Outgoing President Jeffrey Gedmin talks RFE, Prague, and the Czech national character with Martin Komarek of leading Czech daily newspaper, "Mlada Fronta Dnes." See our English translation below, or read the original Czech-lanugage article here
. Good Journalism Is The Best Ideology, Says Jeffrey Gedmin
Martin Komarek | Mlada Fronta DnesMarch 7, 2011
PRAGUE - RFE/RL is the legendary radio organization that helped bring down communist regimes during the Cold War. We do not even realize that this global organization has its seat in the Czech Republic, in Prague. This week, its president Jeffrey Gedmin says goodbye – a good reason for an interview. Does the world still need RFE/RL, which currently broadcasts, for example, to Russia, Iran and Afghanistan? Will it help bring about a revolution?
Q: What is your greatest personal achievement as the president of RFE/RL?
A: Nothing. I consider nothing as my own personal achievement. It all was team work by very talented people. And we did achieve something: we increased the quality of journalism at RFE/RL. We reacted to global development and became a multimedia organization. We helped defend journalists in countries where their lives are most endangered. And we managed to move from Wenceslas Square from the formal Federal assembly building into a new one.
Q: RFE was a great word before the fall of the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. People listened to RFE, the station provided free information. It was immensely popular when the totalitarian regimes came down. You now focus on Russia – aren’t you sorry that you are not as successful there?
A: We did our best to provide free information to Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Prague Spring was conquered by tanks. Bad times set in after just one year of hope. But we did not give up. Such is the case in Russia. It would be naïve to think that Russia will have democracy immediately after the fall of communism. Communism has done a lot of damage in 70 years – to the people’s thinking, their health, environment, social atmosphere. Russia needs help from the outside. I am a pathological optimist (laughter) and I am convinced that in 20, 50 or 75 years people will have a better life in Russia. We are trying to carry the torch of freedom. We do not need immediate achievement; this is a long distance run.
Q: Do you have a special strategy for Russia, besides providing trustworthy information?
A: Mainly open information. We focus more and more on modern media: Facebook, Twitter, and the internet.
Q: Do you have some response from Russia? Any feedback to see if your work is worth your while?
A: We have a bureau in Moscow so we have our colleagues there to provide us feedback. These are not always optimistic. Russian authorities behave towards non-profit organizations in the same way they behave towards independent journalist – somewhat oppressively. It is a creeping abuse. They try to use all kinds of rules and regulations. However, Russia is not a totalitarian country. You do not find just one truth there. People can travel and can form their own opinions about the world. They have a lot of money. And they also have free independent radio stations which compete with us. We must tell our stories in a better way; we must be more trustworthy to succeed.
Q: So good journalism is the best strategy?
A: Yes. Truthful information is the most fundamental strategy. You need to provide information about things people are most interested in: corruption, healthcare systems, salaries… I’ll tell you a story, not from Russia but from Uzbekistan where I recently visited. Tashkent – this is a very difficult oppressive dictatorship. I met three young people there and asked them what they knew about RFE/RL. They laughed and said: “You are a CIA radio.” I asked them why they listen to us and they answered in a very rational way; we are an alternate source of information to the state one and we are more trustworthy.
Q: Did you visit any other countries you broadcast to?
A: I visited a lot of countries and I always came back convinced how nice it is to be in Prague. The Czech Republic is a peaceful country that cooperates with its neighbors. It is in NATO and European Union. It is a democracy - albeit with problems such as corruption, but I feel that I am in a free country here.
Q: RFE/RL does not have to broadcast to the Czech Republic any more; you aim to change unfree societies.
A: Journalists take great risks in countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan. But this is not in vain. Most ordinary people believe in decent governments. The best way to help them is by providing good journalism. This brings toleration, pluralism, the government of law and democracy. I believe that Iran, where we broadcast, will one day have a good government.
Q: You are living in the Czech Republic, not only as a journalist but also as a private person. What do you think about us Czechs?
A: Firstly, I have to say that it is a great privilege for us that you are a host for our radio. And I will always be thankful for that, especially to Vaclav Havel. I like Prague. It is a liberal, open, international city. I was happy here and I will miss it.
Q: Have you thought about the Czech character/nature? What are the differences between Czechs and Americans?
A: Everywhere people are different. The Greeks and the Danes are Europeans but they behave very differently. I have not learned Czech so I know less about Czechs than I ought to. I know that Vaclav Havel is a hero for a lot of Americans. They have had freedom for a long while, and they are inspired by people who oppose tyranny. I’d say that young Czechs are more materialistic; they forget that freedom is a great prize and we all have to be responsible for it.
Q: Your radio has an interesting primacy. It is the most listened-to radio in war-ridden Afghanistan.
A: Yes we are the most popular radio there. We bring programs for women, about health care, about business. I spoke to President Karzai the other day. When he gets up in the morning he tunes in to RFE/RL. But I also spoke to the chieftains from far-off provinces. They also listen to us in between their prayers. People from Afghanistan write letters to us. The longest was a scroll which was eighty meters long. I believe that even Afghanistan will one day have a civil society and the rule of law, but the country needs to find its own way.
Q: What is the future of RFE/RL in the world of new emerging media?
A: We need to react to the demands of the market; use more internet, organize videoconferences, make use of all new technologies. The most important is to have content, good content. Terrorists can also use new technologies: but we want to infuse these technologies with spirit and ideas.