An open letter to
the Director of Radio Liberty
BY VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY
Translated by Albert C. Schmidt.
Published in Kontinent magazine, issue no. 11, 1977.
The editors of the Kontinent magazine herewith print a letter by Vladimir Bukovsky concerning the draft of guidelines for political programming of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, distributed by the president of the Washington Council on radio broadcasting, Mr. S. Mikhelson. The editors hope that publication and discussion of the Bukovsky letter will be of aid to the work of the whole radio station, as well as to that of the addressee personally.
Dear Mr. Francis Ronalds,
I have read the draft project for programming and political guidelines to be used by Liberty/Free Europe, as sent around by Mr. Mikhelson. I would like to voice my thoughts regarding the line of work of these radio stations set forth in the draft, with emphasis on Radio Liberty—inasmuch as its broadcasts are of foremost importance for the U.S.S.R. at the present time. Over the past six years I have not had the opportunity to listen to Radio Liberty, to evaluate the quality of its broadcasts, or to grasp to what extent the line here laid down is already being followed in current broadcasting. Hence, I can only base myself on the text of the draft, as well as on my own conception of the needs of Soviet listeners and on that of my fellow prisoners.
Instinctively, perhaps, while reading and analyzing the text of the draft, I recalled my years of experience with Soviet bureaucratic papers, and this has affected my reaction. To a certain extent, this attitude has been prompted by the text itself and by the phrasing of the draft, the resemblance of which to normative documents and directives I have known is simply frightening.
From the text we learn that the draft must become obligatory guidelines for all personnel of the radio station, in as much as the management is charged with “constant supervision of the contents of broadcasts in accordance with the given guidelines." Amazing is the very attempt to make rules for everything, down to the tone of broadcasting: "to refrain from emotionality [!], cursing, anger, sharpness, militancy, arrogance, pomposity, pretentiousness or condescension.” And at the same time it is stated that the radio station transmits news and information, "submitting them to no censorship," taking upon itself in part the function of "local radio broadcasting and, as it were, replacing the free press, which is absent.”
Maybe I am being too literal in translating the word Liberty as "liberty." But I was under the impression that the Western mass media regarded their collaborators not as shop clerks, but rather as people who devote their creative efforts to a cause in which they believe and which they desire to further. All the more so with regard to collaborators at the radio stations that broadcast to the Soviet Union and East Europe, most of whom are emigres from the countries in question.
The Soviet reader (listener) is used to the fact that news as presented is not dispassionate or independent. Even the shortest information bulletin from Soviet sources is composed with a slant. For that reason he receives communications from Western radio with like suspicion. His ears buzz with noise about how Radio Liberty caters to American policy. And it would be naive to suppose that implementation of this policy proposal would go unnoticed by listeners. What picture will the listener get of freedom of information as proclaimed in the West, of the independence of newspapers, radio, and the like? To him, you are a representative model of the Western press; in all your broadcasts he will only see American politics in action, and the absence of genuine freedom. Is that what Radio Liberty wants to convince its listeners of? Do the American media, operating on their own home ground, put the same restrictions on their employees as are now proposed for RL/ RFE? It is clear to me that such stringent regulation will cause the radio station to suffer the fate of Amerika magazine. That magazine aroused considerable interest, at one time, by virtue of its name alone; but it ceased to be attractive to anyone as soon as it became possible to familiarize oneself with its lack of content. Probably these proposals, if followed, can lead to success in negotiations concerning cessation of jamming (and I can understand why people are worried about this); but might it not happen that, when jamming stops, having been bought at such a price, the very same people who now listen despite the jamming ("KGB jazz") will turn off their radios and go back to trying to eke out information between the lines of the Soviet press?
In characterizing this paper, which so strongly reminds me of official documents of the dear old MVD, I should like to point out the following features:
1. Amazing inner contradictions. On the one hand, it is stated that "RL and RFE help the citizens of the U.S.S.R. and East Europe with dissemination and discussion of their own opinions, which, owing to censorship, they are unable to express via the media." On the other hand, right away a restriction is imposed on the utterances of the citizens:
"Wherever appropriate information may include statements by citizens who, deprived of opportunity to express themselves through the mass media in their own country, are obliged to turn for help to foreign correspondents or to resort to uncensored publications—samizdat. BEFORE USING SAMIZDAT MATERIALS OR OTHER DOCUMENTS COMING FROM THE U.S.S.R. OR EAST EUROPE, THEY MUST BE CAREFULLY EXAMINED.”
It would be interesting to know, by the way, how Rl envisages such examination. The draft proposes: “If the facts appear dubious, it is necessary for them to be corroborated by two mutually independent sources." I find it hard to imagine how this can be done in practice. For example, if a communication has been brought out of a concentration camp at risk of liberty, through whom will RL check it? Will they call the camp commander?
In the draft paper it is proposed to give the listeners “examples of free discussion between different viewpoints and approaches on national and international problems," but then, at the same time, to "avoid invidious comparison,” and not to permit "criticism of the Soviet system from purely Western positions" (isn't that one of the possible viewpoints?). "Radio Liberty neither supports nor encourages any movements pursuing the goal of secession in any form and does not broach territorial questions." Thus, from the activity of RL is excluded not only a viewpoint, but an entire problem complex; a direct ban is imposed on a specific theme. The only thing proposed in this context is to "take a sympathetic stand regarding the right of all nationality groups to prosperity* to pride in their historical and cultural achievements, and to the use of their own Ianguage.” As it turns out, the proposed policy does not even take into account the right of each Soviet republic to secede freely from the U.S S.R , as set forth in Article 17 of the Soviet Constitution, and that policy automatically eliminates discussion, for instance, of the Ukrainian political prisoners who have made a broad appeal based on this constitutional provision. All that RL promises the national groups is to "support the right of every person freely to defend his national origin as well as his religious and political convictions, and not to fear discrimination along these lines.” Absorbed as I am in the problem of individual civil rights, I cannot forget—Soviet reality does not let me forget—the existence of problems of entire peoples which cannot be summed up under the right to “take pride in their achievements.”
2. Total lack of precision in terminology; vagueness of phraseology. In compiling broadcasts on internal affairs in the country beamed at, it is proposed first of all to "inform listeners about IMPORTANT EVENTS in their country's life which are either unreported, distorted or insufficiently explained by the official media." But who will decide on the "importance" of an event and on the "sufficiency" of official coverage? "Internal affairs must be commented on in a CONSTRUCTIVE way.” That ambiguous word has been so frequently exploited by official Soviet sources (at home and abroad) that it cannot be regarded as trustworthy. ‘'Avoid criticism for the sake of criticism"—a permanent slogan of the Soviet press, which brands as criticism for criticism’s sake anything objectionable to chiefs on any level. "Critical remarks with respect to policies or practical action of the governments of the given countries must be founded on deep knowledge of the factual side of the matter and must be presented in responsible fashion." Who shall determine depth and degree of responsibility? At any moment, any broadcast may be declared shallow and irresponsible if it diverges from the momentary demands of the deep-thinking and well-informed American politicians.
3. A degree of political helplessness which is astounding in a policy document. The authors of the draft do not realize or try to find out who their Soviet listener is, whom they will find out who their Soviet listener is, whom they will take as a guiding pattern, or what is the goal of this kind of broadcasting. In the positive portion of the document we read that the purpose of broadcasting is to draw the listeners “into the atmosphere of a less closed world, where their problems and the problems common to many nations are discussed freely, objectively and without ideological or other preconceptions.” And "RL and RFE make an effort to adopt the viewpoint of the interests of their listeners.” How can this be reconciled with the negative portion of the text, which imposes eleven cowardly restrictions on broadcasting?
It is embarrassing for me, as a person who spent his whole life in unfree conditions, a person whose world was circumscribed by the four walls of a cell in Vladimir prison, to explain to free people in a free society that objectivity and impartiality are attained not by prohibitions and restrictions, but rather by breadth and diversity of information and viewpoints alike. The more different “unobjective" views a man hears, the easier it is for him to draw really objective conclusions. I think objectivity consists in a sum total of non-objectivities; it is born in discussion. From this angle I should like to examine all of the proposed restrictions.
The first restriction, having to do with the tone of broadcasts, has already been mentioned above. Which gives greater objectivity—a dispassionate and well-rehearsed announcer, who reads without vocal emphasis on sensitive points, or a varied, emotional and disputative chorus of excited people? (Naturally, individuality or excitement of tone should not be simply an acting trick.) The expression human viewpoint is impossible without emotional coloring.
The second restriction consists in “correcting the gaps and distortions in the official media, they do so by presenting the facts, avoiding polemical treatment of the kind the audiences are known to resent." But Soviet citizens need more than just information: They need editorializing, they need discussion, and not only between RL writers but also arguments with the official line. In essence, we in the narrow sense of the word as of qualified elaboration on this information. The absence of a free press in the USSR robs us, above all, of the opportunity to comprehend what going on. For example, under Stalin everyone knew about the persecutions in progress (though not to fullest extent)/ yet they took this for an inevitable phenomenon justified by the situation and by "great goals.” Another example: Soviet emigrants with a certain amount of objective information about the West before they leave nonetheless often go there with the idea that "if it's bad here, then it’s good over there"; they realize only vaguely that the West has its problems, and when they run up against those problems they get confused, they get depressed, and all because naked information without development in discussion does not form real conceptions. All of the information on Western difficulties and problems, so generously provided by the Soviet press, cannot break through the inner mechanism of consciousness that filters the facts.
If you analyze the political platforms of various groups arriving at the camps, you are struck not by any ignorance of events but by an abundance of antiquated conceptions and doctrines that have been refuted by life, The life these people see is one and the same life; the information they receive is homogenized; but their ideas and conclusions are often diametrically opposed and equally distant from reality. It is not a result of personal peculiarities or political preferences on the part of these people, but rather it is due to the lack of a chance to discuss their home-grown conclusions, to debate in the open, to hear counterarguments and to correct the results of their reflections. An expansion of polemics will allow people to avoid rediscovering the wheel.
The tragedy of people living in the U.S.S.R., in the information context, does not only consist in the fact that a monstrous propaganda and agitation machine rubber-stamps them into unthinking Communists. On the contrary, Soviet propaganda furnishes us with apomictic enemies of Communism. Even the stupidest individual will ultimately see the discrepancy between propaganda and reality, and the persistent monotony with which the former is inculcated will infect him with an itch to contradict. Yet a high degree of culture and intellect are necessary to keep that machine from turning out “Communists in reverse." The information tragedy is that Soviet propaganda turns out fascists. Patent lies repeated day after day, mockery and violation of the truth, cause even those who have well-developed minds to look for countermeasures of violence as reprisal. Too few realize that every form of violence leads to Bolshevism in all its manifestations. Under these circumstances, merely broadening information or “filling up gaps" will not further the development of political thought, of political maturation, or promote perception of democratic principles. I have met masses of people who were overjoyed at the atrocities in Chile as though their own personal success were involved-people who seriously believe it justified to torture the torturers.
The task of broadcasting to the U.S.S.R. as well as, no doubt, the countries of Eastern Europe, consists not only in broader dissemination of objective information: People
must be given other alternatives for escaping from the present hopeless situation. This can be done only through extensive discussion. In this regard, of great interest to Soviet listeners is the opinion of the "new" emigration — those who only yesterday lived in the U.S.S.R. but who have already gone through, or are going through, the stage of rethinking their values.
Objection to the next limitation follows from the foregoing. Almost exactly like the Soviet authorities, the authors of the policy draft believe that a problem can be removed by closing down discussion of it. The third restriction consists in eliminating from the broadcasts “any programming the content of which could be legitimately construed as inflammatory,” and “judgment must be exercised as to the potentially inflammatory nature of any program.” Aside from the fact that here again there is no clue as to criteria for defining the potentially inflammatory, it is perfectly clear that such a point does not permit correction of the above-described tendencies arising among Soviet citizens under the impact of Soviet propaganda, I had thought that American society had outlived the prejudices of McCarthyism as a universal as well as local problem and had dropped the term “inflammatory” as dangerous for democracy. Then why is that which is an outlived phase for Americans offered as the latest achievement of political thought for Russia?
Almost the same objections may be raised to the fourth restriction, recommending avoidance of “any comment or broadcast of any material which could be reasonably construed as incitement to revolt or support for illegal and violent actions.” Would this evaluation apply to news items or stories about uprisings in camps, strikes and demonstrations in Poland, recollections of the Hungarian revolution? It probably would: These are examples of mass action, some of it violent (I am not talking now about causes). So should this information and its discussion be excluded? That is the logical conclusion to be drawn from the restriction in question.
I should like to quote the fifth restriction almost in its entirety: “Avoidance of tactical advice, by which is meant recommendations for specific action in particular cases, except in unusual circumstances—and then only to calm moods in tense situations. Such advice is likely to be resented and, if acted upon might cause harm to the people involved.” And yet RL, in the first sentence of the guidelines, calls itself an independent broadcasting service. In contrast to the Voice of America, it assumes the function of “local broadcasting.” Unquestionably, the American government cannot give advice to people in other countries, but a local radio is obliged to do just that. Why don't you in America forbid your newspapers to give advice to their readers? And in “extraordinary circumstances,” when the reader needs help, tell the newspapers to wage reassuring propaganda only, not to analyze the causes of the extraordinary circumstances, and to use sedatives for the solution of political problems. Of course, directives and ready recipes are “likely to be resented/' but a man must have possible escapes, alternatives, and possible solutions! Particularly since putting forth various opinions and conceptions of that sort via RL/RFE should most certainly be done in the first instance with the participation of representatives of the peoples living inside the country as well as outside its borders. Let me remark, by the way, that the term “advice” may be interpreted at will: Any discussion will provide some sort of advice, directly or indirectly; and this restriction could be used to shut off almost any discussion, particularly the necessary discussion regarding the country's future paths of development.
The sixth restriction has to do with “rumors” and possibilities for using them. In the U.S.S.R. a rumor is considered to be anything not reported in the official press or not
confirmed by TASS and APN. To a Soviet citizen, I rumored to have been liberated in exchange for Corvalan. In a closed society, any piece of information is a more or less
credible rumor. Reports of this or that arrest by foreign correspondents in Moscow are always “rumors”; they were not present, someone told them about it. This brings us back to the previously mentioned topic of “two sources of information mutually independent of each other.”
The eighth restriction, prescribing avoidance of anything that might be understood as “encouraging defections," and careful avoidance of any hint that someone might do well to follow the example of defectors, demonstrates that the authors of the draft paper interpret escape from the Soviet Union not in the spirit of Article 13 of the Declaration of Human Rights, but rather in the spirit of Article 64 of the R.S.F.S.R. Criminal Code, which equates flight from the U.S.S.R. and non-return with going over to the sideof the enemy. An amazing and almost literal coincidence! Such a summons is in fact any broadcast concerning positive sides of life in the West, and particularly on the good life enjoyed by emigres.
The ninth restriction is utterly superfluous. To avoid any suggestion which might lead audiences to believe that, in the event of an international crisis or civil disorder, the West might intervene militarily.” (!) Even if the Western governments were to make daily promises of armed assistance in “civil disorders,” who would believe them? After Yalta, after Hungary, after Czechoslovakia, after Helsinki?
In the tenth restriction the authors of the draft are worried lest broadcasts might contain petty (?) gossip, vicious statements, or insulting remarks about the personal lives of state and party leaders. Milovan Djilas began his opposition activity by waxing indignant over the amoral habits of the government and only later created his conception of the "new class." If Djilas were to appear with his statements today, he would, obviously be unacceptable to RL/whose main concern is protecting the image of Communist leaders. One gets the impression that this worries these radio stations more than it worries the defendants themselves.
The eleventh restriction: “Do not respond or reply to attacks on RL and without prior coordination of the form and content of such reply with the Director of the radio station in question.” The answer to this is elementary. Every journalist (and every person) has a right to reply to attacks and to refute slander, as well as to select the form of his reply as he sees fit.
In my opinion the last point, the twelfth, calls for no comment. It says that in the event of extraordinary circumstances in the countries to which broadcasts are beamed, the directors of both radio stations should turn off the switches and urgently fly to Washington for instructions. During that time, light music may be played on the air, inasmuch as “none of the departments of RL or RFE have the right to broadcast any materials relating to such circumstances.”
And then, after all of these restrictions, the authors calmly announce in the next section that “in this way the stations take upon themselves the function of a forum for local political, social, religious and philosophical thought.”
In summing up what has been said, it remains to be pointed out that the American officials responsible for RL/RFE are in fact adopting the Soviet viewpoint on detente, interpreting free information as being interference in the internal affairs of a country. What is more, information is seriously regarded as a powerful medicine which may be dispensed in larger doses to nations accustomed to it, while other nations, situated to the east of the prewar borders of the Soviet Union, should be given only homeopathic doses, since they are not yet capable of taking “Western thought and cultural values.”
I am amazed at the fear of life and naturalness oozing out of every line in this document. The people who wrote it do not believe in democracy, and they attempt to replace the natural process by substituting a set of vague instructions. In skillful hands the proposed guidelines will inevitably be transformed into a tool for strangling one of the last free channels of information directed toward the totalitarian countries. In practice it has been shown that skillful hands can always be found in time.
What would the American people, the American Congress, and the Senate say if the mass media of the U.S.A. were placed under this kind of control? THEN WHY IS RL/RFE BROADCASTING NOT POSSIBLE ALONG THE PRINCIPLES UNDERLYING AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, PRINCIPLES WHICH I HOPE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE INTEND TO GO ON DEFENDING IN THE FUTURE?
All that remains is the hope that this policy draft will be stopped in time and not go into effect. If this does not happen, I can only express to you, Mr. Ronalds, my profound
condolence at being the person who will be compelled to implement it.
With sincere sympathy,
P.S. Please allow this letter to be considered an open letter, in view of the importance to us all of the problems of free broadcasting.
Zurich, December 1976