Today's Liberation Technologies

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise
—Euripides, as translated by John Milton, 1644

The “Arab spring” of 2011 has shown us a world of transformed politics, communications, and technology beyond anything imaginable during the Cold War. But the ferment in the Arab world echoes the struggle for freedom of oppressed peoples under communism, demonstrating that striving for freedom is not simply a Eurasian but a universal aspiration. It’s a familiar story in another way: just as in the Cold War, Arabs agitating for change must erode the information monopoly of authoritarian regimes and provide citizens with objective, honest information—not only news but also information about democratic ideas, institutions, and values.

This challenge of communicating to and within a transformed world was the focus of a workshop in February featuring Hoover Distinguished Fellow George P. Shultz, Hoover Senior Fellow Larry Diamond, Hoover Research Fellow Abbas Milani, and former adviser to the Open Society Institute Media Program John Fox. The panelists made use of a new Hoover Institution–supported book, Cold War Broadcasting: Impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (Central European University Press, 2010), which draws on Hoover’s Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty collections, among others. Co-sponsors of the workshop at Stanford were the Europe Center of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

The broadcasters were audience-centric: they focused not on the United States but on what was happening in the target countries.

Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and other Western radios reached over the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, providing captive peoples in the Soviet orbit with news about the world and their own countries that was barred by the censorship apparatus of repressive regimes. The impact was remarkable. The broadcasts sometimes attracted Soviet and Eastern Europe audiences of half the adult population. For ordinary listeners, the Radios “kept hope alive” and provided perspective on a world they wanted to be part of. For dissidents, the Radios were a megaphone, allowing uncensored communication with their fellow citizens that strengthened opposition to the regimes. For Communist leaders, the Radios were such a threat to their rule that they sought to block their messages with massive and expensive countermeasures—technical jamming of broadcasts, repression of listeners, and pressure on broadcasters and their families.


What is especially interesting today is how over the course of forty years, sometimes in fits and starts, the Radios developed the policies and practices that accounted for their success. RFE and RL became a free press for unfree countries because they were audience-centric—they focused not on the United States but on developments in the target countries. They offered listeners a mix of views as well as news: opinion, commentary, and analysis. This blend of domestic-focused news, comment, and features was vitally important—far more so than the verbal bombast which, however satisfying to some in the West during the Cold War, was counterproductive with the audience in the East. Audiences listened to and believed the broadcasts because, above all, they were credible.

fiscal sanity illustration
Image credit: © Agence France-Presse/Attila Kisbenedek
Hungarians riding a historic tram through Budapest hand out copies of a booklet commemorating the revolution of 1956, in which opposition broadcasting played a large part. An image of Imre Nagy, the former prime minister who led the abortive uprising, appears at left.

News was as balanced, objective, and well sourced as possible. The Radios provided the bad news as well as the good, about the United States as well as other countries. Newscasters and commentators spoke the same language as their audience, not just linguistically but culturally and ethnically. At Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, editorial authority was exercised by talented émigrés who enjoyed editorial autonomy in partnership with Americans who ultimately were responsible for broadcasts. During the Cold War, the Americans were the publishers; the broadcast directors from “there” were the chief editors.

Broadcasters generally resisted the temptation to overreach and pretend to know the interests of the audiences better than the audiences themselves. They understood that information from outside can only reinforce indigenous opposition to repressive regimes, never create that opposition.

They also came to understand the special responsibility of external communicators in crises. Among other duties, it was their job to reinforce emerging independent media in repressive countries, whether in Hungary during the 1956 revolution, in Poland with the emergence of Solidarity, or in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Unintended consequences were always a danger. During a crisis, responsible journalism can inadvertently be inflammatory because audiences might mistake reporting for exhortation. This happened with RFE broadcasts to Hungary in 1956, accused by some of encouraging revolutionaries to continue a fight they could not win (see “To the Barricades,” Hoover Digest, 2007:4).

The “Arab spring” emphasizes the message that striving for freedom is not simply a Eurasian aspiration but a universal one.

Moreover, the United States came to understand that effective broadcasting was a long-term proposition. Governments are always tempted to demand short-term indicators of success. The U.S. government was no exception; it sought to appraise the impact of specific broadcasts year to year, to prove from one budget cycle to the next that a particular project was “moving the needle” in the Cold War. But broadcasting into the Iron Curtain required sustainable support. The payoff came in 1981–89, when the investment over several decades helped to restore eastern nations to a Europe whole and free, and to bring the Soviet Union to an end.


The Arab world is less receptive to messages from the West than were countries under Communist rule, but democratic opposition leaders in today’s Middle East still look to free countries to magnify their message and sustain the flow of information. They seek to publicize the plight at home and abroad of imprisoned democrats, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran. (During the Cold War, Czechs tuned in to RFE to learn of the imprisonment and protests of Vaclav Havel and his fellow Charter 77 dissidents.) And in ways unimaginable during the Cold War, new technologies are allowing Arab opposition figures to unite their followers and elude the autocrats, who also have been fast learners of the new communications game.

Print media and radio broadcasts are still important, but they are often overshadowed by satellite television, Internet audiovisual and text materials, and the new Internet-based social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. Satellite television, notably Al-Jazeera Arabic, and social media have sparked protests and demonstrations around the Arab world and Iran. The digital media have become important tools of communication not just to but within unfree societies.

Facebook, Twitter, the Internet in general: these are liberation technologies, allowing citizens to carve out spheres of information freedom within today’s authoritarian systems.

During the Cold War, news from Western broadcasts and local rumors spread slowly by word of mouth. Earlier, letters and travelers’ communications had fueled the European revolutions of 1848. But social media now allow such horizontal, peer-to-peer communication to reach tens and hundreds of thousands instantly—a reach that would astonished Soviet dissidents with their covertly shared, typewritten copies of underground manuscripts. The digital media are liberation technologies, allowing citizens themselves to carve out spheres of information freedom within authoritarian systems and, as we have seen throughout the Middle East this year, mount fundamental challenges to those systems. The new technology empowers newly emergent citizen reporters and opinion leaders to communicate far easier and quicker than was possible through the megaphone of Western radio during the Cold War.

Yet the new technologies are no silver bullet. Repressive regimes fight back, just as during the Cold War. They jam satellite signals, censor and even shut down the Internet, and carry out surveillance of wireless communications. The cat-and-mouse game between broadcasters and jammers continues. Multinational telecom companies, which provide much of the infrastructure to support the new technologies, may have a moral obligation to support users and not censors but they cannot always be counted on to do so.

Certain older technologies may be due for a revival. Shortwave radio transmissions, for instance, are the most difficult form of communications to block. Earlier this year, Sudanese youth turned to shortwave radio for communication after the authorities blocked Facebook and text messaging. The villagers of a town in Sarawak state, Malaysia, bought up every shortwave set available to they could listen to a London-based station, Radio Free Sarawak.

The new technologies can serve oppressors as well as freedom fighters, just as the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television have done. Evgeny Morozov has cautioned in his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (Public Affairs, 2010) that repressive regimes and mobs employ the new tools to their advantage. The Ayatollah Khomeini incited religious fanaticism in Iran using audiocassette recordings spread by telephone. Mobs used mobile telephones to organize torching of Serbian monasteries in Kosovo in 2004. The Taliban incites violent jihad via the Internet. The Iranian Republican Guard wages cyber-jihad. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has a reported one million Twitter followers.

Discussing the potential of then-revolutionary technology of shortwave radio in 1952, Ambassador Foy Kohler, director of the Voice of America, cautioned that “radio is a means often mistaken as an end.” Today, too, the medium is indeed not the message. Walter Laqueur has cautioned in Democratic Digest that “Facebook and the Internet will change nothing in a country like Egypt unless you have a message which tells people how to build a free and just society, how to make the country more prosperous, how to give satisfactory jobs to young people.”

That is the challenge facing those today—including the U.S.-funded stations Alhurra, Sawa, Persian News Network (VOA), and Farda (RFE/RL)—which carry the message of freedom to oppressed peoples. It is also the challenge facing citizens if they are to use new liberation technology not just to organize mass protest but to complement independent traditional media and develop postauthoritarian democratic systems.

Hoover Senior Fellow Timothy Garton Ash writes in his preface to Cold War Broadcasting that “history never repeats itself. One should try to learn from it nonetheless.” Efforts to communicate to and within unfree societies will benefit from remembering what worked and why during the Cold War.