Radio Free Europe celebrates 60 years of broadcasting

RFE studio in Munich, Germany

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the official launch of Radio Free Europe, the American-funded broadcaster which was established as an anti-communist source of information during the Cold War and is widely considered to have played a critical role in the ultimate collapse of communism. Now based in Prague, Radio Free Europe continues to provide news and information to countries where independent media reporting is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed. In this edition of Panorama, we look back at the history of Radio Free Europe, which is widely respected in many quarters, although it also has its detractors.

RFE studio in Munich,  Germany
For many Czechs and Slovaks, Radio Free Europe – or RFE as it is often known – is synonymous with the communist era.

Initially established by an anti-communist organisation in America, which aimed to foster the democratic tradition of free speech in parts of Europe that came under the tight grip of communism after the Second World War, it actually made its first broadcast to this country in 1950, before beginning transmissions to all of the Eastern Bloc a year later.

It subsequently began broadcasting to the Soviet Union under the name Radio Liberty in 1953.

Teams of journalists, mostly consisting of political émigrés, were assembled for each language section. They quickly set about gathering information about events in the respective countries, often sourcing it from interviews with well-connected exiles and defectors.

For many living under communism, the broadcasts were a welcome counterpoint to the monolithic, hard-line socialist media that existed in their own countries, and the station quickly attracted many listeners.

This fact was not lost on the communist authorities, who did their utmost to disrupt RFE’s operations. Vast amounts of money were spent trying to jam its signals and many communist states also sent agents to infiltrate the station.

The Czechoslovak secret service even tried unsuccessfully to poison the salt cellars in the station’s canteen.

Michal Stehlík,  photo: Martin Kutil
In 1981, a bomb planted by the infamous terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal exploded at RFE’s headquarters in Munich, causing 2 million USD in damage and injuring several members of staff. The bomb was later discovered to have been paid for by the Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

Charles University’s Dean of History Michal Stehlík says the efforts made by communist governments to hamper RFE offer the best proof that the station’s mission was very successful:

“The very fact that the regime strongly indicated that it didn’t want this information getting through by blocking the transmissions clearly showed that it had a big impact.

“It had a huge impact in the 1950s when it started providing information and beating the information blockade that was in place. It also had a big impact at the end of the 1980s, when for financial and technical reasons the regime stopped jamming the signal and a flow of information came that people had not had otherwise.

“It’s hard to quantify in percentages what it fundamentally influenced, but one could say that at the end of the 1980s this flood of information definitely contributed to the situation that existed in society.”

Despite its proclaimed mission of providing free media in unfree countries, RFE was often accused of merely being a mouthpiece for Western propaganda.

This claim was actually given some credence in 1956 when the people of Budapest took to the streets in an attempt to overthrow the country’s communist regime. After this uprising was eventually crushed by Soviet tanks, RFE’s Hungarian service was widely condemned for allegedly fanning the flames of the disastrous insurrection by falsely giving people hope of Western military assistance.

Julian Knapp
However, RFE’s deputy director of communications, Julian Knapp, says that there was ultimately no real truth behind these claims, although the station’s coverage of events had been far from ideal:

“While there does seem to be a consensus that RFE’s reporting at the time did stir up people who were trying to stand up to the regime and overthrow it, looking at transcripts of the broadcasts now, historians seem to have come to the consensus that, although the reporting was sometimes emotional and the lines between the professional, independent, detached journalist and people on the ground were a little bit blurred, nonetheless there were no instances of incitement or provoking people to stand up to the regime.”

Although it was cleared of being directly responsible for events in Hungary, the controversy surrounding the country’s doomed anti-communist revolution prompted RFE’s management to urge more caution in its broadcasts.

The station also set up a special analysis division to ensure its reporting was professional and objective. Despite its efforts to provide a more neutral news service, RFE still regularly had to endure criticism that it was merely a tool for American propaganda.

Further weight was lent to these claims when it emerged in the 1960s that the station was receiving covert funding from the CIA. The ensuing media scandal briefly threatened the existence of RFE, before the matter was resolved when Congress decided to openly fund the service in 1972, an arrangement which still exists to this day.

RFE in Munich,  Germany
Julian Knapp says this now means the station can be perceived as a state-funded but independent news organisation akin to the BBC and with a similar level of credibility. Although this official US funding for RFE presumably means that it serves American geopolitical interests, it does so by simply following the standards one associates with a free democratic press"

“It is very important to note that while RFE is funded by the US Congress, we are editorially independent and that is enshrined in the legislation.

"The ultimate idea [behind it], which might seem counterintuitive to some, but which actually makes sense, is that audiences are very, very smart and they will be able to distinguish whether you are trying to convince them of something or are just reporting and leaving it up to them to decide.

“Someone said sixty years ago when RFE was founded that really truth is the best propaganda. That’s the maxim that we adhere to and we really do provide independent reporting. We are sometimes favourable to the US and at other times we are quite critical of the US when it is deserved, just like we would be of any other government. We are simply doing good, solid journalism as best we can.”

RFE’s efforts to provide objective and reliable news have ensured that it does enjoy a high level of credibility in its broadcast regions.

During the Cold War, this credibility was enhanced by its coverage of events such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. For days following a reactor meltdown at the Ukrainian power plant, the radio station was one of the few media outlets that provided vital safety information at a time when Soviet state media was trying to play down the incident.

Pavel Pecháček
Moreover, when communism was finally swept away in Eastern Europe by a wave of popular protest in 1989, Radio Free Europe played a key role in keeping people in the region abreast of events as they progressed at a breathtaking pace.

Unlike the Hungarian situation in 1956, however, the former director of RFE’s Czechoslovak service Pavel Pecháček says the station rigidly adhered to its objective reporting policy in its effort to provide credible information whilst ensuring that any change came from the people themselves:

“Just before the Velvet Revolution, I was repeatedly telling our people to just inform, inform, inform. I told them not to do anything based on their emotions or anything that could provoke something or which would not be appropriate at that particular time.

“I told them that our information was important, but that it would have to be people from Czechoslovakia who were living in the country who would change things when they felt it was the time to do so. We couldn’t order them to it.”

Ironically, despite its efforts to provide reliable information, a mistaken report by RFE/RL's Czechoslovak service is credited with helping to precipitate the demise of the country’s communist regime.

When it wrongly reported that a young protestor had been killed during clashes with police, it inspired many ordinary Czechoslovak citizens to join subsequent student-led demonstrations, and these mass protests eventually brought down the communist government.

However, Michal Stehlik says that in the long term, it was constant efforts of RFE’s émigré journalists to disseminate information and provide a platform for civic discourse during the long decades of communism which ultimately played a bigger role in laying some of the foundations for the Velvet Revolution:

“On the one hand Radio Free Europe was the biggest success of the Czech émigré community in terms of its historical role. On the other hand, it was an extraordinary and unique source of information and proof of the fact that émigré journalism and freedom of speech had deep roots from the time of the First Republic.

“In terms of history, it also offers evidence that information has much greater value, power and strength than army divisions. In this sense, if I were to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that Radio Free Europe was a unique historical phenomenon in our country in the 20th century.”

Julian Knapp says Radio Free Europe’s Radio Liberty service was also to the fore when communism eventually collapsed in Russia itself in 1991.

“In 1991, Radio Free Europe’s Russian service, or rather Radio Liberty’s Russian service played a key role during the major tensions at the time in the Soviet Union between people around Gorbachev, who were trying to implement some changes move the country more towards openness and democracy and others who were against this.

“The media at the time were still very much under the control of the anti-democracy forces. And Radio Liberty was one of the only sources of information available. It played a key role in promoting democracy there.

RFE building in Prague
“And it is perhaps symbolic that one of Boris Yeltsin’s very first decrees was to allow the opening of a Radio Free Europe bureau in Moscow. This showed how much he valued the service our broadcasters provided there.”

The fact that former Czech president Václav Havel invited Radio Free Europe to move its offices from Munich to Prague in the 1990s is also indicative of how much he appreciated the role the station played in keeping the spirit of democracy alive in this country.

Although the Cold War is over, Radio Free Europe continues to operate today in places like Russia, the North Caucus region, Central Asia and the Balkans. Although it has a much more complex mission nowadays than it did during the bipolar certainties of the Cold War,

Julian Knapp says RFE is still trying to remain faithful to its original mission to provide a surrogate free press in countries where independent media outlets are banned by the government or not fully established:

“Today, RFE broadcasts in 21 countries. In 18 of these countries we are fully accredited. So we have local bureaus, local correspondents and we work like any other media organisation in these countries.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not challenging or that reporting in these countries isn’t challenging or sometimes even dangerous for journalists, but nonetheless we operate there freely and openly.

“Three countries in our portfolio don’t allow us a local presence – Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All three of these countries are at the very bottom of international media freedom and human rights rankings. In these countries, it’s a little trickier.

“So we have informal relationships with correspondents and we do our best to get information from people in the country to help with our reporting. It’s challenging, of course, but we do our best.”