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East/West: RFE/RL Celebrating 50 Years Of Broadcasting

  • Don Hill

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty observes its 50th anniversary this week. Correspondent Don Hill tells the story of how Radio Free Europe and its sister station, Radio Liberty, came to celebrate their first 50 years in the capital of the country to which RFE's first ever and first regular broadcast was beamed.

Prague, 30 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Radio Free Europe aired its first regular broadcast 50 years ago tomorrow (Tuesday).

The international broadcaster will observe the anniversary this week in the Czech Republic's capital Prague, a city with special meaning for the organization. RFE's first broadcasts -- from then-new studios in Munich, Germany -- were aimed at the people of Czechoslovakia.

Here's the respected Czech journalist Ferdinand Peroutka speaking in that first program -- prophetically, as it turned out -- of the power that Radio Free Europe would wield against "them," the communist foe:

"True, they will have all the weapons and all kinds of police forces. And we shall have the medium of the spoken word. But even though all of the material superiority is on their side, they remain uneasy."

For almost a year before May 1951, there had been occasional broadcasts to the nations of Central Europe. But these had been more test efforts than a foundation for the kind of professionally produced broadcasts that became the standard for RFE and later for RFE/RL. That's why RFE/RL has chosen May 1, 1951, as its official first day. RFE/RL President Tom Dine says:

"May 1 is the official starting date of [regular] broadcasts from Munich of Radio Free Europe to Czechoslovakia."

Broadcasts continued from Munich until 1995. In the interim, Radio Free Europe merged with its sister station, Radio Liberty, which broadcast to the Soviet Union.

The two radios began as Cold War weapons covertly funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. By 1972, when the U.S. Congress decided to fund the radios openly, they had evolved into surrogate broadcasters, providing essential information about conditions in the communist Eastern bloc that listeners could not obtain elsewhere. After the collapse of East European communism in 1989, the radios have sought to demonstrate to post-communist nations what their news media would be capable of doing if they were fully stable and free.

In mid-1995, RFE/RL moved its operations to the Czech Republic at the invitation of President Vaclav Havel. And that's where the anniversary celebration will take place this week.

The U.S. Broadcast Board of Governors, which supervises all U.S.-funded international broadcasting, is convening a joint meeting in Prague Wednesday and Thursday with RFE/RL's Board of Directors. They are to be joined by members of RFE/RL's European Advisory Committee. The radios have invited journalists, diplomats, academics, and political and religious leaders to join in the observance.

On Thursday Yelena Bonner, the widow of the renowned Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, is due to speak at a luncheon session. That evening, in Hradcany Castle in Prague, Petr Pithart, the speaker of the Czech Senate, will address the group.

On Friday the dignitaries plan to participate with RFE/RL journalists and staff in a general assembly. Czech President Vaclav Havel will address the assembly.

President Havel, himself a long-time dissident, is also a long-time friend of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He has written and spoken of how he and his fellow dissidents in communist Czechoslovakia listened to the broadcasts both for information and for succor.

Havel played a major role in the radios' move from Munich to Prague. At the start of 1993, when the Czechs and Slovaks split their country into two nations, the Federal Parliament building in Prague became superfluous. With Havel's strong backing, the Czech government offered the box-like structure at the top of the city's famous Wenceslas Square to RFE/RL as it new headquarters. The radios have been broadcasting from Prague for the past six years.

RFE/RL has thereby come 180 degrees. It began with broadcasts to then communist Czechoslovakia. Now it continues its mission by broadcasting from the post-communist Czech Republic to other nations far less advanced in their transition to democracy and a free-market economy.