No One Is Afraid To Talk To Us Anymore: Radio Free Europe In 1989

9 October 2019
Zydrone Krasauskiene

1989 – before and after: how RFE reported not just on the revolutionary developments in Central and Eastern Europe at the time, but also from the region directly.

Our timeline is based on RFE Director (1988-91) A. Ross Johnson’s account titled “No One is Afraid to Talk to Us Anymore: Radio Free Europe in 1989”. It was published in the book “The End and the Beginning: The Revolutions of 1989 and the Resurgence of History” (Central European University Press Budapest- New York, March 2012).

The photos and clips in the timeline are from Ross Johnson’s archives, from the BIB (Board of International Broadcasting) Annual Reports, and from “Shortwaves” — an internal RFE/RL publication back at the time; some are agency pictures.

05:05, 27 April 1988

RFE Polish Service correspondent Maciej Morawski, calling from Paris, was able to interview Polish dissident Jacek Kuron by phone, as the secret police broke into his apartment and arrested him in Poland. RFE had the interview on air ten minutes later.

In 1988, RFE was able to interview by telephone 190 prominent Poles living in Poland, and regularly aired reports by informal correspondents inside Poland itself. A. Ross Johnson writes that RFE Polish Service head Marek Latynski noted in an internal RFE/RL memorandum in early 1988: “there is no curtain of silence anymore. Nobody is afraid to talk to us”.

November 1988

Toomas Hendrick Ilves, head of RFE’s Estonian Service, who later became president of Estonia, was able to interview dissidents on the ground in Tallinn.

Photo: clip from “Shortwaves”

21:00, 29 November 1988

For the first time in history, all RFE/RL broadcasts were free from jamming as Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, the last two remaining countries to continue interfering with the broadcast of the Radios, turned off their jammers.

The move by the Czechoslovak and Bulgarian governments to halt jamming followed the decision by the Soviet Union on November 29, 1988 to end more than 35 years of jamming of RFE/RL.

Technical monitors at RFE/RL headquarters in Munich indicated that jamming had ceased at 21:00 CET on November 29. Reports inside the Soviet Union were now heard loud and clear. Photo: clip from “Shortwaves”

February 1989

Following a visit to Hungary by RFE/RL President E. Eugene Pell in October 1988, Hungarian Service editor Lavente Kasza was interviewed in a local newspaper.

April 1989

RFE’s Polish Service provided comprehensive coverage of the Polish ‘roundtable’ discussions between representatives of the Communist regime and the Solidarity movement. The Service’s head Marek Latynski broadcast a series of measured commentaries on the talks.

Solidary was legalized on April 16. Later, the Service provided a media platform for non-Communist Party candidates in the June parliamentary elections -- candidates who had been blacklisted by the state media -- , and by doing so contributed to making those elections freer and fairer.

Photo: Polish ‘roundtable’ between representatives of the regime and Solidarity

April 10, 1989

In a letter to RFE’s Czechoslovak Service Director by Charter 77, Spokespersons Tomas Hradilek, Dana Nemcova and Sasa Vondra offered a number of concrete program suggestions.

A. Ross Johnson: “A new relationship developed between RFE and the opposition movements in the region. Earlier, dissidents and opposition groups gratefully looked to RFE as an uncensored outlet for their views, as a megaphone. Now, they sought to influence coverage of their countries as well.”

July 1989

RFE Polish Service head Marek Latynski traveled to Poland to cover the visit of President George H.W Bush; other Polish Service broadcasters obtained Polish visas.

Photo: Marek Latynski, Director of the Polish Broadcasting Department, standing in front of the Chopin Monument in Warsaw in July 1989.

September 27, 1989

First news and program bureau in Eastern Europe

The Budapest office of RFE/RL opened September 27, becoming the Radio’s first news and program bureau in Eastern Europe. By October 1989, almost all Hungarian Service programs on Hungarian affairs were produced by staffers or freelancers in Hungary, transmitted to Munich through the new Budapest bureau.

Clip from “Shortwaves”: Mathias Rosch of Broadcast Operations in the new RFE studio in Budapest in 1989

October 1989

With the formation of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s Solidarity government in September, RFE was able to post correspondents to Poland, and to establish a bureau in Warsaw in 1990. With BIB Member Ken Tomlinson, BIB Executive Director Mark Pomar and RFE/RL Research Institute Polish specialist Jan De Weydenthal, A. Ross Johnson traveled to Warsaw and Gdansk in October 1989 to meet Mazowiecki and Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity. A. Ross Johnson returned to Warsaw with RFE/RL President Gene Pell in December 1989 to work on arrangements for the new bureau.

Photo: clip from “Shortwaves”: A. Ross Johnson with Lech Walesa in Gdansk

November 9, 1989

Fall of Berlin Wall

A. Ross Johnson: “Before and after the fall of the Berlin wall, RFE provided its listeners with comprehensive information about the changes sweeping Eastern Europe. RFE detailed the flight of East Germans to West German embassies around Eastern Europe.”

November 17, 1989

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia began. RFE’s Czechoslovak Service reported on the mass demonstrations on Wenceslas Square. In an unprecedented development, Pavel Pechacek, director of RFE’s Czechoslovak Service at the time, was granted a visa by the Czechoslovak authorities to enter the country just before the November 1989 demonstrations. Pechacek arrived on November 21, and provided uncensored coverage of the first three days of the Velvet Revolution.

Photo: Mass Demonstrations on Wenceslas Square on November 23

November 30, 1989

The Romanian Service broadcast a detailed report on the Velvet Revolution.

December 17, 1989

A. Ross Johnson writes: “It is enough that I speak; I shall destroy this wall of fear” - dissident Romanian pastor Laszlo Tokes spoke these words and ignited demonstrations in Timisoara one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall’.

Central newsroom correspondent Roland Eggleston was dispatched to interview refugees from Romania at the Hungarian border. Romania closed its borders on December 16, but Eggleston, by bribing a Romanian boarder guard, managed to get to the Timisoara’s hospital where the dead and wounded were held.

Photo: Demonstrations in Timisoara in December 1989

December 20, 1989

RFE Romanian Service broadcast a dramatic, smuggled report of police and army violence against peaceful demonstrators. During the following week RFE strengthened its signal to Romania by borrowing transmitters from its other language services.

December 22, 1989

Romanian General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu fled the Romanian Party Central Committee building. RFE carried the first reports of his flight from Bucharest, phoned in by a Bucharest journalist.

Photo from RFE/RL’s Romanian Service archives

December 1989

Letters from our listeners in romania


RFE/RL opened bureaus in Warsaw, Prague and other Central and Eastern European cities.

Photos from the receptions in the Royal Castle in Warsaw (above) celebrating the opening of the Warsaw Bureau, and in Wallenstein Palace (below) celebrating the opening of the Prague Bureau.


The Iron Curtain at RFE/RL Headquarters: Civic Forum member Milos Dravil (right) drove from Prague to Munich to present RFE/RL with 30 meters of barbed wire from the Czech-Bavarian border. He thanked the Radios for encouraging democratic reform in his country. Receiving the gift on behalf of RFE/RL were (from left) Assistant Director of Czechoslovak BD Ivan Cikl, RFE Director A. Ross Johnson, and RFE President Gene Pell.

August 27, 1991

Boris Yeltsin's decree permitting RL to open a bureau in Moscow

During the failed Soviet putsch of 1991, one of the few sources of reliable information was RFE/RL’s Russian Service (Radio Liberty).

As a result of its dramatic broadcasts, it received official accreditation in Russia for the first time. Around August 22 two Service’s reporters Mikhail Sokolov and Andrei Babitsky met President Boris Yeltsin in the White House. They managed to record a short interview in which Yeltsin said that Radio Liberty deserves to be accredited in Russia and a few days later on August 27, he signed a decree permitting RL to open a bureau in Moscow.

September 8, 1995

Czech President Vaclav Havel welcomes RFE/RL in Prague

RFE/RL, on the invitation of Czech President Vaclav Havel, moved from Munich, Germany to Prague. We were given the building of the former Czechoslovak Parliament right in the city center, just on top of Wenceslas Square.

Screenshot: Vaclav Havel welcomes RFE/RL in Prague