Mon, Jun 13, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Drawing back the ‘Bamboo Curtain’

By Gerrit Van der Wees

On June 2, there was a celebration for the 60th anniversary of Radio Free Europe’s first broadcasts to Czechoslovakia. Back in the early 1950s, the Iron Curtain had come down, separating the central and eastern European nations from the free West.

The broadcasts by Radio Free Europe represented a ray of hope for the people suffering under the repressive communist regimes and presented them with balanced and open reporting on developments around the world.

However, the June 2 celebration showed that it took about 40 years until the regimes fell in the late 1980s, requiring much patience, persistence and perseverance from both those engaged in the broadcasts, as well as the people in Czechoslovakia and other countries.

Events also showed that few people saw the transition coming: Even as late as the mid-1980s, prominent Russia watchers predicted that the then-Soviet Union was here to stay. However, nothing was further from the truth and in late 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, the people in Czechoslovakia had their Velvet Revolution and a new dawn took place for the people in those countries.

In this new age, many people who suffered under the repression and restrictions of the old communist regimes testified to the success of the broadcasts by Radio Free Europe that had made all the difference in keeping up their hopes for a better future.

This leads me to question the plans by the US government to scale down the Mandarin and Cantonese language short wave and satellite TV broadcasts of Voice of America (VOA). The proposal is to move to a Web-based system, making use of new technologies such as Facebook and Twitter.

While we indeed need to make good use of new technologies, we need to realize that — certainly in a developing society such as China (and certainly in the rural areas) — few people have access to the Internet and hundreds of millions of people still rely on “old” technologies such as short wave radio and satellite TV.

In addition, the communist rulers in Beijing have become adept at blocking Internet access whenever and wherever they want: Observers call it the “Great Firewall.”

What the US Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA operations, is apparently envisioning is a CNN-style operation with a global newsroom that would send out its news via Web-based services and mobile phones. While CNN certainly has changed the broadcasting landscape with its instant news, what it lacks is substance and in-depth analysis.

The present set-up with specialized teams of experts for the various languages does provide for a more in-depth analysis of issues. I personally experienced this recently in the VOA program Issues and Opinions, where we spent an entire hour discussing Taiwan’s upcoming elections with listeners from China — as detailed in a recent article (“Chinese Views on Taiwan’s Elections,” May 26, page 8). In a CNN style operation, this would have been reduced to a 10-second sound bite.

The need to maintain or even expand the VOA Mandarin and Cantonese services is also illustrated by the fact that China’s state media, including Xinhua news agency, China Central Television (CCTV), the People’s Daily and China Radio International, are vastly expanding their propaganda operations.

So, if we don’t watch out, the voice of freedom in China will be drowned out and the people still suffering under the restrictions behind the “Bamboo Curtain” will not see a new dawn like their counterparts did, in eastern Europe only 20 years ago.

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