Kathleen Parker
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WASHINGTON -- 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:

-- A couple of months ago when a young girl was raped -- a common and underreported event -- President Hamid Karzai heard about it on Radio Free Afghanistan and instructed his staff to get details. As a result, the girl and her family were provided assistance, and the government demonstrated a strong position against the all-too-common trend of older men raping girls with impunity.

-- In Kabul, the parents of a critically ill girl called the radio station when all else failed. Voila, doctors materialized.

Contrary to misperceptions that began decades ago, RFE/RL is not a propaganda arm of the CIA, though the CIA did for a time funnel funding from Congress. That arrangement ended in 1971.

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Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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