“Where secrecy or mystery begins is where vice and roguery are not far off.”
—Samuel JohnsonInside the old Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) building in Prague—the edifice once home to the Czechoslovak communist parliament—one cannot escape the feeling of tragedy and intrigue. Outside on the sidewalk just across the street atop Wenceslas Square there’s a plaque remembering Jan Palach, the Charles University student who lit himself afire in January 1969 as protest against the end of the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Fury was bottled up. Two months after Palach’s self-immolation, when their national ice hockey team defeated their Soviet counterparts in the World Ice Hockey Championships, elated Czechs—by some estimates as many as 150,000 people—exploded into Wenceslas Square to celebrate. That was, until a group of secret police agents provoked an attack on the local Soviet Aeroflot office, giving authorities pretext for crackdown and reprisals.There were a thousand forms of push and pushback between rulers and ruled in those days. I recall a visit to Prague in the mid-1980s when, apparently spontaneously, Prague citizens crossing the city’s iconic square began to place bouquets of flowers at the steps of the statue of King Wenceslas. The symbolism of their act did not go unnoticed. According to legend, the patron saint of the Czechs maintained an army of knights hidden inside a mountain ready to be awakened to fight for the Czech people in times of extreme danger. The flowers kept piling up, until communist officials removed them and placed a fence around the monument.I had occasion recently to be in the old RFE/RL building where I chaired a panel as part of a program commemorating RFE/RL’s move from Munich to Prague twenty years ago. It was at that time that a grateful Czech President Vaclav Havel gave the former communist parliament to the United States for use as the broadcaster’s headquarters. The playwright and dissident turned statesman, who credited the Congressionally funded media group for helping to end communism, charged the Americans a dollar a year for rent.In the 1990s, in this ponderous, plodding structure—an example of Czech “brutalist architecture” designed by Karl Prager in the early 1970s—RFE/RL adapted quickly. New Home. New technologies. New tyrannies to battle. Broadcasts, web, video and social media were soon rolled out to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. And just as before, the tyrants pushed back. The Iranian regime surveilled Iranian journalists working in Prague for Radio Farda, the company’s Persian service. The Taliban threatened RFE/RL journalists in Afghanistan (the company maintains a bureau in Kabul and stringers in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces). Saddam Hussein pondered harsher measures. A year before 9/11, the Iraqi dictator ordered an attack on RFE/RL headquarters. Baghdad’s agents were prepared to use rocket propelled grenades, Kalashnikov rifles, and submachine guns in an assault launched from the window of a nearby apartment at Wenceslas Square rented as an office for a fake company. Czech police foiled the plot. But security concerns eventually forced RFE/RL to vacate its Wenceslas Square address.Not that the new, high security digs—the company moved to a location on the outskirts of Prague in 2009—ended all manner of harassment and danger. Recently, two individuals, on separate occasions, managed to sneak into the headquarters, surreptitiously recording footage used by Russian television programs in a smear of RFE/RL. The Russians never did play by Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Outside the old building in July 1997, a Latvian-born Russian language broadcaster was murdered—shot in the head at close range by an unidentified assailant—as she made her way to work through a deserted underpass by the State Opera, next to the RFE/RL building and Wenceslas Square. Molly Gordin’s case was never solved. In April 20, 2009, an ex-RFE/RL Georgian journalist still living in Prague—a former dissident who had spent five years in a Soviet labor camp in the 1980s—went out on foot one night from his apartment to buy cigarettes. Tengiz Gudava never returned. His body was found a twenty-minute drive away from his home in a secluded area. Czech police ruled the death a hit and run accident.RFE/RL is marinated in history, some of it dark and bloody. A good portion of it is relevant today as we think about how to respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda war. Here are four points to keep in mind:First, security. It’s paramount that journalists working for any part of U.S. international broadcasting—this includes Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcast Network—be well protected. RFE/RL headquarters in Munich was bombed in February 1981 by a group directed by the infamous terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. A site like RFE/RL today may actually provide a more enticing target for a variety of villains than a U.S. Embassy, as the media organization’s hundreds of employees are mostly journalists/civil-society activists working for change in their home countries. In times like these, actors of dubious background and motive are likely to cozy up to groups like RFE/RL. Beware of posers, impostors, and front companies that seek links to U.S. international broadcasting. Some will pose security risks. Vetting and due diligence are as important as ever. Nor can concern about safety be confined to the physical integrity of a headquarters or bureau. In Baku, the 38-year-old RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova—awarded in New York this year PEN’s Freedom to Write Award—has been imprisoned by Azerbaijani authorities for her reporting since December. She now faces up to 12 years behind bars on trumped up charges. Sadly, American efforts to free Khadija have been conspicuously feeble. Some speculate oil and a robust Washington lobby stand in the way. Whatever the reason, U.S. passivity sends a ghastly message to American-sponsored journalists, as well as to would be jailers and jihadists. If the United States is to fund people like Ismayilova, it must be prepared to fight for them with full diplomatic weight when they land in trouble for doing their job.Second, purpose. U.S. international broadcasting is mission-driven. Times and technologies change, but the mission still comprises three chief goals: “to tell America’s story”; to explain American foreign policy goals; and to provide accurate and reliable news and responsible discussion to countries that either do not have free and independent media, or where decent, independent media do not yet properly exist (the third goal being the remit of “surrogate broadcasting” and the main focus of RFE/RL’s and Radio Free Asia’s work). None of this should be mistaken for “propaganda.” The cheesy sounding line about “telling America’s story”—traditionally the main purview of Voice of America—can and should be carried out with journalistic skill, intellectual honestly, and creativity. Informing the world about America—and, no, CNN, Twitter, and travel don’t do the trick—remains an important goal. Take the violence and tragedy that engulfed Ferguson and Baltimore recently. Police brutality is part of that story. Other aspects of the problem have emerged as well, including the growth of an African-American underclass, competition for jobs between poorly educated blacks and Latino immigrants, problems with our educational system and imperfections in our legal system. Why not share with international audiences something about how our grand juries work? Or how police forces in the U.S. are organized and trained? (Do even Americans know that there are some 18,000 jurisdictions in the United States?) Or how racial attitudes in the U.S. have evolved, yet remain exceptionally complex? Through intelligent reporting we can try to make a dent in the appalling simplifications and stereotypes about the United States prevalent in far too places across the globe. At home, our strength has always been our ability to self-correct. Abroad we’re at our best when we tell the truth, warts and all.Third, transparency—and credibility. Radio Free Europe was established in 1949 as a covert operation of the CIA. Its programming was jointly decided by the CIA, State Department, and RFE staff until Congress took over funding in 1972, and the media organization, while still moored to broad U.S. foreign policy objectives, became journalistically independent. Let’s keep it that way. It works. There’s talk today in some Washington circles of “alternative branding” for special initiatives (aka concealing from foreign audiences the true source of U.S. international broadcasting content); or of psy ops as a method to counter Putin’s propaganda. Some will even be tempted to set up our own versions of Russian troll factories. These are ghastly ideas, each and every one in its own right. Credibility is vital. And while we must employ the full range of technology at our disposal, it’s also critical that we never forget the difference between means and ends. Content is still king. You can’t win hearts and minds in 140 characters or less.Nor can you win hearts and minds overnight.Finally, we need patience. Putin’s has scored some early propaganda successes; his television station RT seems to be effective in promoting anti-Americanism around the world, and other outlets seem to be making progress in manipulating ethnic Russian populations in Russia’s “near abroad.” These apparent wins tempt us to look for short-term fixes. “We must answer Russian propaganda,” chants a growing chorus! But you’ll never beat RT by imitating RT (as one RFE/RL journalist puts it to me). What we need instead is clarity in projecting our own values, in advancing our own narratives, in telling our own story, and forcing Putin back on his heels. Putin’s brazen surplus in self-confidence must not be allowed to mask—neither for us nor for the Russian people—the manifold failings of the current Russian system and state. The future does not belong to this Russia. Speaking of which, let’s not overlook the role that parody and satire can play in all this. RFE/RL did this masterfully in the past.The latest from over there? A crackdown on yoga. Perhaps, asks a friend of mine, Russian authorities fear its practice will turn Russians into homosexuals?