Monday, August 29, 2016

Then And Now: Free Media In Unfree Societies

  • A broadcast from the first RFE studio in Munich, where RFE began broadcasting in May 1951.
  • From 1953 to 1956 RFE floated balloons from West Germany filled with news reports over the Iron Curtain.
  • Radio Liberation Journalist Valerian Obolensky in the 1950s. Radio Liberation (later Radio Liberty) began broad casting to the Soviet Union in 1953, which Radio Free Europe focused on Soviet satellite countries. The two entities merged in 1976 as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
  • Former U.S. First Lady and Human Rights Champion Eleanor Roosevelt sits down for an interview in the late 1950s with Radio Liberty.
  • In RFE's early days, the 1956 Hungarian revolution provided one of the first challenges for RFE journalists.
  • Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower talks with RFE director C. Rodney Smith in front of a map showing RFE's broadcasting area in the early 1960s.
  • Germany -- Czechoslovak Service Broadcaster Rozina Jadrna prepares a music program in the 1960s. RFE/RL’s programming included, and still includes, cultural items not accessible to people in its broadcast region.
  • U.S. journalist Walter Cronkite narrates a film about RFE commissioned by the National Committee for a Free Europe in the 1960s.
  • Future U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is interviewed by RFE in 1962.
  • During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, RFE was the main source of reliable information.
  • Aftermath of the February 1981 terrorist bombing at the RFE/RL headquarters in Munich.
  • The master control room of the RFE/RL Munich headquarters, 1980s.
  • Broadcaster Maryam Ahmadi reads the first news broadcast of the new Radio Farda, RFE's service to Iran, December 2002.
  • Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel speaks at the 10th anniversary of RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague, 2005.
  • A correspondent from RFE/RL's service to Kyrgyzstan interviews rural Kyrgyz women.
  • Maksim Kapran, a correspondent from RFE/RL's service to Belarus, covers a protest as riot police march to shut it down.
  • RFE/RL's Afghan Service interviews locals in Helmand Province who have been displaced from their villages.
  • During the August 2008 Russo-Georgian War, RFE/RL's coverage was widely heralded.
  • RFE/RL's Armenian Service correspondent Ruzanna Stepanian covers a standoff between police and demonstrators in Yerevan.
  • Famed Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya is interviewed by RFE's Russian Service before her murder in 2006.
  • RFE/RL's Akbar Ayazi moderated the first ever debate between Afghan presidential candidates, August 2009.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits RFE's new headquarters in Prague, April 2009.
  • A young girl in Azerbaijan talks to an RFE/RL correspondent.
  • Radio Azadi employee looks at letters sent in to the radio station by Afghan listeners.
  • RFE/RL conducting radio distribution in Shaidave Province Afghanistan on October 25, 2010
  • Ukraine--RFE/RL Ukrainian Service Correspondent Levko Stek near Debalcevo, eastern Ukraine. September, 2014. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service has provided leading coverage of the war in Ukraine.


Established at the beginning of the Cold War to transmit uncensored news and information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) played a significant role in the collapse of communism and the rise of democracies in post-communist Europe.

Many East European and Russian leaders, including Vaclav Havel and Boris Yeltsin, have testified to the importance of RFE and RL broadcasts in helping end the Cold War. Former Estonian President Lennart Meri nominated RFE/RL for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Today, RFE/RL is one of the most comprehensive media organizations in the world, producing radio, Internet and television programs in countries where a free press is either banned by the government or not fully established. RFE/RL broadcasts in in 28 languages in 21 countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and the Cental Asian Republics. 





Established After the Second World War




A broadcaster prepares a music program.

Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), originally separate organizations, were conceived by George F. Kennan (United States Department of State) and Frank G. Wisner (Office of Policy Coordination, later the United States Central Intelligence Agency) to utilize the talents of post-World War II Soviet and East European émigrés in support of American foreign policy.

RFE was founded in 1950 and initially broadcast to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Three years later, RL began broadcasting to the Soviet Union in Russian and 15 other national languages. RFE/RL began broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1975 (click here for list of all the language services history).

Initially, both RFE and RL were funded principally by the U.S. Congress through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but RFE also received supplemental private donations.

In 1971, all CIA involvement ended and thereafter RFE and RL were funded by Congressional appropriation through the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB) and after 1995 the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The two corporations were merged into RFE/RL, Inc. in 1976.




A Substitute For What Countries Behind the Iron Curtain Lacked

In the first years of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty adopted more confrontational editorial policies than other Western broadcasters. The broadcasts produced in accordance with these policies did not promote uprisings and, after 1953, emphasized evolutionary system change.





RFE interviews singer Tom Jones at the height of his popularity, 1968.

In what came to be called “surrogate” broadcasting, RFE and RL provided an unbiased, professional substitute for the free media that countries behind the Iron Curtain lacked. Unlike other Western broadcasters, the programs focused on local news not covered in state-controlled domestic media as well as religion, science, sports, Western music and locally banned literature and music.

The “radios” provided news, features and music aimed at communist and non-communist elites as well as the general population. RFE and RL also gave a voice to dissidents and opposition movements that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, would emerge as leaders of the new post-communist democracies.

The programs were produced primarily at the radios’ Munich headquarters and broadcast on shortwave and medium wave transmitters from Germany, Spain, Portugal, and, until the early 1970s, Taiwan.

One of the greatest challenges for RFE and RL was to operate in information-poor environments. To this end, they carefully monitored print and electronic media of the Soviet bloc and interviewed travelers and defectors in field bureaus throughout the world. They also gathered information from regime opponents, often at great personal risk, and cultivated ties with Western journalists reporting from the countries RFE and RL covered.

The radios established research departments to support broadcasting, but their research and analytic reports also served many Western observers as a major source of reliable information about the communist bloc.  RFE and RL’s programs were so comprehensive that communist authorities relied on secret transcripts of the broadcasts for information they could not obtain from local media they controlled.





Jamming And Bombs

At the same time, regimes launched technical, espionage, diplomatic, and propaganda offensives intended to discredit the broadcasts. Stalin personally ordered the establishment of local and long-distance jamming facilities to try to block broadcasts. The radios utilized high power and multiple frequencies to overcome jamming.





The aftermath of a terrorist bombing of the RFE headquarters in Munich, 1981.

The Soviet KGB and Warsaw Pact intelligence services penetrated the stations, jailed sources and even resorted to violence in attempts to intimidate RFE and RL staff. For example, Bulgarian Service correspondent Georgi Markov was murdered in London in 1978, evidently by Bulgarian intelligence. In 1981, a terrorist bomb paid for by Romanian security services exploded at RFE/RL's headquarters in Munich, West Germany, injuring six and causing one million dollars in damage to the building.

Emboldened by the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, increasing numbers of dissidents and other regime opponents began to challenge the communist system. As the leading international broadcaster in many countries behind the Iron Curtain, RFE and RL provided a “megaphone” through which independent figures—denied normal access to local media—could reach millions of their countrymen with uncensored writings.

One such leader, Nobel laureate Lech Walesa, told an audience in 1989 that the role played by the Radios in Poland's struggle for freedom "cannot even be described. Would there be earth without the sun?"





Mission Complete?

With the collapse of Communism, some thought RFE/RL had fulfilled its mission and could be disbanded. But officials throughout Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, many of them former dissidents, saw a continuing need for precisely the kind of objective broadcasts that RFE/RL provided, especially during democratic transition.  Czech President Vaclav Havel spoke for many when he said, "we need your professionalism and your ability to see events from a broad perspective."





The master control room at the Munich headquarters in the 1980s.

As the new governments grappled with the challenges of building new democracies from 1989 onwards, RFE/RL established local bureaus throughout its broadcast region, trained local journalists, and served as a model of the journalistic ethics of fairness and factual accuracy for developing local media.

As many countries from the former Soviet sphere became democracies and some joined NATO and the European Union, RFE/RL fulfilled its mission in several places. The Hungarian service was closed in 1993, the Polish service in 1997, and Czech broadcasts (produced in cooperation with Czech Public Radio since 1995) ended in 2002

Subsequently, broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria were closed in 2004, and most recently RFE/RL’s broadcasts to Romania ended in 2008.





Reaching New Audiences

At the same time, RFE/RL launched several new broadcast services in the past decade and a half. Responding to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, RFE/RL began broadcasting in Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian to the Yugoslav successor states in early 1994, in Albanian to Kosovo in 1999 and in Macedonian and Albanian to Macedonia in 2001.

Reflecting American attention to the greater Middle East, RFE/RL began broadcasting in Arabic to Iraq and in Persian to Iran in 1998; after 2002 the broadcasts to Iran continued as Radio Farda.

In 2002, RFE/RL resumed broadcasts in Dari and Pashto to Afghanistan that had begun in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation. Also in 2002, Radio Liberty reinstated braodcasts in Avar, Chechen and Circassian to the North Caucasus (three of the North Caucasus broadcast languages during the 1950s and 1960s).

On January 15th 2010, RFE/RL began broadcasting in the local Pashto dialects to Pakistan and the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan in an effort to provide an alternative to Islamic extremist radio stations.

Radio Mashaal covers local and international news with in-depth reports on terrorism, politics, women's issues, and health care. The station features roundtable discussions and interviews with tribal leaders and local policymakers in addition to regular call-in programs aimed at giving listeners the opportunity to be heard.





A New State Of The Art Headquarters in Prague

Facing massive funding cuts that precluded continued operations in Germany, RFE/RL accepted the invitation of Czech President Vaclav Havel and



RFE/RL's new headquarters in Prague.

Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and relocated its broadcasting center to the former Czechoslovak parliament building in Prague in 1995. For over 13 years, RFE/RL called this former communist headquarters its home, until 2009, when RFE/RL relocated to a custom built, state-of-the-art building just outside the city center.


Compiled by A. Ross Johnson, December 2008.  A. Ross Johnson is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is also Senior Advisor to the President of RFE/RL, Inc., and was formerly Director of Radio Free Europe.

RFE/RL History, Resources, and Archives

Books About RFE/RL

Read about RFE, RL and the impact of The Radios' broadcasts to the countries of the Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Union.

RFE/RL Archives Web-Page

Information on broadcast archives, corporate records, and the archives of the former RFE/RL Research Institute and links to events and exhibits linked to the legacy of RFE and RL.

Hoover Institution Archive

Periodic postings of information about and items from the RFE/RL Collection, as well as links to RFE/RL archive collections in seven countries..

OSA RFE/RL Collections

The audio archives of RFE/RL's Russian Service (1953-1995), decrypted Free Europe Committee telex messages (1960-1964), and seven other RFE/RL research collections totaling more than 103,000 items, have been posted to OSA's Digital Repository.

Cold War Radios

Periodic postings on stories and other events from RFE/RL's history written by Richard Cummings, former RFE/RL Director of Security.

CWIHP RFE/RL Documents Collection

A collection of declassified U.S. government documents related to the early (CIA-era) history of RFE and RL.

Radio Liberty Oral History Project (Columbia Univeristy)

In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, in 1965 Radio Liberty and the Institute for the Study of the U.S.S.R. in Munich collected memoirs of participants in the events of 1917. The material presents a broad political, social, economic and cultural panorama of Russia at that time.

RFE Romanian Service Archive

“Historical Archive of Radio Free Europe," in Romanian, with selected audio and transcriptions of historic RFE Romanian Service programs.

Andrzej Borzym's RFE/RL History

Andrzej Borzym’s web site devoted to RFE  Polish Service and general RFE/RL history (English).

Cold War Broadcasting Research Group

A public forum to facilitate communication among scholars, archivists, and others working on Cold War Broadcasting history, esp. RFE & RL.

RFE/RL Language Services and Broadcast languages

A list of dates for every service and language that RFE/RL has ever broadcast in its history.