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Free Speech Radio takes on the wars abroad and with network

By Jia-Rui Chong Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday January 22, 2002

About 300 people shook the pews with their cheers Saturday night as three familiar voices from Free Speech Radio spoke about the U.S. war in Afghanistan and their own war with Pacifica Network News.  

Locals from all across the Bay Area packed St. John the Worker’s Church, wearing “End the War” buttons and passing out flyers about how to improve KPFA 94.1 FM, the station that broadcasts FSR in Berkeley. 

The event featured Verna Avery Brown, the host of FSR, Fariba Nawa, an Afghan-American journalist who reported from the front, and Jeremy Scahill, a reporter who covered the U.S. bombing campaigns in Iraq and Yugoslavia. The event was a benefit for FSR – a program produced by an international group of freelance reporters, who went on strike from Pacifica in 2000 over issues of censorship.  

The night was billed as an opportunity to hear reporters who had just returned from the war in Afghanistan. Nawa was FSR’s woman on the ground there, dropping her graduate program at New York University to head for the refugee camps in Pakistan. 

She witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center.  

“As an Afghan-born, American-raised journalist who interviewed the Taliban last year, I was shocked and horrified,” she said. “I knew where the destruction was going to be next – my homeland.” 

Although her main job in Islamabad was to translate her Farsi phone conversations with Northern Alliance commanders on the frontline into English for the Associated Press, she was also interested in detailing the complexities of the emotions in the camps she visited.  

“The Afghans I met were supportive of kicking out the Taliban,” she said, “But they were not supportive of the bombing. No one knew how long it would last.” 

Nawa also talked about misguided assumptions about the Taliban. Although Taliban and Northern Alliance forces might shoot at each other during the day, she said, they often have tea together at night. “They’re in it because of the money, to feed their kids. It’s the foreigners who come in and believe in the ideology and fight to the death.” 

When Pakistan deported her in December – because she had lunch with an Indian journalist, she thinks – Nawa went to Bonn to cover the U.N. conference on creating an interim government in Afghanistan. Heartened by the “intelligent and capable people” who were chosen, Nawa said, “Afghanistan comes out the winner in all of this.” Although she hates the bombing campaign, she said, “What I tell my friends is that it’s for us now. We have to decide our fate.” 

“I’m glad I can go home now and write about reconstruction and not just about bullets and war,” she said. 

While both Avery Brown and Scahill also denounced the bombing campaign in their speeches, they, and the host of the evening Larry Bensky, focused on the other war that needed ending. Although the Pacifica Foundation, which oversees the nation’s largest progressive radio network, says its mission is “to promote cultural diversity and pluralistic community expression,” the Pacifica Reporters Against Censorship (PRAC) charged the management with censoring their work and called for the return of editorial independence for local affiliates. 

Bensky began the night by announcing the end of the feud between Pacifica and PRAC, the reinstatement of Dan Coughlin as Pacifica’s executive director and his own rehiring. 

Avery Brown declared the end of “Pacifica Lite” and told the crowd she had accepted a position as second in command to Coughlin. Although she admitted there was still much work to be done in straightening out staffing and financial issues, she said, “We’re going back and we’re in charge.” 

Scahill was the most rousing speaker of the night, denouncing the “shameful” way Pacifica had been operating and calling for the “return of rebel radio.” 

“Radio is the most revolutionary medium we have in our world,” said Scahill. “One of the saddest things is the media failing to shake the institutions of power.” 

Although he applauded the change in management at PNN, he was still not entirely satisfied. “I promise you I will not do a single story for PNN until the grievances are resolved and democracy is returned,” he said. 

Their grievance – with Pacifica and the government – was about patriotism, they said. Avery Brown said she was not unpatriotic and had relatives who served in the armed forces, but she hesitated to wave the flag from her grandfather’s state funeral. “I will wave my grandfather’s flag when I see Bush on TV and he says every life is precious,” she said, “even those of Afghans who were not involved in the World Trade Center attack.” 

People do not owe their allegiance to the U.S. government, said Scahill, since it only seems to be causing “wanton destruction in already devastated country.” But, they do owe allegiance to America. “To be patriotic in this country today,” said Scahill, “is to be a dissident.” 

Audience members pumped fists in the air and shouted their agreement. Longtime KPFA listener Helene Knox was particularly impressed by Scahill. Praising his courage for staying on the ground while bombs were falling and his capacity to see the big international picture, the Oakland resident said, “For insight, Jeremy is number one in my book.” 

Melodie Barclay of Oakland found Nawa’s remarks most informative. Although she came because she was against the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, she said she was surprised by the upbeat picture Nawa painted of Afghanistan’s future. “It was good to hear her perspective,” she said. 

The thunderous applause at the end of the night was followed by another sound: The unzipping of bags to find wallets and checkbooks. 

Because its $26,500 per month operating budget comes mostly from listeners, FSR had asked audience members to contribute $10 to $20 at the door. “I can’t afford much,” said Knox, “but I gave them $20 to begin with.” When the collection buckets came around at the end of the passionate speeches, she said, “I gladly threw in another $20.”