For decades, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have broadcast into countries all over the world, in dozens of languages, on a mission “not just to report the truth,” as Emily Russell observes for the latest issue of CJR, “but to spread American values.” In an audio feature, Russell looks at how that’s gone in Afghanistan, where the longest war effort in United States history quickly gave way to Taliban rule. There, as in many places where the American government has heavily invested in soft power, authoritarianism has only gotten stronger, and journalists remain at risk. “It’s not clear that the mission of these US-funded outlets can ever be achieved,” Russell says.
The history of hearts-and-minds media can be traced back to at least the Napoleonic Empire. Bonaparte didn’t invent propaganda, but he was particularly skilled at narrative manipulation: in bulletins written for the Monitor, the official government newspaper, he was known to overstate triumphs on the battlefield and underplay losses; popular art depicting him as a war hero helped, too. As technology advanced, so did the sophistication with which leaders aimed to influence people. Radio made it possible to broadcast into millions of homes, continents away; developments in social science—thanks in large part to Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, known as the father of public relations and a member of the US Committee on Public Information—led the American government to reach the conclusion “that ideas were weapons and were even more effective than bullets.” By the time Radio Free Afghanistan had settled into the airwaves, in the nineties, the US was pumping more than a billion dollars into media influence campaigns each year. Not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress approved new funding for broadcasting in Afghanistan, and Radio Azadi (“freedom radio”) was born.
What’s happened since reveals as much about America’s investment in media as about a democracy’s willingness to put reporters in harm’s way. “From the perspective of RFE/RL and Voice of America, danger isn’t a deterrent,” Russell notes. “It’s the reason for their presence.” Below, she speaks with me about her piece. You can listen to the whole thing here and check out the rest of the issue.
What are Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, exactly? How are they supposed to work?
They are both news organizations funded by Congress that broadcast to other countries. Voice of America primarily reaches people through television and radio. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—as the name implies—uses radio. Both also sustain a digital presence. The organizations have different origins: VOA was established by President Roosevelt’s administration during World War II; RFE/RL was originally a CIA operation. But both are meant to provide news and spread democratic values around the world. Historically, they’ve been leveraged in times of conflict—both were big players in the Cold War, transmitting news in the USSR. Some view these networks as soft-power influence operations; others consider them valuable news services. In my view, they’re a combination of the two.
In recent years, VOA and RFE/RL have been housed under the same federal agency, the US Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, where they’re overseen by a single CEO, though their daily operations are completely distinct. USAGM, which Congress supplies with an eight-hundred-million-dollar annual budget, employs hundreds of journalists, who report from and broadcast to nearly a hundred countries in forty-eight languages.
How direct is the political influence over Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty? Is there an expectation of some independence? Does it depend on who occupies the White House?
There’s an expectation that VOA and RFE/RL will do independent reporting. Since 1994, and the establishment of the International Broadcasting Act, there has been an editorial firewall separating Congress, the president, and the USAGM CEO from the news networks’ journalists. But expectation and reality don’t always align, and there have been accusations of editorial bias and interference from both sides of the political aisle.
This subject of political influence spilled into the public sphere in 2020. President Trump, who often accused USAGM’s news networks of liberal bias, became the first president to appoint a CEO to lead USAGM. That CEO, Michael Pack, replaced what had been an advisory board, so power was greatly consolidated. Pack promptly fired the heads of VOA and RFE/RL, among many others. After President Biden entered the White House, and replaced Pack with a new CEO, Kelu Chao, federal officials investigated how the editorial firewall should be strengthened to prevent political interference in the future. But there’s still nothing written into law that would prevent Congress or the president from influencing USAGM or its networks.
That’s not to say the journalists on the ground are just pawns in a political game. I believe the journalists who work for VOA and RFE/RL are people of integrity. But after tracking instances of political meddling in editorial operations, it’s clear that maintaining independence is a challenge.
In your piece, you focus on Afghanistan. What is the reputation of Radio Azadi, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty station there?
Many people told me that Radio Azadi is really important to the Afghan people. Radio Azadi has been in the country for two decades, reporting on security, elections, education, hosting music programs and call-in shows. The listenership is quite large, something like six million people a week. In Afghanistan, radio is much more popular than television. Now that the Taliban has taken over, some of Radio Azadi’s programming has become essential, especially shows that give Afghan women a platform to share their stories. Malali Bashir, Radio Azadi’s senior editor, told me some women cry when they call in on-air to talk about how their life has changed under the Taliban. It’s important to capture these realities, and I’m not sure that any local media organization would broadcast the same material, given the Taliban’s crackdowns on free speech.
What are the biggest dangers facing journalists working for Radio Azadi and Voice of America?
They deal with the same dangers any journalist might face in countries hostile to the press. I don’t think we can definitively say that because these journalists represent US interests they are more targeted in places where the US faces opposition, though that was suggested in some conversations I had while reporting. In the past five years, four Radio Azadi journalists have been killed in Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban took over, RFE/RL and VOA have largely scaled back their on-the-ground operations. It’s unclear exactly how many of RFE/RL’s former stringers and journalists remain in Afghanistan, but I was told that the number is in the hundreds. I’d also note that it’s important to think about the consumers of US-funded news media, people who are assuming risks just by clicking on VOA or tuning in to RFE/RL. That’s often overlooked when we talk about risks and journalism.
In your piece, you speak with Dan Robinson, who was a journalist with Voice of America for many years and is now its most devoted critic. How does he view the costs and benefits of America’s heart-and-minds media?
Dan’s view is nuanced. He appreciates what VOA and RFE/RL offer people in countries that don’t have a robust or free media ecosystem. For decades, VOA and RFE/RL have filled gaping holes in news coverage—originally within the USSR and now in countries like China and Bangladesh. But Dan takes issue with the editorial firewall, which I think he has little confidence in. Since retiring from VOA, he has tracked instances of what he believes to be poor management and editorially unsound practices at VOA and RFE/RL.
On a fundamental level, Dan struggles to embrace the purpose of USAGM. He isn’t sure the US government should be engaging in the international news business. He questions whether we should be waving the “First Amendment flag” where the US has, in one way or another, interfered with a country’s history and freedom.
How can we understand this kind of media in the context of America’s larger foreign-policy agenda?
I think it’s hard to separate the mission of these news organizations from America’s foreign-policy agenda, which—broadly speaking—is to spread a distinctly American version of democracy to other countries. A critical component of American democracy is freedom of speech. USAGM’s media operations provide a means to do that beyond US borders. Another way to contextualize USAGM’s media operations is to see them as a counterbalance to Russian and Chinese disinformation on social media. And that can be a valuable endeavor, considering how harmful disinformation is on a global scale.Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.