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December 25, 1996|
Earlier this month academics, journalists, and Internet activists from around the world gathered in Potsdam, Germany, for a weekend conference titled "Data Conflicts: Eastern Europe and the Geopolitics of Cyberspace." The meeting was timely: only a week earlier an independent Serbian radio station, Radio B-92, after being forced off the air by Serbian authorities, began to make available on the Internet audio versions of its reports on the anti-government protests in Belgrade. The result, according to a source quoted in The New York Times, is that "the Internet has become the [anti-government] movement's lifeline." As both the Serbian example and the Potsdam conference suggest, attempts by governments (in Eastern Europe and elsewhere) to control access to information are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the age of the Internet.
Since the Second World War, radio broadcasts -- from foreign governments, exiled groups, private corporations, and even rogue domestic stations -- have often been the most accessible sources of accurate information for those living under repressive regimes. No organization has used radio more effectively than Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. For forty years this private, non-profit corporation (partially funded by U.S.-government grants) was the broadcast-information source of choice for the populations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Despite a post-Cold War restructuring that has reduced its staff by more than half and its budget by two thirds, RFE/RL still broadcasts news programming daily in twenty-three languages to 25 million listeners. The goal, as the organization puts it, is to bridge "the crippling information chasm left by totalitarian rule." Sensing the enormous potential of the Internet as a means to achieve that end, RFE/RL has moved into cyberspace.
This is a site that no doubt will evolve dramatically. Even in its infancy it is rich in content, offering detailed and highly intelligent reporting on daily events and broad trends throughout the former communist world, written by both local journalists and expert Western analysts. Not surprisingly, RFE/RL is currently promoting its new "South Slavic Languages Service," which, in addition to providing news and commentary, also offers links to news-related sites in the former Yugoslavia such as Radio B-92 and Belgrade's "The Official Home Page of Protest '96." RFE/RL's Web site provides radio schedules for all of the countries to which it broadcasts, but -- in a development that may eventually spell the end of RFE/RL's focus on radio -- it has already made its Russian broadcasts available online (updated twice daily) in audio format. If the site continues to move in this direction it may soon offer news broadcasts read in each country's local language, updated regularly, and available twenty-four hours a day.
Of course, Internet access can be hard to come by in many of these countries. Even so, as The New York Times reported in its story from Serbia, "many students, professors and professionals here have computers, and most people who don't seem to know someone who does." Where it is most precious, information has a way of circulating. Those who have computers can print out the news daily and distribute it to those who don't. A library or a private home with access to the Internet can provide daily and uncensored news to anybody who's interested. For ordinary people in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, especially those who remember clustering furtively around a radio trying to catch the latest news through the static, these developments must surely be exciting. Whether they will contribute to lasting political and social change depends largely on how governments respond to the realities of a world in which information passes unhindered across national borders.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.