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Debate On Future Of RFE/RL

Washington, June 20 (RFE/RL) - A group of U.S. politicians, political analysts and representatives of ethnic organizations say continued broadcasting by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is more important now than ever but warn that funding for the Radios faces an uphill battle in the U.S. Congress.

U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), says he expects the Congress to renew debate about funding for RFE/RL early next year after the dust settles from the U.S. presidential elections in November.

"Expect all the old questions about whether to fund the Radios or get rid of them to come back in January," Biden said at a conference in Washington Wednesday.

But former U.S. presidential candidate Steve Forbes said funding the Radios represents the cheapest, most effective investment the U.S. can make in its own national security interests.

Biden and Forbes were among speakers at a conference on the future of the Radios. Other participants included Czech Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Zantovsky and U.S. Senator John Kyl (R-Arizona).

Forbes, a wealthy businessman and former chairman of the board that had oversight over RFE/RL, said America's longterm security lies in having more nations share U.S. values of democracy and freedom. He said RFE/RL helped win the Cold War and in his words "the Radios are now more important than ever to consolidate victories of the Cold War."

Zantovsky said RFE/RL, which last year moved from Munich, Germany to Prague in the Czech Republic, provides a valuable service in setting a standard of independent, highly professional journalism that serves as a comparison and training ground for young journalists in the east.

Senator Kyl said decades of communism have left a legacy that makes it difficult to quickly bring the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO and the European Union.

That's why it's important, he said, to share American ideas and expand the community of nations that respect democratic rights. "One of the best ways to meet this responsibility is through the expansion of ideas through RFE/RL," Kyl said.

There was some criticism of the quality of RFE/RL's broadcasts to Russia by a former member of Radio Liberty's Russian Service. And a former RFE/RL president urged consolidation with the U.S. government's Voice of America, saying two foreign broadcasters are no longer necessary.

But the majority of the participants commented favorably on the Radios saying they should be preserved as a unique surrogate service, disseminating much needed objective regional, as well as domestic news to audiences of more than 25 million people in Central Europe and the former Soviet republics.

Nevertheless, Senator Biden cautioned that the usefullness and effectiveness of RFE/RL is not the real issue for U.S. legislators: "that's not how the political debate in Congress will be cast," he said.

Biden said legislators have more than halved national spending on foreign affairs compared to 1984, and will continue to seek areas where they can cut costs and reduce the national deficit.

He says the merits of RFE/RL, its reorganization, move to Prague and continued popularity are not at issue.

According to Biden the crux of the congressional debate is isolationism versus internationalism and whether to increase the U.S. presence abroad or continue to pull back. He says the question will be posed next year about continued funding for RFE/RL within this context, and that currently "international involvement is not high on anybody's agenda in Washington."

The conference was sponsored by the Center for Security Policy, the National Review magazine and the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.