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East/West: Radio Free Europe Marks 50 Years Supporting Democracy

Fifty years ago this week, the United States sent into the ether a new weapon. Its founders called it Radio Free Europe and dispatched it to do battle in the Cold War between the forces of freedom and democracy and the forces of totalitarianism and communism. Soviet-style communism collapsed more than 10 years ago, but RFE and its sister station Radio Liberty continue -- with a new mission. Correspondent Don Hill traces RFE/RL's past and contemplates the future of a unique voice for democracy.

Prague, 2 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 1 May 1951, a group of people gathered in a new radio broadcast studio in Munich and beamed toward communist Czechoslovakia -- whose barbed-wire border stood only 210 km away -- what they believed to be a message of hope.

One of those present was Ferdinand Peroutka, a prominent Czech journalist and former associate of Tomas Masaryk, the founder and first president of democratic Czechoslovakia. In Radio Free Europe's first regular broadcast, Peroutka -- named chief editor for RFE's Czechoslovakia Service -- established the voice of RFE's early years.

Peroutka compared the tyrants of 1951 to ancient tyrants -- unfavorably. He said: "Ancient tyrants were, at least, more sincere. They did not care about their victims after they crushed them." Peroutka added: "The present-day tyrant does two things at the same time: He tortures the nation and orders it to smile."

Peroutka promised that words of truth soon would conquer the forces of subjugation:

"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."

Events proved Peroutka both right and wrong. Radio Free Europe did contribute to a victory over communist subjugation of Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But this outcome was not soon realized. It was nearly 40 eventful years later that, one by one, the communist systems of the Soviet Union and its satellites fell.

In between, there were major events for the radio. In 1953, its sister station Radio Liberty was founded, with its broadcasts aimed at the Soviet Union. Three years later, during the Hungarian revolution of 1956, RFE itself hit a low point in its Hungarian-language programming on the uprising. In the 1970s, Soviet-U.S. detente and the Helsinki Final Act changed the atmosphere for both radios. And among their finest achievements were consistent support for Polish democrats and Soviet dissidents in the 1970s and '80s and their programming on the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Arch Puddington, a senior RFE/RL staff member from 1985 to 1993, last year published "Broadcasting Freedom -- the Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty." In his book -- which is not an authorized history -- Puddington applauds the radios and also critiques their first 40 years. In an interview, he tells our correspondent that RFE's early broadcasts often were boldly partisan.

"[In] the early years of Radio Free Europe, the broadcasts were marked by some heavy polemics. Those who were responsible for the establishment of Radio Free Europe saw the purpose as to conduct what was called political warfare."

One example of where the radios may have overstepped was Hungary in 1956. In October that year, Hungarians rose up against their communist government. But by early November Soviet invaders had crushed the Hungarian revolution and re-established communist rule. Some U.S. and European observers said that RFE's Hungarian programming had been inflammatory, and a few even pressured West Germany to expel the radios from the country. Others charged that RFE had instigated the revolution and had promised U.S. military support that never was forthcoming.

Author Puddington examines the criticism minutely in his book and exonerates RFE from the most extravagant of the charges. But he concludes that RFE's Hungarian Service's broadcasts in the autumn of 1956 were unfortunate.

"The Hungarian Service -- its performance was in many ways quite irresponsible. It had [one] broadcast that tutored the Hungarian freedom fighters on the methods of guerilla warfare. It encouraged them to fight on at a time when it was clear they had been beaten."

One of the results of the Hungarian programming was that RFE overhauled its methods of operation, placing greater emphasis on the professional journalistic values of factual and impartial reporting and on separating news from commentary and advocacy. In the 1 May 1951, broadcast, one speaker described RFE's mission as "a fighting and political mission" to defeat communism and Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. But RFE/RL's published mission statement in 2001 retains no hint of polemics. It reads: "The mission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is to promote democratic values and institutions by disseminating factual information and ideas."

RFE/RL President Tom Dine says he believes that the radios now adhere to a standard of fair and impartial journalism unsurpassed by any public or commercial publication or broadcaster.

The first part of Peroutka's prophetic boast in the 1951 pioneer broadcast -- that the spoken word would make communists uneasy -- proved to be true over and over again. RFE won praise for its coverage of the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Warsaw Pact invasion that followed, and undoubtedly discomfited the Soviets. In the 1970s and '80s, Radio Free Europe and sister station Radio Liberty functioned as surrogate free radios, giving dissidents in its broadcast areas outlets for their views unavailable in any other forum.

During the warming of the Cold War in the mid-'70s, the Soviet Union revised a dormant proposal for a pan-European security conference. The Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975 by 35 communist and Western governments, provided for cooperation in security, economics, and technology, and humanitarian matters.

Some Westerners said the Soviet bloc came out winners because the Helsinki Accords affirmed the postwar division of Europe. It turned out that this concession paled in significance next to an almost casual concession by the communists.

From RFE/RL broadcasts, the people of communist states learned that their governments had agreed to a number of basic rights, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. These rights had been promised them by the communist regimes, but their inclusion in a crucial East-West accord sewed the seeds of a real democratic flowering. Hundreds of people in communist nations formed Helsinki associations to monitor their governments' performance under the agreement. The radios gave them both information and the means of being heard.

When Poland's communist government legitimized Lech Walesa's Solidarity trade union in 1980, RFE/RL's Polish Service paid close attention, reporting on Solidarity's activities and personalities and commenting on its achievements.

RFE/RL chronicler Puddington says that the aftermath of a disaster on 26 April 1986, was a historic turning point for the radios.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had promised the world "glasnost" -- a new candor and openness -- in Soviet policy. But when one of the four reactors at Ukraine's Chornobyl nuclear power plant exploded, sending radioactive clouds across much of Europe, candor was one of the major victims. The Soviet Union and its press at first hid the disaster and continued to obfuscate long afterwards.

As Puddington wrote in his book, "This would be one of RFE/RL's finest hours." The radios performed as the communist information apparatus did not. They reported the news calmly and factually, avoiding scare reports published by Western media. They aired service programs instructing people in Ukraine and beyond in decontamination and protective measures.

In June 1989 in Poland, Solidarity won Poland's first free postwar election and cracked the communist monopoly. Other Eastern peoples then publicly opposed their governments. East Germany opened the Berlin Wall. The three Baltic states -- Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- declared independence, while Gorbachev was embroiled in subduing an abortive coup. In December 1991, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus declared the Soviet Union dead.

In November 1989, U.S. President George Bush invited Walesa to the White House to receive the United States' Medal of Freedom. In his speech for the occasion, Bush made -- and RFE/RL broadcast -- these remarks:

"And the Iron Curtain is fast becoming a rusted, abandoned relic, symbolizing a lost era, a failed ideology. And the change is everywhere -- Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. [And] ladies and gentleman, the week that brought Lech Walesa to America is a week that headlines proclaimed, 'And the Wall Comes Tumbling Down.'"

The radios have faced severe challenges on several occasions over their 50 years -- notably, the criticism after the Hungarian revolution and the detente period of the 1970s. But the closest they came to shutting down operations was after the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, many Americans had been surprised by revelations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency provided most of RFE's and all of Radio Liberty's funding [until 1972]. But by 1990, the CIA connection had long been severed. RFE/RL was an independent corporation, wholly and openly funded by the U.S. Congress. Many congressmen saw little need to continue appropriating funds for what they saw as a Cold War entity after the Cold War had ended. They sponsored a non-binding Congressional resolution that U.S. government financing of RFE/RL would end with the year 1999.

But the post-Soviet years demonstrated that the end of communism did not result in the automatic success of democracy in the transition nations. In free elections, some electorates elevated tyrants. Governments in fledgling democracies suppressed the news media. Free markets in countries inexperienced in the rule of law led to widespread corruption and popular disillusionment.

Accordingly, the U.S. Congress decided there was a continuing need for surrogate broadcasting -- demonstrating to nations in transition from communism what their news media could be doing if only they were fully stable and free. Arch Puddington, who remains a critic, friend, and observer of the radios, puts it this way:

"I always believed that the radios' job would be done when, in a particular country, you had a stable free press. And in most of these (post-communist) countries you do not have a stable free press. You have a press that is semi-free and quite unstable."

For his part, RFE/RL President Tom Dine says the need for the work of surrogate radios in the transition nations extends into a distant future, when democracy and free markets will have triumphed over autocracy and central control of national economies.

"We have not reached that day yet. We are still in transition. We are still closer to what was in 1980-1985-1989 than [we are to] what will be."

Dine says there will be a need for the radios, as he puts it:

"Until people can settle their affairs respecting human rights, civil rights, peoples' rights."

RFE/RL is today headquartered in Prague and broadcasts in 26 languages. Its mission continues.

(Please also see 30 April Weekday Magazine: RFE/RL Celebrating 50 Years Of Broadcasting)