The Unfreedom of Radio Liberty

by Alissa Ordabai

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty has announced today the departure of its Central Asia Program Director Abbas Javadi amidst heavy criticism of his all-too-cosy relationships with the authoritarian regimes in the region. 


The retirement of the veteran administrator comes just two days after Eurasianet published a scolding investigative report revealing a long-standing practice of RFE/RL quashing and watering down stories aimed to expose authoritarianism in Central Asia.  A U.S. State Department internal memo cited by Eurasianet speaks of RFE’s benevolent partiality toward local governments and criticizes the organization for eroding Washington’s stature in strategically important Central Asia “when it parrots an authoritarian government’s messaging to its own people.”  The article also reports that the U.S. Agency for Global Media — RFE’s governing body — had asked the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General to investigate the RFE/RL Tajik Service and its practice of camouflaging and concealing human rights abuses by the country’s autocratic ruler Emomali Rahmon.


RFE/RL — which is funded by the U.S. government — from its inception in 1950 had been charged with a mission to provide accurate news to the censorship-ridden countries of the Eastern Bloc. Given that for many people in the region — and especially in Central Asia — RFE/RL to this day remains just about the only source of reliable news, it comes as no surprise that its journalists and decision-makers are viewed as important potential allies by the local governments.  After all, communist spy agencies in not so distant past have been remarkably successful at infiltrating RFE/RL.  Some such agents have remained staff members for years,  gathering information and not interfering with broadcasts.  But others, like the infamous Polish spy Andrzej Czechowicz, who worked for the RFE in Munich in the late 1960s, went further,  and upon returning back to the East proceeded to do all they could to publicly discredit Radio Liberty as on organization and the United States as a country. RFE’s most embarrassing and bizarre defector story, however, remains that of Oleg Tumanov, a KGB agent who joined Radio Liberty in 1966, worked his way up to Acting Chief Editor of its Russian language service, and in 1986 returned from Munich to the Soviet Union, embarking on a bombastic slander campaign — accusing RFE/RL of anti-Soviet espionage and calling its leadership “dogs of the cold war.”


Times have changed.  People don’t disappear the way Tumanov suddenly did from his Munich office one sunny April day in 1986 only to reappear a week later at a press conference in Moscow, blasting his employer of 20 years. Influence and power these days move through relationships more complicated than 30 years ago, and motives are often multiple, varied and answer several needs. No one is expecting Javadi to settle in Tajikistan (whose leader Rahmon he’s been shielding from bad press so selflessly for years) or go on a smear campaign against RFE. Javadi was let go, and calmly at that, without any mention of the circumstances of his retirement on the RFE/RL web site. We don’t know what motivated him to whitewash human rights abuses in the deeply authoritarian, corruption-ridden region. Neither do we know the extent of the goodwill between him and the Central Asian authorities.  What we do know is that complaints against him have been plentiful, the most recent one coming on March 29 in the form an open letter to the RFE/RL Acting President Daisy Sindelar from a group of Kazakhstani independent journalists and human rights activists. The letter described censorship within the Javadi-led Central Asian service, as well as a routine practice of quashing stories critical of the Kazakh authorities, and bullying by RFE/RL of its own award-winning investigative journalists. We also know that Javadi’s career thrived under Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL’s Vice President and a former Yugoslav communist, who had been repeatedly accused by human rights journalists in Kazakhstan of protecting Javadi and Javadi's cosy relationship with the country’s authoritarian leadership. 


Speaking of former communists in the employ of democracy-promoting institutions, the legendary Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky tells a poignant story in his upcoming book Judgement in Moscow, which is due to be published this May. When in the early 1990s former GULAG prisoner Bukovsky questioned several Western human rights organizations about their practice of offering employment to former communist apparatchiks and KGB careerists, he received a startling answer. Not only — Bukovsky was explained — did such people possess valuable “administration experience” but their placements were seen as desirable, a kind of re-education of former servants of totalitarian regimes which afforded them opportunities to change their old autocratic mindset. The conversation Bukovsky describes took place some 25 years ago. Today’s scandal around RFE/RL in Central Asia now gives us a chance to assess whether the former prison guards and propagandists of tyrannical regimes have indeed managed to change their minds. Or whether our collective failure to put communism on trail following the collapse of the USSR has trapped them in a repetitive loop of delusion and unaccountability. 


But what this story also shows is that Radio Liberty remains relevant in the post-Soviet countries, especially against the background of the crackdown on the freedom of speech across the region in the recent years. Radio Liberty’s popularity peaked some four decades ago when it provided a platform for leading Soviet and Eastern European dissident thinkers and its heyday may have passed, but in Central Asia it plays an important enough role to be of interest to local governments and their efforts to control public opinion. In his 2010 interview to RFE/RL former KGB general Oleg Kalugin described how in the 1970s and the 1980s Radio Liberty had been a KGB intelligence priority and a infiltration target. The fact that it remains a coveted prize in the battle for hearts and minds in the post-Soviet countries, confirms its continuing status as one of the key players in the region's media space. U.S. taxpayers’ money which funds RFE/RL’s operations, however, could be spent on rethinking its employee vetting. In the age of social media, instant user-generated news and video-blogging, competition among providers of accurate content is fierce, and Radio Liberty's five-decade history which continues to oscillate between triumphs and embarrassments could be put to an end rather abruptly by something as trivial as a new startup YouTube channel, and without any trying from a powerful totalitarian opponent. One former communist too many deciding on Radio Liberty’s policy, or one whitewashing scandal too many, and an entire generation of young readers and viewers could switch to an alternative news source -- without coming back -- before you could say “meddling.”

New York, April 2019