The recent Soviet decision to stop jamming Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty is the most significant action in the latest round of Gorbachev's glasnost offensive, arguably more important than his promise to withdraw half a million Soviet troops from Eastern Europe.
For the first time the Soviet government is allowing uncensored news, information, and opinion about events in the East bloc to be heard without the whirring, hissing, and crackling noise of thousands of jammers.Radio Liberty's reports about nationalist aspirations in the Baltic states, regional disputes in the Caucasus, or debates over economic reforms in Moscow will now be heard loud and clear by over 22 million regular listeners throughout the USSR.
The cessation of jamming was a momentous event.
Until January 1987, the Soviet Union jammed all major foreign broadcasters.
Then, as glasnost heated up, layers of jamming began to be peeled off: first from the British Broadcasting Company, then the Voice of America, and now Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.
The inclusion of RFE-RL, as it is commonly known, was especially important. The Soviet Union had long dallied with other Western broadcasters, at times unjamming their signals, other times imposing its iron will. But RFE-RL was always a special case.
As recently as November, Gennady Gerasimov, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that RFE-RL was a "subversive station" that "deserved to be jammed."
But glasnost soon outstripped the spokesman. In his speech at the United Nations, General Secretary Gorbachev stated that jamming of all broadcasters violated the Helsinki Accords. Twelve years late, but a significant statement nonetheless.
Why the jamming of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty for so many years?
RFE-RL is unique. Unlike the other international broadcasters, it does not speak on behalf of a national government.
Rather, its mission is to provide surrogate or proxy domestic broadcasting to the people of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Broadcasting over 1,000 hours a week in 23 languages, RFE-RL focuses primarily on the internal affairs of Soviet bloc countries: political, social, economic, religious, and cultural developments.
Drawing on the resources and expertise of the largest Soviet and East European research departments in the Western world, RFE-RL programming is at the cutting edge of in-depth reporting and extensive commentary.
The programming has had an enormous impact throughout the Soviet bloc.
Intellectuals have repeatedly testified that RFE-RL has been an educator, a molder of morals, loyalties, and tastes. It has set the context and defined the standards of civilized debates.
The Soviet authorities have long feared the power of this flow of uncensored news and information and have tried to limit its effectiveness through jamming.
Now, apparently, they have come to realize that jamming is a throwback to the Stalinist era and an impediment to the evolution of a more modern state.
A modern leader, Gorbachev understands that the Soviet population can no longer be isolated from news and information. What once worked for Stalin is no longer feasible or effective.
Modern means of communications have virtually eliminated national boundaries and have assured nearly instantaneous transmittal of news around the world.
The Soviet populace is generally well educated and eager to learn about developments in its own country and the world.
Gorbachev realizes that he cannot exhort the Soviet people to be more productive and knowledgeable workers and, at the same time, treat them as mindless children who must be guarded from news and information.
Jamming was an insult to the Soviet populace and an expression of bad faith on the part of the government. It had to cease if the Soviet Union was to be perceived by its own population and the rest of the world as a modern state.
For the United States, Soviet cessation of the jamming provides a priceless opportunity to contribute to the peaceful evolution of Soviet society.
At the present time, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are at a crossroads of history: They can continue along the path set by Stalin and his successors or embark on a new path toward a more open society.
The U.S. can prod the USSR and its East European allies in the direction of an open society by ensuring that all citizens in the East bloc have access to the full range of information necessary for making intelligent political decisions. The most powerful tools for doing this are Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.