Mightier Than the Sword

By Kathleen Parker
Friday, November 21, 2008; 12:00 AM

The word is powerful.

In fact, one might even say the word is power.

No one is more acutely aware of this than Jeffrey Gedmin, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

Yes, it's still around.

The Cold War that prompted the creation of Radio Free Europe may have ended. And The Wall did come tumbling down. But the voice of liberty still travels over the airwaves the old-fashioned way -- as well as by television, Internet and even text messaging -- to reach pockets where freedom is uncommon currency.

Today, the nonprofit, U.S.-funded RFE reaches 30 million people, in 28 languages, in 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Central Asian republics. All for the relatively low price of $83 million.

That is approximately the cost of four Apache helicopters and, inarguably, provides a significant bang for the buck.

"Give me the equivalent of six Apaches and we'd probably change the world," said Gedmin over coffee while in Washington this week.

There's something charming, even quaint, about the notion of Radio Free Europe, which was created in 1949 to broadcast news and current events programs to countries behind the Iron Curtain. (In 1975, RFE merged with Radio Liberty, which had been broadcasting to listeners inside the Soviet Union since 1951.)

There's nothing charming, however, about the need that still drives the enterprise -- millions of people without access to information that isn't state-controlled.

Gedmin, who took over RFE in 2007 after a stint with the Aspen Institute in Berlin, has hundreds of stories about RFE's works of "public diplomacy." To those who tune in, that disembodied voice from afar can be a literal lifeline -- or a path to justice. Call it "Sleepless in Sherberghan."

Here are two quick takes from Afghanistan, where RFE/RL boasts a 60.6 percent market share:

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