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Tom Dine Discusses U.S. Outreach Efforts to the Muslim World

January 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: This notion of Radio Free Afghanistan, what’s it going to be?

TOM DINE: It’s going to be exactly what we do to the other countries to which we broadcast – this will be our 28th country. The mission is promotion of freedom and democracy, and you do that as accurate, factual, balanced, objective news and information as possible. It’s basic high, high standards of Western journalism.

We’re not going to try to fool the public. We’re not negative propagandists. We are people who want to disseminate information that has a purpose, and the purpose here is democratic society, which includes the rule of law, includes tolerating diversity, pluralistic politics. If we can get those ideas across, we’ll start to change the mindset that has almost sunk the place called Afghanistan over the last 20 to 25 years.

TERENCE SMITH: And the target is the people of Afghanistan?

TOM DINE: Yes, in Dari and Pashtu, the two major languages. Actually, we already broadcast to Afghanistan because of our Tajik service daily. The broadcasts into Tajikistan overlap into that part of Afghanistan with the Tajik-speaking population, which is also Dari. It’s a first cousin of languages. Uzbekistan, the Uzbek language is spoken by a great number of people in the northern part of the country. The Northern Alliance, for instance, had leadership coming in and out of Uzbekistan. And our Turkmen service, there’s a large number of Turkmens in Afghanistan. And, finally, out of the West is Iran. And our daily Persian broadcasts are also heard by a good one-third of the country that speaks Farsi. We’ll now have a comprehensive broadcast, on a daily basis, to all of the populations.

TERENCE SMITH: So you see this as not part of the war effort, but part of the postwar effort?

TOM DINE: Oh, definitely. I don’t even think of war. I think of the long-term. This nation is devastated. It was never a rich place to begin with, and now they’ve really got to start from scratch, in the urban areas particularly, and then all of the mine fields that have been scattered and will harm the population for a long time.

So if the interim government can take hold, and then it’s the successor government is oriented toward democratic reform, rule of law, economic liberalization, and is a member of the family of nations, then I think our radio, plus all of the other activities that will take place, will help to start rebuilding, recreating, reestablishing a functioning society that is also, hopefully, democratic.

TERENCE SMITH: There was a Radio Free Afghanistan, but after the Soviets were driven out of the country, we stepped back from it?

TOM DINE: Correct. We folded it in the early ’90s.

TERENCE SMITH: And so are we closing the barn door after the horse has left here?

TOM DINE: Well, if you only think in war terms. The Taliban is gone or almost nearly gone, the foreigners, the al-Qaida people are almost gone or in body bags or will be going.

But in this case, it’s about the promotion and the defense of democracy, and all societies in the world now are faced with this. Are they going to continue to be dictatorships or are they going to be part of this – I’m using this from a positive point of view – globalization, democracy, market economies, intervention of governments to make sure that the lower parts of the population rise up to meet the middle class and become middle class?

And that’s what this is all about. This is a major building block in the whole process of reestablishing Afghanistan as a functioning nation.

TERENCE SMITH: Fit this, if you will, into the larger picture of public diplomacy that this country is trying to pursue in the wake of September 11th, in trying to get a different image of the United States and democracy out around the world.

TOM DINE: Our brothers and sisters at the Voice of America are to promote the United States in their broadcasts. We do it differently. We are at the local level, and we will have stringers. We have stringers, as we speak, right now. Twenty people from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are in Afghanistan – not just Kabul, but the other major places – collecting stories, sending them back to our headquarters in Prague, and then we disseminate those to all of our listening audiences throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

We will do the same in this case. We will be reporting news and information about local parts of the Afghan landscape, and we will also be reporting what goes on in Kabul, which is, which will be where the, where the sitting government is.

Now that government, I would guess, will be quite weak in the beginning. It won’t have a strong centralization pull to it, but that’s okay. If we can help Afghans communicate with each other and so that the people in Herat know what the people in Kandahar think and know, then that will be a contribution to tying things back together as best we can.

TERENCE SMITH: How many listeners do you think you can get in Afghanistan?

TOM DINE: The Voice of America has a very large listening audience. So does the BBC. And my guess is that, based on everything I know about the media in Afghanistan, pre-Taliban, Taliban, post-Taliban, that radio is the major means of receiving news. Newspapers are defunct, television was knocked out, and it was only the worst kind of propaganda, anyway, by the Taliban. Radio is where it is, and we’ll therefore attract a large audience.

Now, having said that, too, our kind of programming, news and information without rock and roll, without the latest in Southwest Asian popular music, will basically attract the influentials, and that’s a very important audience. Who rules whom? Who are the opposition figures? We’ll put on the air alternative views. They’re not used to that. And we’ll liven the place up with ideas, with information and, hopefully, show that the conflict between opinions is a lot more civil and a lot more productive than the conflict surrounding guns.

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you now to put on a somewhat different hat. As somebody who’s in the world of international broadcasting, who’s, in fact, based abroad, who has some sense of the way this country is perceived, what do you think of the way we are going about a campaign of public diplomacy? What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong?

TOM DINE: The best thing the United States has, which is part of the problem, is our success: imagination, Hollywood, music, the arts in all kinds of ways, painters, poets, the fact that our government works, and we have this unusual system – unusual from their perspective – where it’s by the consent of the governed, from grassroots up, that we change governments nonviolently.

All of those things are foreign to parts of Europe that I work in – Central, Southeastern Europe, former Soviet Union, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia – where there are dictators. There will soon be a referendum in Uzbekistan which will allow President Karimov to stay in power. Well, that’s foreign to us. But to them transitional governments through elections is foreign.

So what I would call our successes are part of the problem. There’s envy, there’s jealousy. These are the natural forces of human nature. The fact that they don’t like “a single superpower,” the irritation, the psychological problems that people faced in looking at the United States started way before 9/11, way before “globalization” took hold.

The French have been at us since the ’50s. They didn’t like our might, the combined might of a political system that works, an economic system that works, a social system that basically works, and how we work out and still are working on our race relations. It was always a fundamental problem with American society. It has been from the very beginning. It is now, and it will continue, but we’re working at it, and people are envious of that.

In Central Europe, where I live, anyone who is not white-skinned is frowned upon, is condescended to, is discriminated against. A good one-third of our workforce in Prague are Asians. And every time they’re discriminated against at a grocery store, at a sundry place, on public transportation, I hear about it, and I go at who it is, through letters, outspoken. And we’ve got to fight discrimination wherever it is, just the way we have to fight terrorism wherever it is.

TERENCE SMITH: Given all of these cultural differences that you’re describing here, what can this country do in the wake of 9/11 to change the way it is viewed abroad?

TOM DINE: We have to be true to ourselves. We have our interests. We’re going to pursue our interests. We are a fair society. We will try to work with other countries. We cannot go it alone. Unilateralism before 9/11 was creating more problems than anything it was achieving. We have to be a cooperative country, but we also will lead, and others will lead, and others will join in this, which we know have a grand alliance. But the United States has got to put its best foot forward, explaining who we are, what we do, why we do it, and show this is what we want. This is the world we’re trying to create a multicultural, multi-religious, multiracial world.

TERENCE SMITH: And we’re not doing that effectively now?

TOM DINE: I don’t think we’re doing enough. And every time I come back to the United States, and I look into this, because being in the United States international broadcasting, that’s part of our public face. But we don’t have a grand strategy. We don’t have a, a coordinated approach to things, and so we’ve got a lot of work to do.

We’re not spending enough money. We spend a half-billion dollars, $500 million a year, to run Voice of America, Radio Television Marti, Radio Free Asia, World Net, all of the engineers in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. That’s a pittance because all of these units have listening audiences, followings. Some are deeply affected by it, just not during the Cold War, but now in the current world we’re in. We’re getting a lot of bang for our buck, but we’re spending very little on cultural exchanges, very little on a public diplomacy program, and I think the Congress and the administration, together, have got to come up and face this fact, you can’t buy it on the cheap.

TERENCE SMITH: What would be a more appropriate budget for this kind of outreach that you’re talking about?

TOM DINE: Well, I wouldn’t start with a budget figure. I’d start with what are our needs. Official America needs more representation on the ground around the world. Official America needs to have more cultural exchanges. Anybody who comes to this country usually likes it. That doesn’t mean they’re going to integrate and they’re going to become us.

We have to have educational exchanges, cultural exchanges. The best of America should be not exported abroad, but shown abroad, our painters, our poets, our filmmakers, our everything. And so I could envision a $1.5 billion budget, which is, again, what we’re spending per day in Afghanistan on our military operations.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you get any sense that people are willing to do that now, in the wake of September 11th?

TOM DINE: Yes. I remember a congressional hearing in early October chaired by Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, in which he said we do Hollywood so beautifully, why don’t we do this better? So there’s a yearning for it. Senator Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has a piece of legislation that he wants to offer in the winter-spring of 2002, in which we do more in public radio, public television abroad. So serious people are thinking seriously, but it’s not wall-to-wall yet.

TERENCE SMITH: Have we done anything yet?

TOM DINE: Yes. First of all, Voice of America and ourselves have increased enormously our coverage of and our broadcasting to the countries that have been part of the war on terrorism. We have increased our staff, we have increased our hours to the five Central Asian republics, to Iran and to Iraq almost 50 percent. For instance, one of our very, very best programs is in Persian language to Iran. On September 11th, we were 3 hours a day original and 3 hours repeat. We’re now 10 hours a day.

So we’re up and surging, if you will. Secondly, we’ll be broadcasting as many hours as possible in Afghanistan, and the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are trying to have a 24-hour stream. They’re on 12 hours, we’re on 12 hours. So we’re going to share the burden and share the output.

There will be a program to the Arabic-speaking world that the Voice of America will sponsor the Middle East Radio Network. That’s something new. That’s something different. That’s something to meet the dilemma now that we face in the Arab streets, and the focus will be the youth in the Arabic-speaking countries.

TERENCE SMITH: We have also read about advertising – making ads that might even involve respected American Muslim figures, like Mohammed Ali and others, talking to this part of the world. Does this make sense to you?

TOM DINE: I don’t know. I always have a suspicion that you can try to sell and market mayonnaise to the housewives of America and the househusbands of America, I’m not so sure it works in a nonmarketing, advertising world, but that’s part of globalization too. They’re getting more and more used to advertising. I think we have to be very careful about it. There are positive reasons for advertising. You have to inform people. For instance, we have learned that you can’t just expect people to turn on their dial and find us. You’ve got to tell people where to find us, whether it’s FM, AM or short-wave. So advertising, as a form of communication, is important. In a cynical way, though, you can’t sell America. It isn’t mayonnaise. America is different than that. And it’s a lot more sophisticated, and it takes a lot more talent than I think we’re applying now.