Radio Free Europe, and a farewell to Prague

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A view from above of Radio Free Europe’s central news room. It is surrounded on two floors by working offices for the journalists who produce content in 28 different languages.

Students got out of touristy Old Town Prague on Tuesday for a short bus ride out to the headquarters of Radio Free Europe.

If you’re a similar age as Hatcher and I, you might think of RFE as a weapon of U.S. propaganda during the Cold War, but it has been strictly a news and information organization since the early 1970s, when Congress severed its ties with the CIA and established an independent editorial board.

Having “Europe” in the name is a bit of a misnomer today, as Radio Free Europe has shifted its focus to the Middle East and many of the former Soviet states. It broadcasts in 21 countries in 28 languages and has a growing presence on the Web, Facebook and Twitter.

While the Cold War has been over for more than 20 years, tight security remains a priority at the facility, built in 2009. When we arrived, we waited outside as passports were collected and checked against a list we had provided before leaving the United States. We then entered in small groups to go through one security checkpoint, then turned in our passports once again in the main building so we could be issued tour passes. RFE broadcasts in countries where often its message (even when strictly factual) is not often welcome, so one can understand why it would be a desirable target for terrorists.

After hearing a brief overview of the organization’s mission, we get a glimpse of the central news room, which is surrounded by offices on two upper levels for all of RFE’s different services. It is perhaps most accurate to think of RFE as an umbrella for twenty-plus local news organizations, who intensely focus on local issues. In the central newsroom, editors gather to pick the best stories from the various services and decide how to display them on the website, or whether to invest further reporting resources.

We then are escorted up to a conference room where we meet Zach Peterson, who after a couple of years as a D.C. lobbyist made the transition to journalism and is now a community manager, along with sometimes reporting on Asian business issues. Although Peterson is heavily involved with RFE’s social media efforts, he emphasized that the fundamentals of journalism still strongly apply. If RFE does an investigative piece with 20 major facts, and only 19 of those facts are correct, the lone error will be the one critics pounce on.

“It’s no different than the beginning of the printed word,” Peterson said. “Facts – you have to be trustworthy regardless of the medium. Our mission is to be more responsible than everyone else.”

Journalists for RFE work in some of the most dangerous places in the world, and are often subject to harassment and occasionally physical violence. And because of draconian free expression laws in some countries, journalists sometimes have difficulty obtaining legal counsel to defend themselves. In some countries, even finding journalists to work is difficult. If an Iranian job candidate meets RFE for an interview in Turkey, members of his or her family may not have jobs upon return.

For each of RFE’s services, part of the equation is deciding which medium to use. In Afghanistan, where there is little Internet access, radio is the choice, and Radio Afghanistan has a 60 percent audience penetration. In Russian Federation states, RFE is an all-web operation.

We returned to the hotel in the early afternoon for a short debriefing, then gave everyone the afternoon off to explore the snowy city. It’s safe to say students found Prague the most enjoyable city of the course so far.

– makemson

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