Mediating notions of freedom: The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Radio Free Europe’s headquarters in Prague

Away from the physical wars of violence and destruction, a cultural war has taking been place since the end of World War II. I’m not referring to the phony cultural war of the Right versus Left or Conservative versus Liberal, I’m talking about the bombardment of other countries via the airwaves. The countries that are enduring this cultural bombardment are those in Central Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East.  Some Eastern European countries are included… but not those that have already succumbed to the imperialist message of brotherhood through ‘free trade’.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same broadcaster and were, until 1970, directly funded  by the CIA. Their funding now comes directly from Congress but that doesn’t make them any less pernicious than they were previously. In the glory days of the Cold War, RFE/RL would broadcast messages about the wonders of Coca-Cola and other treats to the so-called Iron Curtain countries, but once the Berlin Wall fell, they turned their attention to those countries in Asia, which they believed were in need of ‘freedom’. The truth is altogether less altruistic and I will come to that later.

RFE/RL broadcasts to Iraq and Iran (no surprise). It claims not to beam its signal to Syria but I think, given the current situation there, it most probably does.

RFE began broadcasting in 1950 to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. RL began in 1951. It is interesting to note that in the same year that RFE was founded, the CIA covertly created the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

Here’s a clip from Crusade for Freedom. This is the same Orwellian freedom much beloved of our friends in the Liberty League and The Freedom Association,

The Crusade succeeded in convincing many Americans that the idea of freedom that was being mediated to them by domestic broadcasters was the ‘right’ freedom, and that this freedom should be ‘enjoyed’ by everyone.

While not exactly sinister, the Crusade for Freedom was unquestionably deceitful. Over almost twenty years, it repeatedly took advantage of American good will, expanding from a small, obscure program into a monstrous propaganda subterfuge. Crusade organizers instigated parades in small towns, complete with a shining Freedom Bell displayed along the streets. Organizers cast the bell at a foundry near where the Liberty Bell was originally created to enhance its propaganda value. They added other touches, too, appealing to people’s patriotic sentiments. The top of the Freedom Bell, for example, was circled with peace laurels, and the bottom was engraved with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. People were asked to sign Freedom Scrolls and donate Truth Dollars.

“Freedom Scrolls” and “Truth dollars”. What does that sound like to you?

RFE’s website tells us,

In the first years of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty adopted more confrontational editorial policies than other Western broadcasters. The broadcasts produced in accordance with these policies did not promote uprisings and, after 1953, emphasized evolutionary system change.

The original intention of RFE/RL was to inspire insurrection in the East but this failed to happen. Instead, the radios adopted a more softly softly approach through the use of culture.

In what came to be called “surrogate” broadcasting, RFE and RL provided an unbiased, professional substitute for the free media that countries behind the Iron Curtain lacked. Unlike other Western broadcasters, the programs focused on local news not covered in state-controlled domestic media as well as religion, science, sports, Western music and locally banned literature and music.

They claim that they provided “unbiased” news. Such news does not and never did exist.

The “radios” provided news, features and music aimed at communist and non-communist elites as well as the general population. RFE and RL also gave a voice to dissidents and opposition movements that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, would emerge as leaders of the new post-communist democracies.

Most Americans had no idea that their tax money was being used to support RFE/RL and many still don’t understand the role they played in the production of propaganda during Gulf War II and the occupation of Iraq.

But it’s not going all RFE’s way. Last October, the Voice of America website reported,

U.S.-funded media outlet Radio Liberty says it will end its radio broadcasts and move to digital platforms to comply with a new Russian law prohibiting foreign control of broadcast licenses.

In a Moscow Times article, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steve Korn says the station is adapting to new legal realities and changing technology and distribution systems.

Korn says Radio Liberty’s future lies in digital, Internet and social media, where it hopes to reach “young, urban and educated Russians” who “are at the forefront of change and who will lead Russia in the future.”  He says there was no alternative to compliance with Russian law.

The Voice of America (VOA) looks like a rival outfit but it is part of the same propaganda machine. The VOA includes the African continent in its broadcast orbit as well as the rest of the world. In the 1970s, I can remember once tuning in to the VOA in time for the news. The announcer told listeners that the news was in “Special English”. I always took that phrase to mean “code”. It actually means “American English for foreign speakers”.

English language lessons are part of the propaganda drive: through the teaching of a language one can inculcate in the listener the values of the culture from which that language comes.  In this case, the language is American English, which tells us that the cultural values of the dominant ideology in the United States will be passed on to the listener in a seemingly innocent manner. This is also true of the BBC World Service.

Chomsky and Herman (1989) say,

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

In the case of VOA, RFE and RL, they obviously function as American propaganda machines: they are supported by the government through taxation and private (and corporate) donations. While Chomsky and Herman wrote about the function of the media in advanced capitalist societies in which there exists a ‘free press’, it is important to understand how the American radios projected an image of America that was at ease with itself and in which there were no internal conflicts, racism or the surveillance of ‘subversives’. The American people were portrayed as unified and happy. But this was no more than an illusion for the American people and the world’s listeners, whose only knowledge of the US came from one of the radios. In Debordian terms, this is a spectacular image of the US that is being mediated to listeners. But is not the radios themselves that are spectacular, rather the social relations that exist between the listener and the radios are spectacular.

Indeed, Debord said,

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.

The spectacular freedom articulated by the radios can only be achieved by the ‘opening up’ of markets so that the consumer goods can flow freely. Images of fast-food, high-spec gadgets and designer clothing are used to reinforce this mediated idea of freedom.

Let’s take the example of the Czech Republic, of which Pew Global said,

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found broad-based Czech discontent with the country’s economic situation and the way democracy is working.

Adding,

Nonetheless, the data also showed a strong commitment among Czechs to free markets and democratic values. Moreover, Czechs ranked high among their peers in the region in terms of happiness with the transition to free market economics and multiparty politics.

The Czech Republic was one of the first of the former Soviet Union’s satellite states to embrace the free market notion that had been mediated during the Cold War. It is likely that the idea of the “democratic values” of which Pew speaks were projected through the distorted lens of capitalist commodity production onto the Czech people through the radios.  The use of the slippery word “happiness” is instructive here and I would suggest that it has also been subjected to the process of spectacularization.  In other words, happiness comes through the consumption of freely available commodities, but for those without the means to consume such things there is no freedom. This is the ugly flipside of the freedom and democracy concepts that were articulated by the radios. The Shangri-La promised by RFE/RL/VOA exists only for the wealthy, who snapped up the former state industries, and the powerful political figures who capitalized on the vacuum left by the former rulers.

Now the transmitters have turned their signal to those parts of the world that have been hitherto untouched by the invisible hand of the market.

So for those who have yet to be touched by the joys of free market capitalism: your freedom will be mediated to you.

References

Debord, G. (2005) Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black and Red.

Herman, E. S. & Chomsky, N. (1994) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, London: Vintage Books.

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Filed under Africa, Media, Middle East, propaganda, United States, World

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