As expected, funding for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFERL) broadcasts to seven Eastern European countries—including the Baltic republics—has been cut from the U.S. federal budget.
In a 65-28 vote Jan. 22, the U.S. Senate approved an omnibus appropriations bill that funds government activities for fiscal year 2004, which actually began in October. The bill was approved by the House of Representatives in December.
President George Bush is expected to sign the bill.
The White House’s fiscal 2004 budget proposal cut funding for broadcasts to Latvia as well as Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia. The money saved is to be diverted to new broadcasting initiatives in the Mideast.
RFERL broadcasts to Latvia began in 1975 as part of Radio Liberty. Before merging, Radio Free Europe directed its broadcasts to Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain, while Radio Liberty beamed to the Soviet Union, including Latvia.
The final full-format broadcast, prepared by staff in Prague and Rīga, was aired Dec. 31 and featured a look back on the role played by the station during the Cold War as well as after the renewal of independence in Latvia. One portion of the final broadcast was devoted to the weekly “Latgolas bolss” (The Voice of Latgale) program, which was aimed at Latgallian speakers in the Latgale province of eastern Latvia.
Abbreviated Latvian broadcasts have continued into January while the fate of appropriations bill remained undecided.
During the final floor debate over the appropriations bill, only Sen. Richard Durbin (D – Ill.) defended the RFERL and VOA broadcasts to Eastern Europe, calling their loss a “major disappointment.”
“These are new democracies,” Durbin said, according to a transcript published in Congressional Record. “They are still subject to instability. There is still gang and Soviet influence. I refer to the old Soviet gangs that still are alive and well and reborn in the form of syndicate operations. These democracies need the help of Radio Free Europe. I think putting that voice, as well as Radio Liberty, in a broadcast is an important thing to strengthen those democracies. Unfortunately, it was cut.”
Durbin nonetheless voted with the majority in favor of the appropriations package.
Baltic lobbyists in the United States last year argued to save the broadcasts, gaining some support in the Senate. But the appropriations bill agreed to in a conference committee nonetheless dropped the broadcasts.
The RFERL Latvian service’s Web site, www.brivaeiropa.org, also no longer will be updated, according to a statement from Director Pēteris Zvagulis.
With the end of RFERL and VOA broadcasts, only two international broadcasts in Latvian remain. Radio Sweden has daily 15-minute broadcasts, while Vatican Radio offers a 20-minute program.
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