SINGAPORE, Sept 19 (Vendor Media Asia) – Looking at the website of Radio Free Asia (RFA) today, one could be mistaken for thinking it is a respectable and wholly unbiased news organization, established at the height of America’s 1990s post-Cold War power, dedicated to spreading truth and freedom to repressed nations around the globe. Halfway down the page is a link to the RFA’s 2001 25th anniversary celebrating the station’s first broadcast into China in September 1996 flanked by links to the awards it has won over a storied two-and-a-half-decade career.
While RFA openly states its United States Government funding, it is unclear to what extent it operates as a fully independent news gathering and information dissemination organization. What’s even less well known is the historic and ongoing influence the station receives from America’s Intelligence Community, as well as its roots in explicitly promoting American propaganda efforts against China for more than 70 years. Moreover, it has become clear that RFA is intent on exporting America’s characteristic “If It Bleeds, It Leads”) media culture (an axiom implying that if there’s bad news violence, conflict or death involved, it gets top billing to Asia by force.
In 1989, then Senator and now President Joe Biden, saw America’s Cold-War mentality needing to switch focus away from the rapidly fading Soviet Union and toward containing a rising China. Biden developed the concept for Radio Free Asia and began pushing for its creation as an ideological tool against Beijing. RFA would be modeled after Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and Radio Liberty, historically controversial propaganda networks aimed at spreading America’s ideological policy preferences in Central and Eastern Europe.
Senator Joe Biden 1989, arguing for the creation of Radio Free Asia
The early 90’s were heady years for America and the station took time to work its way through the government approval process. Biden, already a party elder when he pushed successfully for RFA’s creation during 1994’s Congressional debate, fought bitterly with younger Senators of his own party who saw RFA as needlessly provocative in a post Cold-War environment, as well as an inappropriate waste of taxpayer money. In a rebuke published later that year drawing explicit comparisons with America’s legacy information networks, the New York Times reminded the public that both Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty have been accused for decades of waste and excess spending.
Biden persisted, specifically stating the need to present an American-centric world view to counter China’s rising influence. According to a Washington Post article from the time, Biden wanted a news channel broadcasting into Asia that the public could not easily know was funded by America, especially in comparison to VOA. “People who listen to VOA are disinclined to believe what is said because they know it is a broadcast of the U.S.,” said Biden at the time. RFA would be the answer – slick, professional yet beholden to American policy prerogatives.
However, the intended secrecy behind the RFA is nothing new and should be viewed in context of the station’s historical origins. This isn’t the first time Radio Free Asia has broadcast itself across the Pacific and into the homes of unsuspecting citizens in China, Cambodia, and Myanmar, among other locales.
In a groundbreaking expose published by the New York Times in December 1977 titled “Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the C.I.A.”, the newspaper detailed in lengthy detail the extent to which America’s clandestine services apparatus had established or funded radio broadcasting, TV, film and book publishing around the world.
The first iteration of Radio Free Asia, the article revealed, began broadcasting to mainland China in 1951 from a set of transmitters in Manila. Although this version of RFA went off the air in 1955, the C.I.A. “…never hesitated to manipulate the output of its foreign based “assets.” What’s even more egregious, and what should make the hair on the arms of any American stand on end is that “…among those [foreign publications] were a number of English?language publications read regularly by American correspondents abroad and by reporters and editors in the United States.”
In other words, not only was RFA spreading American propaganda abroad, it was knowingly allowing government-biased reporting to filter back to American audiences as well.
Shockingly, this is still going on. In today’s media landscape, the largest disseminators of news and information are not media networks themselves. It is aggregator platforms, such as Yahoo News, Drudge Report, and Huffington Post. Aggregators are sites (many with readers in nearly every country on Earth) that collect news stories from primary news agencies and republish them on their own websites, often with lurid and clickbait titles to attract readership. Readers regularly do not know who wrote a particular article before they click on it, and thus can be unwittingly drawn to one of RFA’s propaganda efforts.
Following the “If It Bleeds, It Leads” model, RFA seems to excel at creating content designed to anger and upset its readers over so-called injustices taking place inside China, North Korea and American competitor states.
For example, take the following headline published on 2021/11/3: “North Korean sentenced to death after students caught watching Squid Game.”
Most people are horrified and disgusted at such news. However, the more one reads and analyses the details, the less the story holds up. The story uses unnamed sources – it doesn’t even describe where the sources are from. They could be wholly fabricated, referring to simply “a source in law-enforcement.” Given RFA’s own government background, this could be their own editors stirring the pot.
Less than a week later, more reputable news organizations began reporting that there might not be much to back up the story, quoting South Korea’s own news agencies saying the story might be made up.
It should come as no surprise then that the independent and respected news-bias analysis website Media Bias Fact Check, degraded RFA, saying it will often publish “…information that utilizes loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes).”
Demeaning and racist cartoon of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen published by Radio Free Asia
Maybe the RFA is nothing more than “Parkinson’s Law” in action, where people who have too much idle time and too much idle money inevitably cause problems for themselves and those around them. However, whether it is reporting on China purely in a negative light or continuing to highlight the difficulties Cambodia’s government faces in maintaining security, it’s clear that RFA is meant to be a destabilizing force to countries throughout Asia, utilizing the American media’s “If it Bleeds, It Leads” mentality to sow discord among native populations and increase hostility and suspicion towards Asian countries at home in the USA.
How long is long enough?