Lawmakers are pointing at Russian aggression in Crimea as they call on a federal agency to cancel proposed funding cuts for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's news coverage in the Balkans.
"The timing of this decision by the [Broadcasting Board of Governors] just seems unbelievable," Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who wrote the BBG in late February, told Newsmax.
"It just sounds like the decision-makers here haven't been paying attention for the last three months," Wicker said in an interview. "The administration has long wanted to pivot to Asia and to the Pacific, and that may have sounded like a sound approach during the year 2012 and maybe 2013, but things have changed."
Wicker was joined in his concern by Republican Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois, who also wrote to the BBG asking it to reconsider the budget cuts.
"The ongoing situation in Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula has reinforced the importance of these services in recent weeks, and has underscored the original pretext upon which these broadcast services were established," Schock wrote in his letter. "Furthermore, there is the concern that these broadcasts, originally developed with great purpose, investment, and thought, will not be easily re-established once closed down."
Radio Free Europe has broadcasting headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic, with offices also in Washington, D.C. The news service was founded in 1949 and funded by the CIA until 1972.
The nonprofit agency is credited with crucial reporting, including helping to soften Cold War relations. President Ronald Reagan was a staunch supporter, increasing its funding and using it to cast a critical eye on Communist regimes.
Currently, Radio Free Europe reports are broadcast in 28 languages in 21 countries. Both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hold jurisdiction over the BBG, and appropriations committees from both chambers provide funding and oversight on policy and programming.
Concern came earlier this year after the BBG released its 2015 budget request for the radio news service and for Radio Liberty, and the board called for substantial reductions away from "legacy markets" in Europe and "toward current policy priorities" in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It also sought a move away from medium- and short-wave radio broadcasts to more modern platforms of FM radio, television, and digital.
"In keeping with this strategy, the request includes investments to engage audiences in Africa and Southeast Asia, expand English learning programs, and increase and enhance social media presence and products," the BBG budget request noted. "The request also expands on BBG efforts to transition to digital transmission technology by continuing to evolve away from shortwave radio transmissions."
The BBG plans to cut two services, Radio Free Iraq and its Radio Free Europe Balkans coverage. Included in the Balkans downsizing are 14 positions, while the Iraq service will be consolidated with the Middle East Broadcast Network's Radio Sawa, eliminating 11 jobs and transferring six to Radio Sawa.
Of the $721 million budget request for 2015, about $12 million has been cut from the previous year as a part of a downsizing effort that if approved, leaves Balkans coverage out in the cold.
The BBG defended its budget in a statement released March 4.
"This agency has a strategic imperative to tie its priorities to global realities, making the most of relatively scarce resources while responding to shifts in audiences, technology use, and media markets," BBG Chairman Jeffrey Shell said.
Others warned that press freedom would be all but lost in the region.
"Russia's actions in Ukraine are a warning signal to the rest of Eastern Europe. The U.S. must be willing to have an aggressive debate throughout all of Eastern Europe about the benefits of free-market economies, increased human rights, and greater liberties," former U.S. spokesman to the United Nations Richard Grenell told Newsmax. "Essential to this debate is a free press unintimidated by growing Russian aggression and a state-run media controlling information."
The Radio Free Europe's Balkans service has been in place since 1994 and extends its message via Internet, radio, and television to Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro. More than 150 station affiliates distribute the news service programming, and supporters say the voice of freedom must remain strong there as Russian aggression grows.
Wicker said he is concerned the cutbacks have been done with little input from Congress.
"I just believe that this decision should be reconsidered, and the issue should be fully aired," he told Newsmax.
Americans, Wicker added, should understand why it is crucial to keep the message of freedom, liberty, rule of law, and appropriate governance carried to people in fractious parts of the world.
"When the strong men come in to take over a region, what's the first thing they target? It's the radio and television stations. It's information," Wicker warned. "They do that for a reason — because it's power. We need to be a competitor in the battle of international ideas. We think our message is an exceptional one, and I think that RFE and all the related networks have been invaluable over time and still are."
Schock said the news programs are important because they promote democratic values in areas of the world where they are needed.
"These broadcast services promote the values of freedom of speech and democracy, values that must remain in the forefront of Iraqi thought, especially as our troops withdraw, and that are needed in the Balkans more than ever, as expansionist policies threaten to unmake all the progress that has been made over the past two decades," Schock said.
He added: "If the values of democracy, free speech, and liberty lose their foothold in these regions, it will become an increasingly hostile world for the United States, and a far more difficult world for the people of Iraq and the Balkans."
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