VOA’s Effectiveness Could Reduce Need For Its Services
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Voice of America has been so successful in its 40 years of chipping away at communism in Eastern Europe that its role in the region could be diminished as a result.
The last year has been full of triumphs for VOA. Hundreds of its European broadcasters, editors and writers have reaped the rewards of years of exile from their homelands and the systematic harassment of the friends and relatives they left behind.
But changes in Eastern Europe are a double-edged sword for VOA.
With a budget-conscious Congress breathing down its neck, the Bush administration is considering cutting or consolidating some of VOA’s overseas radio and television services.
For the time being, however, all agree there is still much to be done.
For starters, one East European country - Albania - continues to hold out against the tide of reform. Cracks appeared, however, in the control of that country’s authoritarian communist government when 4,400 Albanians rushed into several foreign embassies in Tirana earlier this month and were subsequently allowed to leave the country.
Zamira Islami, an Albanian broadcaster at VOA, is certain the Albanian- langua ge radio programs played a major role in the exodus. Albanians who have reached refugee camps in Italy say they were inspired to make a run for the embassies after hearing on VOA of similar escapes last fall by East Germans fleeing their repressive communist government.
Zamira and her sister Isabela escaped Albania six years ago, cleaving the waters of the Ionian Sea for 12 hours to the island of Corfu. Their brother disappeared during the exhausting swim, and the sisters found refuge in the United States.
Their story is not an uncommon one at VOA, where many employees braved cold waters, barbed wire fences and attack dogs to escape communism.
Miro Dobrovosky, head of the Czechoslovak service, was followed by a Russian tank down a Prague street late one night in August 1968. It was soon after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to crush a burgeoning democracy movement, and Dobrovosky was publishing an underground magazine.
″I was carrying 50 magazines in one hand, and a loaf of bread in the other,″ he said. Suddenly, a tank gunned its engine and started driving behind him, said Dobrovosky.
″I have never been so scared,″ said the burly redhead.
After a while, the tank driver gave up the chase, but Dobrovosky decided it was time to get out, taking his family by train to Vienna.
Jiri Fisher, a Czechoslovak playwright and actor, defected in 1979 and came to the VOA in 1985. Several weeks ago he returned home, portraying the character of Vaclav Havel in a stage production of an autobiographical play by the famed Czechoslovak dramatist - who now serves as the country’s president.
Havel, reviled and jailed by the communists, visited the VOA during a trip to Washington earlier this year. He heaped praise on the radio station, which he said was the most listened-to in his country.
Jiri Sykora says the Czechoslovak service gets hundreds of letters asking that VOA continue broadcasting. Sykora, an actor and writer who spent a year in jail for writing an anti-government manuscript, left in 1969. His program, in which he translates and sings lyrics of American songs in Czech and Slovak, is a popular one.
Responding to changed needs, VOA has augmented its news and culture programs with scripts about how democratic and free market systems work.
VOA officials say East Europeans still rely on the station’s news about the world and about events in the former communist countries.
″They trust us to sort it out. Events are still very confusing for them″ and journalists are only beginning to learn about the role of a free press in society, said Dobrovosky.
VOA, which broadcasts in 43 languages around the world, is now able to have call-in shows with listeners in Eastern Europe who ask questions about everything from the heavy pollution in their countries to how to start a small business.