Concerns raised over Radio Free Europe’s future

Leaders of the Baltic states, including Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, have sent letters to U.S. President George Bush asking that his new budget not slash Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian broadcasts on Radio Free Europe.

Although the proposed budget for fiscal year 2004 won’t be announced until early February, rumors have circulated for weeks that the Baltic language services could be dropped as early as October, now that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been invited to join the NATO defense alliance.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and about a third of the country’s members of parliament sent a letter Jan. 15 to Washington, D.C., asking the Bush administration and the Congress to spare Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFERL) from the budget axe, according to Baltic News Service.

Also sending a letter was President Vīķe-Freiberga, said her press secretary, Aiva Rozenberga.

A similar letter was sent by Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas, government spokesperson Hanna Hinrikus told Latvians Online by telephone from Tallinn.

“[I]n these uncertain times, and as the war on terrorism continues, it is very important that Estonians continue to receive timely and comprehensive information about international affairs that will help elucidate the meaning and significance of world events,” the letter from Kallas says. “Radio Free Europe is the Estonian-language media organization most capable of meeting this challenge.”

Publically, RFERL officials are saying little about what the proposed budget might hold for them.

“We’re gratified by the support that President Adamkus and the parliamentarians have expressed,” Mārtiņš Zvaners, RFERL’s associate director of communications, told Latvians Online in reaction to news of the Lithuanian letter.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio Free Europe and other services such as the Voice of America, also said it was not aware of plans to cut back service.

White House officials did not respond before this story was published.

Rumors about the Bush budget suggest that the language services for all seven NATO candidates could be slashed from RFERL. In November, NATO invited Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to join the defense alliance. The membership process could be completed by 2004, but the new federal budget, which will have to be approved by Congress, would go into effect this October.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ fiscal 2003 budget totals more than USD 477 million.

The broadcaster’s Latvian service includes editorial offices in RFERL’s headquarters in downtown Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, as well as a local office in Rīga. The Latvian service broadcasts every day with programs lasting from 5 minutes to an hour. The broadcasts may be heard on shortwave and, through local affiliates, on Latvian medium wave stations, as well as on the Hotbird 3 satellite service.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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