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East/West: U.S. International Broadcasting Plays Growing Role

Washington, 14 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Three speakers at a Washington ceremony yesterday inaugurating the formation of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors as an independent agency said the impact of international broadcasting will grow dramatically during the next century.

Indeed, all three -- Broadcasting Board of Governors chairman Marc Nathanson, U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), and Estonian President Lennart Meri -- suggested that U.S. international broadcasting will play a decisive role in determining both the direction many nations will choose and the relationships they will have with the United States.

And that role -- all three argued -- will almost certainly prove to be more important than the past achievements of U.S. broadcasting during World War II and the Cold War.

BBG chairman Nathanson said the establishment of independent status for his group will allow it to unify U.S. international broadcasting, protect journalists from political interference and allow them to take advantage of new technologies to ensure that accurate and reliable information continues to reach their audiences.

Nathanson added that Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio Marti, and Worldnet television will be freed to ensure they can increase their audiences and their influence around the world.

Senator Biden -- introduced as one of the two fathers of the BBG's independence (along with Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina) -- insisted that international broadcasting is "more needed now than anytime in the past." He suggested that those struggling against oppressive governments need to know they are not alone.

And Biden argued that radio broadcasting that explains about others working in the same direction "not only empowers but emboldens" those who are listening. In this, as in so many spheres of life, Biden suggested, "information is power," and U.S. international broadcasting gives power to the people.

In his keynote address, Estonian President Meri repeated these themes, arguing that "the antennas of international broadcasters have regularly outweighed the most powerful armies in the world." He expressed his conviction that such broadcasts must continue if the world is to move toward a freer and more democratic future.

Introduced by Nathanson as someone who has listened to international broadcasts for more than half a century, Meri described the ways in which broadcasts by the BBC, VOA, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe opened a window on his country to their listeners.

He described the role that international broadcasting played in helping Estonia to survive and then escape Soviet occupation, noting the many times that such broadcasts had come to his and his nation's rescue.

Perhaps the most dramatic, Meri said, was in January 1991, when "through a series of telephone connections from Tallinn to Helsinki to Stockholm to RFE/RL in Munich," an appeal by Russian leader Boris Yeltsin to Russian soldiers not to fire on freely elected governments and unarmed civilians reached the entire Soviet population.

Meri said that one indication of how important that action by RFE/RL was for Estonia is the fact that the head of RFE/RL's Estonian Service at that time, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, is now Estonia's foreign minister.

But Meri cautioned against thinking the most important role for U.S. international broadcasting is in the past. Like Nathanson and Biden, Meri argued that the most critical time is still ahead.

Noting that too many people had been too optimistic about the prospects for change in post-communist countries like his own, Meri said the last decade has shown how much of an impact communism had on the minds of journalists and their audiences, as well as on the hearts and minds of the nations as a whole.

He suggested that Estonia -- like the other countries that escaped communism -- still has to grow new publishers and broadcasters, new journalists, and a new readership and audience. And in that process, he said, international broadcasting can play a role as both an instigator and a model for emulation.

Meri concluded his speech with the following appeal: "On behalf of the Estonian people," he said, "I want to thank you in the United States for all you have done in the past and are now doing through your broadcasts to my country and to other countries around the world.

"Consequently," Meri said, "I am very proud to greet you today on the occasion of the formation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors as an independent agency -- even though I want all of you who are celebrating to know that your greatest challenges lie ahead and that those of us who are your chief beneficiaries will never let you forget it."