 United States 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, a Washington-based counterterrorism research institute. 

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