The oxygen of a free society is accurate and trustworthy information. Yet even today, regimes around the world are intent on cutting off the supply.
First as a college student, then as a high school teacher, and later as a Ph.D. candidate, I had the opportunity to travel behind the Iron Curtain a couple dozen times in the decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. No matter where I went, one thing always stood out. There was a universal demand for independent, reliable news and information. Everyone I met despised state-controlled propaganda. They craved truth.
There are lessons in this for the promotion of human rights and democracy today.
The Berlin Wall had become the defining symbol of Cold War conflict. The concrete barriers, barbed wire, guard towers and attack dogs cut through the heart of the city of Berlin. But this tragic monument to tyranny — which crumbled 20 years ago — was also a stark reminder for those free in the West of the tens of millions enslaved by communist dictatorship throughout the East. Their lifeline was what we in free societies take for granted: access to truth.
The 1980s were still a world without widespread Internet and cellphones. Communist parties were able to maintain strict control of the media. In Romania, even typewriters had to be registered with the police. East Germans lived in a repressive state, too, but they had the good fortune to live next to West Germany. As a result, many were able to get West German TV. Geography made for a two-tiered society, though. Those who lived in the southeastern part of the country were too far away to receive western signals. They were stuck in "the valley of the clueless," as it was known.
The information flow
In truth, I rarely encountered clueless citizens in the Soviet bloc. Passion for truth led to ingenuity. In the Soviet Union, there was a thriving underground press. A young Solidarity trade unionist in Poland once told me how his printing press had just been confiscated by the authorities. Fortunately, it was insured. You could even buy insurance for such things on Poland's black market.
Radio Free Europe did its part to keep information streams flowing. Started by the CIA in 1950 and later openly funded by the U.S. Congress, the broadcasts of RFE — and those of its sister station Radio Liberty — were created to provide the people of communist nations with the domestic news and information that their governments denied them.
This year's Nobel Prize winner for literature, novelist Herta Mueller, was asked recently whether she listened to Radio Free Europe while growing up in communist Romania. Her reply: "Several times a day, and those who did not do so were idiots."
RFE itself was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Icons of freedom such as Vaclav Havel, a dissident who became president of a free Czechoslovakia in 1989, and Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland's Solidarity trade union movement, both say they depended on RFE for intellectual nourishment and moral solidarity under communism.
Such accurate, trustworthy information is the oxygen of civil society, anywhere you go. There has been immense progress in improving the flow of oxygen. The Soviet empire is long gone. Around the world, text messaging and Twitter, Facebook and what one might already call good old-fashioned e-mail have opened up societies and empowered citizens like never before.
At the same time, though, modern-day authoritarians from China to Russia to Iran are themselves using the latest technologies in order to block, jam and distort the truth. A study published earlier this year by the human rights group Freedom House, in cooperation with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, found that authoritarian regimes are cooperating in unprecedented ways when it comes to the art and science of stifling the democratic impulses of their citizens.
Speak up, support dissidents
There are answers to the new repression, some still to be found in lessons from the Cold War.
First, speak truth to power in authoritarian capitals. Those of us who argue that democracy and human rights must play an important role in U.S. foreign policy are not oblivious to other interests (oil, for instance). Kowtowing to dictators, though, betrays our values and never pays in the long run.
Second, support courageous dissidents who fight and risk their lives for freedom. They are the moral leaders of today. They sometimes become the political leaders of tomorrow.
Finally, never forget: Free media works. The more honest information and responsible discussion we can encourage and provide to the citizens of unfree societies, the better.
This was a crucial part of the strategy that helped bring down the Berlin Wall. It can help bring down the new walls being erected by the tyrants of today.
Editors Note: Jeffrey Gedmin is president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which broadcasts today in 28 languages to 20 countries, from Russia to Central Asia and the Middle East.