Thursday, May 05, 2016

RFE/RL Honors Legacy Of President Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, the much-beloved Czech poet, playwright, dissident, and first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, passed away on December 18, 2011. Since then RFE/RL has paid tribute to President Havel by projecting his image on the front of our Prague headquarters building, a public thanks for all he did for RFE/RL.

“We display our tribute to the late President Vaclav Havel, who was one of the greatest benefactors of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc., in our entire history,” said RFE/RL President and CEO Kevin Klose, who also lauded Havel’s “historic contributions to world peace and freedom of speech.”

Havel's name is synonymous with peaceful resistance to authoritarianism and commitment to individual liberty and dignity, and through his writings he established himself as Europe’s most renowned dissident voice.

WATCH: Havel Welcomes RFE/RL To The New Prague Headquarters
Czech President Vaclav Havel Welcomes RFE/RL To Praguei
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December 20, 2013
President Havel, accompanied by RFE/RL President Kevin Klose, welcoms RFE/RL to its first home in Prague (the former Parliament building) on September 8th, 1995. Video produced by Zydrone Krasauskiene.

During his time as president, Havel used his influence to serve as an unyielding advocate for democratic voices the world over. Long a listener and supporter of RFE/RL, Havel invited the organization to take up residence in Prague in 1995, planting RFE/RL’s headquarters in a city where its broadcasts were once banned.

--Zydrone Krasauskiene

Tags:rfe/rl, Vaclav Havel

Rebuilding Online Communities In Iran

Radio Farda Online Editor in Chief Fred Petrossians speaks at the Ars Electronica conference in Austria on "myths and reality of Twitter."

Iran’s internet landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, according to RFE/RL’s Fred Petrossians, online editor in chief for Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Persian language service.

Widely recognized as an expert on social media in Iran, Petrossians regularly speaks at international conferences on the topic, and is a co-author of “Hope, Votes and Bullets,” a book about Iran’s protest movement and social media.

At recent conferences in Germany, Sweden, Kenya, and Canada he discussed the shift away from blogs in favor of Facebook and Twitter among media activists in Iran.  He has also spoken about a lack of dynamism in online activism recently.

Petrossians says that since 2009, the protest movement in Iran and its presence online has stagnated. Mass demonstrations following disputed presidential elections that year were seen in the West, often erroneously, as heralding the arrival of the Twitter age to Iran. The swift reaction by the government to punish the protesters succeeded in quieting much online activity, and what remained was deprived of vitality because of a lack of new platforms and ideas. 

“The bitter reality is that while the protest movement used social networking and citizen media in a significant way in 2009 during the hot days of protest, at present, Iranian cyber activists are simply recycling the same virtual environment without any innovation or successful use of Western media innovation.”

To the extent that independent voices do make themselves heard online, Petrossians says  social media has replaced blogs as the predominant platform--especially Facebook--even though it is still blocked in Iran and users have to find ways to circumvent the censors through proxy servers. 

“The blogosphere is losing its dominance as a platform for netizens and cyber activists, and on Facebook and Twitter you lose your identity a bit. The platform doesn’t define your activity the way a blog does,” said Petrossians. “People don’t write long posts on Facebook or Twitter like they used to write on blogs, and so I think the message has changed as well. They attract a larger audience, but the nature of the message has changed.”

Though the length of the messages is shorter than in blogs, Radio Farda has benefited from the increased reach offered by social media, having recently surpassed 1 million fans on Facebook.

The immense popularity of Facebook has not gone unnoticed by the regime. At least three Radio Farda journalists this year have been the subject of fake Facebook profiles and blogs that post false information with the aim of discrediting them. Radio Farda’s Facebook page has also been hacked. 

Several high-ranking officials themselves maintain a strong presence on social media though state censorship of those sites is in effect for everyone else. Despite promises on the part of the recently-elected President Hassan Rohani to reduce online censorship, Petrossians says online censorship in Iran is as robust as ever, though there have been some newspaper and magazine articles published since Rohani took office that were unimaginable before.

Petrossians also spoke to conference participants about the role of the Iranian diaspora in promoting free expression on social media. While a powerful resource, he warns the diaspora can sometimes lose touch with ground truth in Iran and become “trapped in its own bubble.”

“Diasporas can talk online and spread messages quickly, but the heart and the soul of the country must be involved or nothing will happen,” he said.

Recognizing that Iranians in Iran are apt to get caught in a virtual bubble, too, Petrossians recommends platforms like, a site that facilitates face-to-face meetings of people with similar interests at parks and cafes.

Petrossians concludes that the way forward for online communities fighting against censorship in Iran is to transition to platforms that bring like-minded people together in real life, maximizing exposure and the genuine exchange of ideas.

--Emily Thompson

Tags:Iran, fred petrossians, Radio Farda, social media, censorship, Hassan Rohani, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Emily Thompson

Drach Speaks To Challenges Facing Independent Media in Ukraine

Ukraine - Maryana Drach, Acting Director, RFE/RL Ukrainian Service.

RFE/RL’s Acting Ukrainian Service Director Maryana Drach spoke to students and alumni about the Ukrainian media landscape at the fifth annual Model Ukraine White Paper Committee workshop October 16-18 in Ottawa. The event was sponsored by the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program (CUPP), which is a parliamentary internship program for Ukrainian students established by the Ukrainian Diaspora in Canada.

In her remarks to the students and workshop guests, Drach explained that while some journalists see Ukraine as experiencing a “golden age” of investigative journalism, many challenges remain. Revelations which come up from investigative journalism, especially about corruption at the top, are often ignored by the country's authorities.

Furthermore, “the media environment is marred by the efforts to undermine the credibility of independent journalists,” said Drach. “Critics of the government feel the consequences, and the punches, wherever they come from, are getting increasingly personal.”

Fifth annual Model Ukraine White Paper Committee Workshop October 16-18 in Ottawa, Canada.Fifth annual Model Ukraine White Paper Committee Workshop October 16-18 in Ottawa, Canada.
Fifth annual Model Ukraine White Paper Committee Workshop October 16-18 in Ottawa, Canada.
Fifth annual Model Ukraine White Paper Committee Workshop October 16-18 in Ottawa, Canada.
Drach also underlined the need for Ukraine to establish a viable public television channel with the structures in place to protect editorial independence. Currently, as independent media monitors have assessed, the state TV news reporting in Ukraine is biased against opposition candidates and independent voices.

Also in attendance at the conference were Ambassador to Canada Vadym Prystaiko and former Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine Derek Fraser.

Before becoming acting director of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Drach served as the managing editor for the service. Born in Kyiv, she joined RFE/RL in 1996. She has moderated the service’s popular program, “Liberty for the Week: and several programs looking at Ukraine’s external relations, such as “Ukraine and the World,” and “Our Neighbors.”

Freedom House defines Ukraine’s media as “partly free,” noting that press freedoms have eroded recently as a result of authoritarian-style rule of the current government leadership.

--Emily Thompson

Radio Svaboda Celebrates Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize Winner Ales Byalyatski: "He Is Central To Our Mission"

Ales Byalyatski's book at Vaclav Havel's grave, 30Sep2013

Jailed Belarusian rights activist Ales Byalyatski has won the first Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, announced in Strasbourg on September 30.
Byalyatski, a co-founder of the Viasna Human Rights Center and vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights, was arrested in August 2011 on charges of tax evasion and was sentenced to more than four years in prison. His supporters insist the charges are politically motivated, and numerous human rights organizations and western governments have condemned his imprisonment.
Named for the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, the award was established in 2013 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Vaclav Havel Library, and the Charter 77 Foundation to honor outstanding civil society and human rights contributions. Also nominated this year were Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, and the Rights Defense Network from China.
"This [prize] is an appreciation of the many years of his rights activism, his principled position, heroism, his openly standing up for human rights and freedom of his people, as well as of his love of Belarus," said Natallya Pinchuk, Byalyatski's wife, in accepting the prize on his behalf.
RFE/RL’s Belarus Service Director Alexander Lukashuk spoke about the award and described the special relationship between Havel, Byalyatski, and Radio Svaboda, as the service is known locally.
How has the Belarusian Service told Ales Byalyatski’s story?

Byalyatski has been a long-time focus of our reporting and we have been following his activities for many years. When he was in jail and put on trial we reported every day from the trial and the result is a book about his case called The Byalyatski Matter.  We smuggled it to Ales in prison and received a letter from him in response. We’ve been following him for a long time and his work’s impact is central to our mission.
There are many political prisoners in Belarus. Why does Byalyatski’s case resound abroad?

He is a classic human rights defender and dissident, so he has high name recognition abroad. The work he did in Belarus reached many people throughout the world in a very direct way.
Tell me about the special relationship Vaclav Havel had with the Belarus Service and Byalyatski.

Two years ago, Radio Svaboda asked Vaclav Havel to send Christmas greeting to political prisoners in Belarus. The letter to Byalyatski was the last letter Havel wrote in his life. Byalyatski wrote to us saying the letter was the most precious document he has with him. This award is also very significant to the Belarus Service and our reporting of the case.
-- Emily Thompson

Tags:Radio Svaboda, Ales Byalyatski, Vaclav Havel, Belarus Service

US Ambassador Congratulates RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service On 60th Anniversary

US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Pamela Spratlen, speaking at a celebration of Radio Azattyk's 60th anniversary in Bishkek, 7 June 2013.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service celebrated its 60th anniversary on June 7 at the Kyrgyz State Opera and Ballet Theater in the capital city, Bishkek. One of the attendees at the celebration, US Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, recently sent a letter of congratulations and appreciation for the work of the Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk to RFE/RL Acting President and CEO Kevin Klose.

In her letter, Ambassador Spratlen noted "Azattyk's professional coverage of the events of June 2010," when inter-ethnic violence erupted between the country's Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations, and expressed appreciation to Azattyk for continuing to "to provide unbiased information and promote reconciliation efforts." She also thanked Azattyk for allowing her the opportunity "to set the record straight" and clear up rumors that spread in the wake of the May 2013 crash of a US military aircraft at the Manas airport.

Ambassador Spratlen called Azattyk "a pivotal resource for helping the Kyrgyz Republic attain its ambitious media and democracy goals," noting that, "as one of the few Kyrgyz-language media outlets that had broad trust among the population, Azattyk's influence and audience will continue to grow."

Read the entire letter here.


RFE/RL’s Hamid Mohmand wins 2013 Burke Award

Afghanistan -- Jan Kubis, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan during an exclusive interview with RFE/RL Kabul Bureau Chief Hamid Mohmand on April 25, 2013.

Hamid Mohmand, the Kabul bureau chief for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Afghan Service, Radio Azadi, is one of six journalists recognized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as a winner of the 2013 David Burke Distinguished Journalism Awards.

“Our Burke Award winners are on the front lines of some of the most challenging and dangerous places on earth,” said BBG Governor Susan McCue. The awards are given annually to journalists working for US international broadcasting networks on the basis of exceptional integrity, bravery, and originality in reporting.

Mohmand was recognized “for his extraordinary courage and exemplary reporting in Afghanistan.” Despite facing numerous threats from the Taliban, he continued to report on topics important to his war-ravaged country. Hamid’s work, such as this report on a Taliban attack, represents a commitment to the ideal of a free press and reflects the risks journalists face in nations plagued by strife and conflict.

In observance of  World Press Freedom Day, Hamid was featured in an RFE/RL video speaking about the obstacles faced in the fight for free speech and a free press. Hamid and his colleagues work towards the development of these in both Afghanistan and the region as a whole.

RFE/RL journalists work in 21 countries where a free press is under threat from the government or not fully established. Their work provides what many people cannot get locally: fully uncensored news, discussion, and debate.

- John McGregor

Seven RFE/RL Collections Now Online At Open Society Archives

RFE/RL and the Open Society Archives are pleased to announce that seven major Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty collections are now online in its Digital Repository. Together, these collections make the majority of OSA’s RFE/RL holdings available online for the first time, totaling 103,265 items -- 3,874 videos, 372 images and 99,019 documents -- documenting Cold War history from as early as 1951 up until 1994. These unique materials provide invaluable insights into life under Communism in the USSR and across the former Soviet bloc, as well as the scope of RFE/RL’s monitoring, research and analysis activities.
The digitization and cataloging of these collections have been completed under the three-year European Union project, the Heritage of the People’s Europe (HOPE) which ended on May 1, 2013. The project brought together a best practice network across ten countries working in close cooperation with the multilingual Europeana discovery portal to provide a single access point to cultural heritage collections available digitally at participating domains, libraries, archives and museums. Using proven open source technologies, the end result is a shared object repository to store digital collections for the long term. HOPE materials are also available together with additional social history collections indexed by theme at the Social History Portal. The HOPE project was supported through the European Union Competitiveness and Innovation Framework ICT Policy Support Programme on Digital Libraries.
The Radio Free Europe Information Items collection contains 70,292 digitized Information Item reports produced by RFE’s News and Information Department in eight languages from 1951 to 1956. Based mostly on transcripts of interviews held in RFE field offices with émigrés, defectors, and people traveling to the West as tourists or on business, the collection presents unofficial information and intelligence on subjects ranging from Party and state apparatus organization and conflicts, macro-economics and working conditions, to the informal economy, surveillance practices, corruption, nightlife, and subversion.

Studies produced by RFE research units on the domestic and international affairs of Communist states, as well as trends and developments in the Communist movement worldwide, are held in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Background Reports collection, which contains 18,224 digitized reports produced in English from 1952 to 1992, spanning brief assessments of new developments in the Communist bloc, to research papers providing detailed context and analysis. The products of RFE/RL’s extensive media monitoring activities and journalistic research can be found in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Situation Reports collection, which contains 9,283 English-language reports released between 1959 and 1989, focusing on current affairs in the five countries RFE broadcast to, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, as well as Albania, the Baltic States and Yugoslavia.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Hungarian Radio Monitoring contains 1,072 digitized daily transcripts of news and current affairs programs broadcast on two Hungarian state radio stations, Kossuth and Petőfi, from January 1, 1988 to December 31, 1990. These transcripts illustrate how, over this period of profound political change, public radio broadcasting in Hungary was transformed into a powerful actor in shaping the democratization process.
RFE’s Polish Underground Publication Unit monitored and preserved a huge range of samizdat publishing activities in Poland throughout the 1980s, gathered together in two Polish collections. The Polish Underground Ephemera collection contains 372 digitized objects produced between 1981 and 1990, including stamps, envelopes, postmarks and postcards, calendars, photos, fliers, posters and fake banknotes. These rare materials, which feature clearly recognizable political and religious imagery, helped raise funds and quickly became popular collectors’ items. The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Publications Based on Polish Underground Press collection comprises 149 items produced in English and Polish between 1984 and 1990, bi-weekly press summaries, translated Samizdat articles and monthly reviews, dealing with topics such as the underground Solidarity movement, political prisoners, cultural dissent, the role of the Catholic church and attitudes towards Eastern and Western neighbors.
Totaling almost 840 hours of footage, the Soviet and Russian Television Monitoring collection contains 3,874 videos produced in Russian and eight other languages between 1985 and 1994 by Central Television of the Soviet Union and Russian Television Ostankino, and recorded by RFE/RL’s Monitoring Unit and the Moscow agency What the Papers Say. The selected programs portray different aspects of life in the Soviet Union and Russian Federation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a focus on contemporary key social, political, and economic issues before, during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, including independence movements, the establishment of a multi-party system in Russia, and economic reform and privatization.
Within the HOPE project, the digitization of OSA’s RFE/RL collections represents a significant advance in making RFE/RL’s pivotal role and work throughout four decades of Cold War history, monitoring, researching and documenting life in the ‘People’s democracies’, from state-run media to first-hand accounts and underground publishing, available online to researchers and the broader public for the first time.


For more information, contact:

Gabriella Ivacs, Chief Archivist
Open Society Archives at Central European University
Tel: +36.1.327.3250

Tags:rfe/rl, archives, open society institute, Soviet Union, poland, hungary

Website Shed Light On Iran Elections Process, Players

Denise Ajiri--June, 2013. Photo by Ahmad Wadiei RFE/FL

What do 16th-century English statesman Sir Thomas More and recently disqualified Iranian presidential candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have in common? Their ability to be seen simultaneously as both establishment insiders and maverick reformers, according to Denise Ajiri, web writer for Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Persian-language service, and co-founder of IranElectionWatch, a website dedicated to analysis of the June 14 presidential election in Iran.

The comparison of a contemporary Iranian politician to a famous functionary of the Renaissance era is just one of the ways IranElectionWatch (IEW) renders the nuances of Iranian politics more intelligible for non-Farsi speaking readers. Through blogs, infographics, candidate profiles, election law primers, and statistical analysis of the ten past presidential elections in Iran, IEW makes the intricacies of interests, issues and stakeholders in this year’s election accessible for everyone.

“We hope at least the website can give a better view of the elections to non-Farsi speakers, because it’s very confusing to understand what’s going on there,” said Ajiri, who got the idea for a website focused on the elections while at an online news conference in San Francisco, where she attended a lecture by one of the founders of Homicide Watch, a website that similarly uses original reporting and primary source documents to provide a public service.

Ajiri, who reports on topics censored by Iranian media and contributes to a weekly foreign cultural issues program for Radio Farda, was one of just three journalists under the age of 30 selected by the Online News Association (ONA) for the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship.

Making sense of the system

The presidential elections in Iran have indeed proven to be a bit of a puzzle this year. In stark contrast to the last election in 2009, which was marked by controversy and the wave of popular uprising unleashed by the Green Movement, this year the regime has decided to take no chances. Only eight of the hundreds of potential replacements for current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who put their hat in the ring for the position were selected by the Guardian Council, the body which vets would-be presidents.

Two popular candidates, Ahmadinejad's close ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a candidate with significant, though lukewarm, opposition backing, were conspicuously absent from the final list. Ajiri and her fellow journalists at IEW explain the power jockeying and legal pretext behind this decision and put it in context, though, as Ajiri explains, this was no easy task, as official sources of information are often unreliable.  

“We try to cover the most important issues about the elections, but it can take hours to confirm things,” said Ajiri. “We deal with this even when we’re reporting news in Farsi. We always have to consider, is it credible or not?”

Investigative reporting turns heads

One bit of suspicious information Ajiri came across while researching candidate profiles was a claim on the website of a think tank run by candidate Hassan Rohani that he holds a PhD in law from the prestigious University of Glasgow. When Ajiri checked with the University of Glasgow, however, they said they had never heard of such a person. IEW’s investigation lead to a correction on the think tank’s website stating that Rowhani had graduated from the less well known Glasgow Caledonian University.

The think tank, Iran’s Center for Strategic Research, later contacted Ajiri and demanded she take the story down, which she refused to do, but the impact was clear. Ajiri says Iranian politicians usually don’t notice stories published about them outside of Iran, and especially in English, but this one got their attention.

Ajiri plans to update IEW with the latest information and analysis on the elections with her colleagues until the new Iranian government is formed, at which point she says she’ll look for a new investigative website project.

“This is a small project,” said Ajiri. “But if people can really take this as an example and if they have the people and the budget to do such a thing, I think it is even maybe more helpful than writing something in Persian.”

--Emily Thompson

Tags:Iran, election, Denise Ajiri, Iran Election Watch

Two New Books From RFE/RL Journalists

Mircea Carp, former director of RFE/RL & VOA Romanian desks

Two Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists, Mircea Carp and Amirbek Usmanov, have recently published books. Carp’s autobiography, “This Is Mircea Carp. Let’s Hear Some Good News Too,” focuses on his life and career as a journalist, while Usmanov’s “Kyrgyzstan’s History Through the Eyes of Witnesses” delves into the history of Kyrgyz families displaced by Stalin in the 1930s.
“This is Mircea Carp. Let’s hear some good news too!” was Carp’s iconic sign-off that ended each of his broadcasts and interviews during his time at Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a period of Carp’s life that is treated in great detail in his memoir.
In an interview with Radio Europa Libera, RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service, Carp fondly remembers the fortuitous circumstances behind his first live broadcast.

“A lead broadcaster for VOA suddenly became ill, meaning there was no one to go live on the air,” Carp recalls. “I received a call from the program director, asking me if I dared to come on and read the news live for the first time.” Carp was greatly successful in this early attempt, and quickly became a regular voice at VOA.
After serving in the Romanian military in World War II, Carp was arrested in his homeland in 1947 for activities against the ruling Communist regime. After he was released from prison, he left Romania and crossed Soviet-controlled territory in Hungary and Austria before reaching American-controlled Salzburg, where accepted an offer from U.S. authorities and ultimately emigrated to the U.S. As Carp told Radio Europa Libera, “My mind was set on going... I managed to escape into the mountains, and then decided to join my fellow Romanians in exile in the West.”
Carp, who started at Voice of America in 1951 before moving to Radio Free Europe in the mid-1950s, is one of the most respected journalists to work in the region. To many Romanians, his voice was the one most associated with both Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts during the Communist regime. Over his long career, Carp covered many events of historical significance, from the 1977 Vrancea earthquake to the Romanian Revolution in 1989

Kyrgyz Families in Exile

In addition to Mircea Carp, Amirbek Usmanov has also recently published, “Kyrgyzstan’s History Through the Eyes of Witnesses.” Written along with Czech historian Petr Kokaisl, Usmanov focuses on Kyrgyz families living in exile in Ukraine after being forced to move by Stalin in the 1930s.
Usmanov’s work drew inspiration from his radio program, “Victims of Repression” and provides an in-depth look at the uniquestories of these families.Over the past several 
Kyrgyzstan’s History Through the Eyes of Witnesses. (Petr Kokaisl, Amirbek Usmanov)Kyrgyzstan’s History Through the Eyes of Witnesses. (Petr Kokaisl, Amirbek Usmanov)
Kyrgyzstan’s History Through the Eyes of Witnesses. (Petr Kokaisl, Amirbek Usmanov)
Kyrgyzstan’s History Through the Eyes of Witnesses. (Petr Kokaisl, Amirbek Usmanov)
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, has written and produced more than 30 programs devoted to the Kyrgyz victims of Stalin’s regime. Examples include pieces such as Repression of Ukrainian Victims and Victims of Stalin’s Repression.
Stalin’s autocratic design of the region’s borders has led to ethnic violence and instability between and within minority groups that continues to this day. The nomadic Kyrgyz populations have often been passed over and shifted around, leading to hundreds of Kyrgyz families being settled, for example, in southern Ukraine around the city of Kherson.
Extensive research was required of Usmanov to make this book possible. In tandem with local historians and sociologists, Usmanov performed on-site research in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine while also searching various Ukrainian archives. The team traveled to villages where hundreds of Kyrgyz families had been forced into exile and interviewed those with firsthand knowledge of this important and rarely explored facet of history.
Usmanov’s book features a series of witness accounts, interviews, and important documents and photos that build to tell the story of the repressed Kyrgyz people in the region. The book is being published in both Czech and Russian.

-- John McGregor

Tags:rfe/rl, Romania, Kyrgyzstan, Carp, Usmanov

Wife Of Former Belarus Service Director Shares Her ‘Adventures in Europe’

Joanne Stankievich is the author of the book Living With A Scent Of Danger: European Adventures At The Fall Of Communism.

Joanne Ivy Stankievich didn’t know what she was getting into when she agreed to accompany her husband Walter to Germany in 1988. He had just accepted a position as director of the Belarus Service at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which was then headquartered in Munich. The journey turned out to be quite a ride for the self-described “American farm girl,” as she witnessed the fall of Communism and the consequent sea change both in the geopolitical landscape and in ordinary people’s lives.

So rich was her experience that Stankievich recently published a book about her time in Europe, Living With A Scent Of Danger: European Adventures At The Fall Of Communism.

RFE/RL welcomed Joanne and Walter Stankievich to its Prague headquarters on Friday, May 10 for a lively and engaging conversation about his time as the Belarus Service director from 1988-2001 and her “adventures” living in Europe during such a pivotal period in its history.

“It was a wonderful opportunity because it was a time in history when everything was changing, and to be here at that time and to see the changes in the government and to go through some of the chaos, then to see the changes and the progress, that was one of the most rewarding times to go through that process,” said Stankievich.

Reading a passage from her book, Stankievich recounted her first impressions of RFE/RL, including her initial alarm at the strict security implemented after the 1981 bomb attack at the RFE/RL Munich headquarters -- later revealed to be the work of Carlos the Jackal and paid for by then-president of Romania Nicolae Ceauşescu.

Joanne Stankievich Reads An Excerpt From Her New Book
Joanne Stankievich Reads An Excerpt From Her New Booki
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In addition to Cold War dangers, dicey excursions behind the Iron Curtain and encounters with dissidents, the memoir also includes humorous anecdotes about cultural differences and funny gaffes the author, who is a self-confessed hopeless language student, inadvertently committed.

Stankievich’s memoir is available at online booksellers such as and The book’s proceeds go to the Monroe-Vilnia Foundation, an organization that promotes democracy in Eastern Europe, particularly in Belarus.

RFE/RL's Radio Svaboda, as the Belarus Service is locally known, is one of the leading news websites and one of the few news outlets accessible to Belarusians in their own language.

--Huzan Balay

Tags:Joanne Stankievich, Belarus Service, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, rfe/rl, Radio Svaboda, Fall of Communism

At 60, Kyrgyz Service Is Still Learning New Tricks

Though still popular on the airwaves, Azattyk is also known for its original TV programs.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service joined other Central Asian services in celebrating its 60th anniversary on March 18. Although recent years have seen political turbulence and ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, a new constitution passed in 2010 positions the country as one of the most democratic in the region. The Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, was there to see it all and has flourished in the emancipated media environment with TV and multi-media broadcasting, most notably with coverage of women’s issues, regional communities and ethnic minorities, and smart, topical youth programming.
In February, Azattyk visited a women’s prison in the village of Stepnoe near the capital Bishkek. The prison is home to approximately 300 inmates, many of whom came from Kyrgyzstan's southern region near the border with Tajikistan, a hotspot for drug trafficking. A number of the prisoners were serving sentences for transporting drugs as "mules."
The 15- to 20-hour bus journey to the prison is prohibitive for most of their families, but inmates are permitted to keep their children with them until the age of three. Kyrgyz Service reporter Eliza Kenenbaeva went behind the prison walls to interview the women about their hopes for their children and their own future.
Kyrgyz service photographer Ulan Asanaliev further documented the lives of the inmates and their children in striking black and white photos that were featured in RFE/RL's Facebook photo gallery. 

In October 2012, reporter Torokul Doorov of the Kyrgyz Service investigated the plight of poverty-stricken Kyrgyz families forced to push their children into hazardous jobs, like working in coal mines, to ward off poverty and hunger.

The resulting "Childhood in the Sulukta Coal Mines" uncovers the story of children who are tasked with hard labor and face numerous health hazards, and gives voice to these marginalized and abused children.


Reporter Torokul Doorov reports from the Sulukta Coal Mines
Reporter Torokul Doorov reports from the Sulukta Coal Minesi
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Azattyk has been broadcasting on television since 2005, but was initially relegated  to studio-only reports by the then-repressive Kyrgyz regime. Since Kyrgyzstan's April 2010 revolution, however, a freer media environment has allowed television to flourish and Azattyk now serves the changing market with original and engaging TV programming packed with exclusive field reporting both at home and abroad.

Inconvenient Questions” is a weekly 30-minute discussion program addresses the full spectrum of hot topics making the headlines in Kyrgyzstan. "Azattyk+" is another weekly 30-minute show and is targeted to young adults with pop music and edgy topics like gay rights, women’s issues, immigration and vignettes of daily lives.
With a crew of seven -- two cameramen, two producers and three presenters -- Azattyk's televised investigative reports from the capital Bishkek and surrounding regions inform audiences in unique and original formats.

Many of the outstanding reporters with the Kyrgyz Service have been recognized and honored internationally for their coverage of human rights and women’s issues. In 2011, Kyrgyz Service reporter Janyl Jusupjan was awarded a "Highly Commended" Diploma at the Association for International Broadcasting (AIB) Awards in London for her brave coverage of women victims' stories during the Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflict in June 2010, as seen in her seven-part series called “The Invisible Women of Osh.”

One article in the series paints a searing portrait of Kamilla, a woman who was raped during the ethnic clashes in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. As Jusupjan wrote, Kamilla "saw the worst of fate, lost a good part of her health, and now with no job, is unable to feed her children and lives hiding her shame from the entire world." Jusupjan’s report managed to be both sensitive and unflinching in covering a subject that is hidden under many layers of taboo in the conservative country.
In a related series called “Osh Diaries,” Jusupjan produced original audio, video and photo coverage of issues still facing the women of Osh months after the ethnic tumult had settled. The series also delved into the lingering trauma experienced by internally displaced people and small businesses, as well as ongoing problem of housing insecurity, a catalyst to the initial conflict. The series generated an incredible amount of traffic on the Kyrgyz Service’s website, as no other local media outlets were covering this terrible aspect of the clashes. As the only media outlet to cover the hardships of all ethnic groups with an even hand, Jusupjan's reports also generated threats from Kyrgyz nationalists.
Reporting from remote parts of the country and abroad, Jusupjan has documented the lives of Kyrgyz minorities living in neighboring countries, including in China and Tajikistan, countries not easily accessible for foreign journalists. She has also covered ethnic minorities living inside Kyrgyzstan, such as the Kalmyk people, the minority group pictured below. Like her reporting on the scars of the 2010 clashes born by all ethnic groups, her coverage of the Kalmyk people is the only work of its kind in Kyrgyzstan.


By going where other journalists will not go and documenting the issues that affect people’s lives over multiple mediums, the Kyrgyz Service continues to be an invaluable resource for audiences in Kyrgyzstan and abroad.
--Emily Thompson


Tags:rfe/rl, Kyrgyz Service, azattyk, Azattyk Plus, Inconvenient Questions

‘Viva Belarus!’ Shows Stalinism is Alive and Well

Belarusian musician Dzmitry (Vincent) Papko plays the leading role of army conscript Miron Zakharka in "Viva Belarus!"

“Viva Belarus!", a groundbreaking feature film from Polish director Krzysztof Lukaszewicz portraying the harsh life of nonconformist youth living under the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, premieres at Prague’s Febiofest on March 19. The film is loosely based on the experiences of Franak Viačorka, now a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), during his time as an army conscript and blogger using social media to push for democracy in Belarus. Viačorka, who co-wrote the screenplay, sat down with RFE/RL to discuss the film and the impact he hopes it will have.
RFE/RL: What did you set out to accomplish when you began writing the screenplay?
Franak Viačorka: First it was Lukaszewicz’s idea. We tried to show in 100 minutes the epoch that we call "Lukashism.” Maybe it’s hard to believe, but this is really what it looks like in Belarus now. It’s the rebirth of the Soviet Union. We want people in Europe and America to see that in the 21st century there is a country in Europe where people are treated the same as in Stalin’s time.

At a concert in Minsk, Miron inadvertently works the crowd into a freedom frenzy, landing himself in an army barracks.At a concert in Minsk, Miron inadvertently works the crowd into a freedom frenzy, landing himself in an army barracks.
At a concert in Minsk, Miron inadvertently works the crowd into a freedom frenzy, landing himself in an army barracks.
At a concert in Minsk, Miron inadvertently works the crowd into a freedom frenzy, landing himself in an army barracks.
RFE/RL: The film’s plot incorporates your own experiences and those of other democratic activists into one narrative. How are these particular experiences representative of what activists face in Belarus?
Viačorka: My part is based on my experiences when I was arrested and then drafted into the army, despite medical limitations, because of my political activities. I wrote a blog there and participated in elections. It’s also a story of love behind barricades. 22-year-old Young Front activist Nasta Palazhanka is waiting for her husband, who has been in prison for three years. She told me about [Belarusian] KGB prisons, where she spent several months herself after the 2010 elections, and you can see pieces of this portrayed in the film. It’s also a story about those same elections, in which seven of the 10 presidential candidates were imprisoned.

Viačorka talks about filming in Poland and sneaking props out of Belarus.
Viačorka talks about filming in Poland and sneaking props out of Belarus.i
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RFE/RL: The film also touches on the issue of Chernobyl, showing how the lack of transparent, democratic governance has led to the disenfranchisement of those living in the contaminated zone. Was the film a vehicle for demonstrating how the regime affects average people’s day-to-day lives?
Viačorka: Yes, and I think these stories resonate in other post-Soviet countries. Every country that lacks real democracy—Ukraine, Azerbaijan or Russia—has similar problems. At the same time, it is symptomatic of Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule that he tries to hide the problems at Chernobyl. Local officials act like local “Lukashenkas” to profit from the vulnerability of others.
Using a contraband phone, Miron blogs about hazing and poor sanitation in the army.Using a contraband phone, Miron blogs about hazing and poor sanitation in the army.
Using a contraband phone, Miron blogs about hazing and poor sanitation in the army.
Using a contraband phone, Miron blogs about hazing and poor sanitation in the army.
RFE/RL: After you met Lukaszewicz and got financial backing, the filming was done quite quickly, wasn’t it?
Viačorka: It was very fast because harsh things were—and still are—happening in Belarus.  Vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights and Nobel Nominee Ales Byalyatski was imprisoned. Presidential candidates were being tortured in prison, and my activist friends were persecuted by various means. I also had been threatened by the KGB. Movies can sometimes have a much bigger impact than political activities themselves. 
RFE/RL: Was it difficult to balance the political message and keep the film character-driven?
Viačorka: The characters address a lot of topics in the film, beyond the key issue of Lukashenka's regime. Less educated people swallow the bait of populism, but the youth that have access to the Internet want to live in a free country. Then, there is the problem of the conflict of values. The characters are normal young people. They want to be free, creative and happy in love, but their personal lives are grounded in these repressions. How does one avoid becoming part of the soulless machine of suppression? How does one keep dignity and love in one’s heart? The price is high.

Viačorka talks about his next project and the future of Belarusian film in Poland.
Viačorka talks about his next project and the future of Belarusian film in Poland.i
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RFE/RL: How did you deal with language in the film?
Viačorka: The hatred towards the Belarusian language is part of the Soviet psychology promoted by the regime. The dialogue in the film is in Russian and Belarusian, but the main characters speak Belarusian, and throughout the film they struggle just for the right to hear and speak their native language. Just by speaking Belarusian, people make a statement that they are opposed to the regime. It’s the first movie about modern Belarus in the Belarusian language. I hope the film will open the eyes of the world to this country.

The real life inspiration for the film, Franak Viačorka, in prison in February 2011.The real life inspiration for the film, Franak Viačorka, in prison in February 2011.
The real life inspiration for the film, Franak Viačorka, in prison in February 2011.
The real life inspiration for the film, Franak Viačorka, in prison in February 2011.
RFE/RL: And at home? Is there any chance of reaching viewers inside the country?
Viačorka: The film was outlawed in Belarus before it was even made. It was slandered by state-run media in advance. Some actors have been blacklisted. We held a screening in Belarus for the actors in December 2012 and nobody arrested us, but I don’t see any possibility for us to show this movie publicly in Belarus while Lukashenka is in power. We’ll try to organize some screenings near the border with Poland and Lithuania, since many Belarusians cross the border to shop. But the film is geared also toward foreigners—to remind them of what communism is and what its new incarnations can be. We hope the movie might lead decision-makers to understand that realpolitik helps with business, but doesn’t help people achieve freedom or prosperity.
--Emily Thompson

Tags:belarus, Viva Belarus, Franak viacorka, Febiofest, Lukaszewicz, poland, prague, radio free europe, rfe/rl, Dzmitry (Vincent) Papko, Belarus Service RFE/RL

A Salute to "RFE/RL’s Best of 2012”

Images from "RFE/RL's Best of 2012" award-winning reports.

Journalists working for RFE/RL take big risks to tell important stories. On January 24, a panel of their peers gave special recognition to five of the most compelling reports produced in 2012. They were chosen from among 36 winners of RFE/RL's bi-monthly in-house competitions and honored at a "Best of RFE/RL"  ceremony at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters.

Winners were selected by a panel of judges chaired by Regional Director Nenad Pejic and consisting of Daisy Sindelar of Central News, Salome Asatiani of the Georgian Service, Janyl Jusupjan of the Kyrgyz Service, and Daud Khan of Radio Mashaal.

The award-winning reports are highlighted below.

# Radio Svoboda correspondent Irina Chevtayeva won for her story "Как я полюбила Путина за 500 рублей" ("How I Fell In Love With Putin For 500 Rubles"), for which she posed as a participant in a February 4, 2012 demonstration in support of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's bid for a second term as president. Chevtayeva exposed Putin campaign middlemen who advertised that they were looking for "movie extras," and offered food, alcohol, and even cash to court rally participants--many of whom left the demonstration in disgust when they didn't receive payment. "Like a good Russian novel, Chevtayeva's article is a masterpiece of absurdity," said Sindelar. "But this is a real story, and her telling of it is clear-eyed, brave, and utterly original."

# Torokul Doorov of Radio Azattyk visited the Sulukta coal mines in southern Kyrgyzstan to report on the poverty-stricken families forced to send their children to work mining coal for his radio documentary, "Шахтадагы балалык" ("Childhood in the Sulukta Coal Mines"). As Doorov noted in his acceptance speech, not long after his story aired, several NGOs and children's charities operating in Kyrgyzstan told him of their redoubled efforts to keep children out of the mines in Sulukta.

# Vahid Pour Ostad of Radio Farda was recognized for his radio documentaries "Solitary Confinement" (link to audio in Persian) and "Born In Prison" (link to English article), for the stories of Iranian political prisoners. The judges commended Pour Ostad for the "remarkably minimalist and simple form" of his reporting on these "horrific stories." As Radio Farda Editor in Chief Niusha Boghrati said, "There are un-imaginable methods of demoralizing and breaking down the political prisoners, practiced in each of [the prisons]. And for each prison and each method, there are hundreds of unheard stories."

# Central Newsroom reporter Richard Solash and Radio Tavisupleba Tbilisi Bureau chief Marina Vashakmadze won for their collaboration on the story "For U.S. Athlete and Georgian Birth Family, A Past And Present Revealed," about a Georgian mother, forced by poverty to give up her disabled daughter at birth, who recently learned that her daughter, Elizabeth Stone, had achieved international success as a Paralympic athlete with the support of her adoptive parents in the United States. "The Stones told me that they are saving up to travel to Georgia to meet the [birth family]. Perhaps they'll go this summer," said Solash. "If so, it will be a chance for another great, human story."

# The staff of Radio Mashaal was honored for their team coverage of the Pakistani Taliban's October attack on schoolgirl and girls' education activist Malala Yousafzai. Though the story quickly went global, Radio Mashaal was among the first to report on the assassination attempt and provided continuing coverage that was "original, directly-sourced, and infused with an intimate understanding of the region, the issue, and Malala herself, [something] that few media outlets were able to provide."

Honorable mention went to Natiq Zeynalov of the Azerbaijani Service for innovation in data visualization with his interactive infographics, and to Sabawoon of Radio Free Afghanistan's Kabul bureau for enterprising video journalism.

RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established, and provides what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.

-- Emily Thompson

Tags:best of rfe/rl, Radio Mashaal, Radio Tavisupleba, Radio Svoboda, Radio Farda, Radio Azatlyk, Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadi


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