WASHINGTON — On July 4, 1950, when Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) first announced, “This is RFE calling” to an audience behind the Iron Curtain in communist Czechoslovakia, people listened because they expected the truth. Seventy years later, the platforms have proliferated and its mandate has grown, with RFE/RL delivering essential news via radio, TV, and digital media to more than 38 million people across 23 countries with little to no free press of their own.
“RFE/RL has a noble mission and has played a historic role over decades in countries fighting for democracy and human rights,” said Acting President Daisy Sindelar. “The tools have changed, but the challenges are fundamentally the same. We have some of the most dedicated journalists in the profession and have earned the trust of our audiences. We know that even in the toughest environments, our work to report the news and model the values of an independent press are making a real difference to people with nowhere else to turn for credible reporting on the issues that matter to them.”
In a tribute to RFE/RL on the occasion of its 70th anniversary and the 25th anniversary of its move from its original headquarters in Munich to Prague, Chairman of the Czech Senate Milos Vystrcil said, “For many of my contemporaries and for me, RFE/RL has been a source of free information and a window into the free world...I am proud that now RFE/RL broadcasts from Prague, so we can...participate in the flow of free information to Russia and other post-Soviet countries. It is as important for the citizens of those countries now as the broadcasts from Munich were for us.”
RFE/RL's 70th anniversary comes as it stands virtually alone in covering the coronavirus crisis in countries like Iran and Russia where officials have downplayed or outright denied the scope and impact of the pandemic. The anniversary also comes amid fresh threats against its journalists and editorial principles.
Independent blogger Ihar Losik, a social media consultant for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, is currently being held in a Minsk detention center, accused by authorities of using his Telegram channel to “prepare to disrupt public order.” Looking ahead to a presidential election in August, the government has been spooked by the Service’s dominance on digital platforms: it registered a record 3.3 million video views on YouTube, nearly 3 million visits to its website, and 1.2 million video views on Facebook in May, not least because of its unflinching coverage of the coronavirus, which state media ignored and the country’s authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has repeatedly dismissed as a “psychosis.”
One journalist with RFE/RL’s Russian Service is under investigation because of an April 2020 interview she published with a St. Petersburg doctor who described shortages at his hospital of medical equipment and supplies to treat patients with the coronavirus. Pskov-based contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva is on trial for “justifying terrorism” after she speculated on air that political despair may have driven a teenager in Arkhangelsk in 2018 to detonate a suicide bomb. The Kremlin’s designation of RFE/RL as a “foreign agent” in 2017, and the tightening of the law in 2019 to target individual journalists, are tools revived from the Soviet era meant to inspire self-censorship and fear.
In Russia, where RFE/RL began broadcasting in 1953 following its Eastern European launch, the demand especially among younger audiences for real stories about real people has driven the growth and impact of RFE/RL’s digital TV network, Current Time. Its up-close, live-streamed coverage of election protests, corruption, local activism, and arbitrary arrests is unique in a country where state TV spins propaganda and conspiracy theories and the political opposition gets no airtime at all.
RFE/RL has extended its reach in recent decades to populations deprived of a free press in Afghanistan, to counter extremist propaganda in militant strongholds in Pakistan, and, most recently, to EU member states where media pluralism is in decline. It also plays an indispensable role in Iran, breaking through official censorship to reach 15.4 percent of the country’s adult population on radio, internet, and TV. Within the first six months of 2020, its Iranian Service, known in Persian as Radio Farda, provided unique live coverage and critical analysis of national protests over gasoline prices, the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani, the downing of a Ukrainian jetliner, and the outbreak of the coronavirus. Iran’s government and official media, in every case, propagated conspiracy theories, concealed information, and lied.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, after Radio Farda’s own investigation revealed that the government had vastly underreported the virus’s death toll, the Service’s editor likened its work to a polygraph. He said, “We detect the lies, report the facts, and people trust us.”