This past summer, I interned at the State Department in an office that deals with the continually-troubled nation of Belarus (in addition to other former Soviet republics). Having worked on a couple of related projects while there, I am now a self-professed Belarus junkie. (A year ago I never would have placed the words "Belarus" and "junkie" in the same sentence describing myself, but I digress.) Thus, while scrolling through John Brown's daily roundup, this short piece by Kim Andrew Elliott caught my eye. I was heartened to read that there's currently a bill in the House calling for renewed and continued American support for RFE/RL, VOA, European Radio for Belarus (ERB) and Belsat (the Belorussian satellite radio network) programs in the country. Although recent rumblings in Belarus have been understandably overshadowed by the much bigger rumblings in the Middle East in the past month, the current political situation there shows just how necessary independent media is for the present and the foreseeable future. Aleksander Lukashenko is a dictator who routinely quashes democracy-themed protests with violence and brutality, most recently after the corrupt presidential elections in December, and controls all media within the country--sound familiar? Also worrisome is the fact that Belarus borders EU member state Poland, and two Belorussian companies have provided petroleum and fertilizer to many member states--partnerships that have now been frozen in retaliation for Lukashenko's recent crackdown on protests.
All excellent reasons why the United States should continue to fund RFE/RL, VOA, ERB, and Belsat broadcasts and programs to the country. After reading Gladwell's piece "Small Change" on the exaggerated (in his mind) role of new media in public diplomacy, and feeling disheartened that so many in government seem to be putting all their eggs in the Facebook and Twitter basket, I was really glad to see that Congress still considers radio a worthwhile investment and highlighted its importance in this case. It shows their comprehension that in places like Belarus, these organizations' mission--which still considers radio essential to their success--is key to US engagement. Although the bill (H.R. 515) does mention "Internet broadcasting" for Belarus in addition to radio and TV, my work this past summer has shown me that radio is still immensely popular and often the most trusted source of information for Belorussians. I think this re-authorization bill shows that the US has indeed been listening--part of Cull's definition of public diplomacy.
Finally, today I was reading Walter Isaacson's speech for class this week. Isaacson, the head of the BBG, focused on new technologies in his speech, urging the creation of "a great virtual global news service that can provide reliable reporting for every medium...by our audience, by our listeners." I think what he was getting at here was citizen diplomacy, but to me it got a bit lost in all the enthusiastic talk about the Internet, including, yes, Facebook and Twitter. I'm all for using new technologies to help these countries access independent media, of course--but I would also tell Isaacson not to get the message lost in the medium. Belarus needs RFE/RL, VOA and the rest, and not just Internet broadcasting, either. Radio is still incredibly important, and I hope Congress continues to recognize that importance.