WASHINGTON -- The revolutions that toppled Communism in Eastern Europe 30 years ago and heralded the end of the Cold War triumphed, in part, because of the work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and foreign broadcasters, a role showcased by RFE/RL in a new microsite titled Reporting 1989.
“We all knew because of the radio,” said one listener from Romania in 1989, referring to reporting on the mass protests, dissident statements, historic roundtables, civic movements, expatriate support, and individual acts of courage that shattered the isolation created by the Iron Curtain and the control imposed by communist propaganda. East German spymaster Markus Wolf famously said, “Of all the various means used to influence people against the East during the Cold War, I would count Radio Free Europe as the most effective.” Then-leader of Hungary’s FIDESZ parliamentary faction Viktor Orban, Hungary’s current president, praised RFE/RL in a 1991 letter to members of the U.S. Congress for rendering “a significant service to the Hungarian people … in the course of the peaceful change of regime in Hungary.”
RFE Czechoslovak Service Director Pavel Pechacek, who reported live and uncensored from a hotel balcony above the throngs of protesters packing Prague’s Wenceslas Square, remembered that “it was important for the people to hear the sounds. I told them the slogans being chanted and they could hear the speeches.” Andrzej Borzym, a broadcaster and editor with the Polish Service, recalled being stopped at the border as he returned to Poland in 1989 after 15 years in exile by a guard who, “after a few questions and answers, shouted, ‘Hey, I know you! I recognize your voice from RFE! Thank you!’
In 1989, RFE and RL (the former broadcast to Eastern Europe and the latter to the U.S.S.R.; the two merged in 1976), were based in Munich, providing independent news and information via shortwave in 25 languages to audiences captive to communist propaganda across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. While their broadcasts were jammed by the Soviet Union for decades, a decision by Moscow in November 1988 to cease jamming marked a breakthrough. The metrics speak for themselves: RFE/RL research at the time showed 50 percent weekly audience reach in Poland, 48 percent in Hungary, 30 percent in Czechoslovakia, 32 percent in Bulgaria, and 60 percent in Romania in 1989 - 1990.
Reporting 1989 comprises individual sections devoted to each of the five countries that emerged from revolution 30 years ago. It presents a timeline of events, journalist profiles, evidence of Soviet KGB countermeasures against RFE/RL, witness testimonials, and archival recordings to capture RFE’s revolutionary role and the power of a free and independent press. Additional multimedia examinations of the 1989 revolutions and of life behind the Iron Curtain can be found on RFE/RL’s news site, rferl.org.
RFE/RL relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to 34 million people in 26 languages and 22 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed. Its videos were viewed 3.6 billion times on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram in FY2019. RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.