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Once More Into the Breach

The return of Radio Free Europe to Romania and Bulgaria is as clear a sign as any that the media situation hasn’t developed as many hoped.

by Peter Gross 24 September 2018

A sign of the times. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is restoring its Romanian and Bulgarian programs this September in partial response to signals that freedom of the press and journalistic professionalism are diminishing, in a seemingly undrainable swamp of enduring corruption and retrograde political cultures.


RFE/RL closed its decades-long information and news service in Bulgaria in 2004, and in Romania in 2008, when the still-intoxicating glimmers of hope that democratization would stay on track ruled the collective consciousness of East and West.


Now re-established the RFE/RL programs will additionally aim to provide “alternative narratives” and topics, in the face of Russia’s aggressive and extensive information warfare throughout Europe and beyond, Thomas Kent, the president of the broadcast organization, told me recently. The Kremlin’s information offensive specifically targets new and aspiring NATO and EU members. Romania and Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2011.


Romanian journalist Sabina Fati will be the managing editor of the Romanian service, and Bulgarian journalist Ivan Bedrov will head the Bulgarian service.


The Prague-based, U.S. government-funded RFE/RL is looking for “allies” in the two countries, said Kent, explaining that the organization wanted to partner with “truly independent and professional” media outlets and journalists, for joint investigative projects. Indeed, a small handful of such potential allies does exist in both Bulgaria and Romania.


These projects will supplement the broadcaster’s own pursuit of news stories and investigations. Overall, the objective is to “encourage independent media and professionalism,” an intrinsic part of the broadcaster’s mission of supporting “clean government, religious and speech freedoms,” Kent added.


That's a tall order in countries where “clean government” is the equivalent of a person occasionally changing clothes every week or two … without ever showering!


Sustained Western aid to Bulgarian and Romanian news media and journalism training over the last 29 years has had limited, selective, salutary effects. Anything beyond that would have been a miracle in the context of the evolution of these two countries. The locally much-denied, yet comprehensively verified, corruption – with the resulting political, legal, and economic assaults on freedom of the press and ethical journalism – has been growing by fits and starts since 1989.


However, the up-and-down blips of the evolution-regression monitor now appear to have flat-lined into steady decline, as noted by every watchdog organization inside and outside the two countries.


One Romanian newspaper article correctly – if with too much circumspection – observed that RFE/RL was responding to “Officials, representatives of civil society, and journalists from both countries” expressing “concern that disinformation, corruption, and social division undermine [their] political systems.”


The re-launched Romanian and Bulgarian projects are add-ons to RFE/RL’s programs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Serbia.


Kent said his organization had also stepped up coverage of extremism in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, in an attempt to counter radical narratives and nationalist movements. Another sign of the times.


Additionally, the organization now permits news organizations in these Balkan countries to re-publish and broadcast RFE/RL content in the local language.


Judging by what is happening elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, the U.S. Congress should also authorize RFE/RL’s return to Hungary, where the number of independent media outlets has shrunk enough to fit into a thimble.


Albania, too, should be on the list. There, pressure on the few remaining independent media outlets and journalists has taken an ominous turn, with one reporter recently threatened at gunpoint and another’s home being strafed with an assault rifle.


These are just two examples among many in the former communist regions.


As if indigenous disinformation, corrupt journalism, and a lengthy inventory of threats to freedom of the press were not already sufficiently menacing to waning democratization in the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe, Russia’s extensive, hyper-active information warfare injects diseased viruses into already unhealthy organisms.


RFE/RL’s current re-launch is not its first foray onto this battlefield. As of 2017, in cooperation with the Washington D.C.-based Voice of America (VOA), RFE/RL runs Current Time, a Russian-language news channel launched to respond to Kremlin-controlled and -manipulated Russian and foreign media.


“The network, beamed into Europe by cable, satellite, and online, reflects an attempt to diminish the dominance of what the U.S. government has long warned is a growing Russian propaganda machine, epitomized by state-run outlets like Sputnik and RT, formerly known as Russia Today,” according to Josh Lederman of The Associated Press.


VOA and RFE/RL also teamed up on another project in 2017, introducing the fact-checking sites (in English) and (in Russian), which aim to provide corrections to the carefully constructed fictions and masterfully distorted accounts of reality found in Russian news stories and those they inspire.


It’s another sign of the times: the never-ending struggle to check the forward march of the past.

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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#PragueMediaPoint Conference for journalists, media professionals, and scholars

‚ÄčThe 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world. – WHAT’S WORKING





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It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


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