BERLIN — In the last column he wrote before he disappeared, Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi issued a powerful plea for freedom of expression in the Middle East.
“The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power,” Khashoggi wrote in the piece, which was published by The Washington Post on Thursday. “During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the hope of freedom. Arabs need something similar,” he argued.
Radio Free Europe (RFE) was established months into the Cold War between the United States and its Western allies, on one side, and the Soviet Union and its eastern European client states. Sponsored by the U.S. government, the radio station first broadcast to Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1951, a decade before the Berlin Wall was built. At the time, the broadcaster came up with creative proposals to spread its message, including by printing leaflets that were dropped with balloons across Eastern Europe — some of them never made it after they were targeted by Soviet fighter jets.
Later on, RFE added stations for listeners in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and other countries. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe attempted to interrupt or permanently stop the broadcasts. Similar broadcasters seeking to reach audiences behind the Iron Curtain, such as the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) and Voice of America (VOA), suffered similar fates and were later also credited for providing a platform to journalists independent of Soviet bloc-governments.
But RFE was by far the key media foe of those regimes. In 1981, a Swiss terrorist targeted the broadcaster’s Munich headquarters, causing massive damage within a radius of half a mile in the worst attack against the station’s Czechoslovakia service. Six people were injured.
Despite the attacks, RFE continued to provide a platform to critics of the Soviet Union and other nations in the region, providing a counterbalance to government-controlled media outlets.
RFE described itself as the “voice of the opposition,” and its broadcasts were widely considered to have an effect by empowering critics of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first democratically elected Hungarian prime minister, József Antal, credited Radio Free Europe for having given “us the gift of truth about our own country and the world at large” and for doing so "at a time when telling the truth was counted as a crime against the state.”
To key opposition figures such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, RFE was one of the few tools to reach potential domestic supporters. But the broadcaster’s advantage at the time was that the country backing it stood for clear ideals those opposition members sought to copy and implement at home. The Arab world’s media landscape — with its large variety of stakeholders financed or hosted by countries with opposing goals — is much more difficult to navigate.
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, Arab media outlets with transnational ambitions soon faced a similar dilemma as RFE did decades earlier after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of independent media across the region. Yet with parts of Eastern Europe still ranking low on press freedom indexes, RFE still has a mission in the region but far less influence than at its peak during the Cold War.
The situation is very different for Arab media after 2011.
“The regimes that survived the initial onslaught systematically clawed back their places of power within the public sphere, recolonizing those zones of public discourse that had been seized by activists and restoring the censorship, divisions, and fear which had inhibited such popular challenges in the past,” political science professor March Lynch wrote in his 2015 essay “The Rise and Fall of the New Arab Public Sphere.”
The Arab world’s once preeminent transnational broadcaster, Al Jazeera, saw its influence diminish as those developments unfolded, Lynch wrote. “Its power had long resided in its ability to occupy a unique space as the central node of the Arab public sphere. . . . This reputation did not survive the Arab uprisings.” Instead, with the rise of other slick Saudi-backed media outlets and Qatar’s own meddling in the region, Al Jazeera was relegated to being just another partisan player.
The emergence of a truly independent transnational broadcaster in the Arab world is now perhaps less likely than ever before, even though such a platform “isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda” is urgently needed, as Khashoggi wrote in his last column.