Radio Free Asia was incorporated in March 1996, and began broadcasting in September 1996. Although RFA directors preferred to broadcast under the name "the Asia-Pacific Network",
Republican representatives including
Chris Smith and
Jesse Helms insisted on returning the name to Radio Free Asia before broadcasting began, to which president Richard Richter complied. Radio Free Asia was forced to change the name in part due to financial pressures from the US government, for although they operated with an independent board, their initial $10 million dollar annual budget came from the
In response to radio jamming efforts from China,
Newt Gingrich and House Republican leaders helped to increase the budget of RFA and VOA, with further funding of RFA proposed as a way to combat China's political repression without levying trade restrictions that would anger American businesses.
Since broadcasting began in 1996, Chinese authorities have consistently jammed RFA broadcasts.
Three RFA reporters were denied access to China to cover U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit in June 1998. The
Chinese embassy in Washington had initially granted visas to the three but revoked them shortly before President Clinton left Washington en route to
White House and
United States Department of State filed complaints with Chinese authorities over the matter but the reporters ultimately did not make the trip.
The Vietnamese-language broadcast signal was also jammed by the Vietnamese government from the beginning. Human rights legislation has been proposed in Congress that would allocate money to counter the jamming. Research by the
OpenNet Initiative, a project that monitors Internet filtering by governments worldwide, showed that the Vietnamese-language portion of the Radio Free Asia website was blocked by both of the tested ISPs in Vietnam, while the English-language portion was blocked by one of the two ISPs.
To address radio jamming and
Internet blocking by the governments of the countries that it broadcasts to, the RFA website contains instruction on how to create anti-jamming antennas and information on web proxies.
On March 30, 2010, China's domestic internet censor, known as the
Great Firewall, temporarily blocked all
Google searches in China, due to an unintentional association with the long-censored term "rfa". According to Google, the letters, associated with Radio Free Asia, were appearing in the URLs of all Google searches, thereby triggering China's filter to block search results.
Arrests of Uyghur journalists' relatives
In 2014–2015 China arrested three brothers of RFA Uyghur Service journalist
Shohret Hoshur. Their jailing was widely described by Western publishers as Chinese authorities' efforts to target Hoshur for his reports on otherwise unreported violent events of the
Xinjiang conflict. Much larger numbers of relatives of RFA's Uyghur-language staff have since been detained, including the family of
The continuation of existing U.S. international broadcasting, and the creation of a new broadcasting service to people of the People's Republic of China and other countries of Asia, which lack adequate sources of free information and ideas, would enhance the promotion of information and ideas, while advancing the goals of U.S. foreign policy.
The RFA's mission statement is outlined on its website as follows:
Radio Free Asia operates under a Congressional mandate to deliver uncensored, domestic news and information to China, Tibet, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, among other places in Asia with poor media environments and few, if any, free speech protections.
In 1999, Catharin Dalpino of the
Brookings Institution, a former assistant secretary deputy for human rights, called Radio Free Asia "a waste of money" and elaborated that she believed its goals had more to do with domestic political symbolism than with supporting democratic movements in Asia, stating that "Wherever we feel there is an ideological enemy, we're going to have a Radio Free Something." Dalpino said she had reviewed scripts of RFA's broadcasts and viewed the station's reporting as unbalanced due to focus on the testimony of dissidents in exile rather than the events occurring in the countries themselves. Lynne Weil, a director of communications and external affairs for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, has disputed descriptions of government-funded outlets as propaganda, referring to outlets such as
BBC as examples of non-propagandist journalism funded by a government entity. In 2001, Richter stated that congressional interference in the organization was minimal, saying that he "wanted to make sure we weren't just getting set up to be a kill-the-Commie organization."
Monroe Price, director of the
Center for Global Communication Studies, described RFA as "a modern iteration of Cold War use of the airwaves, emphasizing a turn from the traditional Cold War targets to new ones" and argued that the goals of RFA prove that the "instruments of international broadcasting are a reflection of the priorities and internal politics of the sending nation."
Vietnamese newspapers such as the state-run Nhân Dân have criticized the goals of RFA and broadcasts into the country, with a writer for Nhân Dân accusing the network of attempting to "interfere in other countries' internal affairs."
Chinese citizens calling in to RFA have expressed a wide range of opinions on the network, both positive and negative, many calling from pay phones to hide their identities.
Radio Free Asia has received several awards for its journalism, including:
BenarNews, a RFA affiliate that reports in Bengali, Thai, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and English targeting South and Southeast Asia, won the 2021
Murrow Award for Excellence in Video (Small Digital News Organization) from the
Radio Television Digital News Association for a video report showcasing volunteers who helped transport, bury and conduct the last rites for people who died from
^Hopkins, Mark (1999).
"A Babel of Broadcasts". Columbia Journalism Review. 38 (2): 44.
ISSN0010-194X. 'The U.S. is propagandizing the world with a jumble of wasteful, redundant radio and TV programs – Voice of America, Radio Free This-and-That.' [...] Brookings Institution Asian scholar Catharin Dalpino says, 'I do think Radio Free Asia is propagandistic.'