“Brothers and sisters! Ukrainians! We live abroad, but our hearts and minds are always with you. No iron curtain can separate us or stand in our way.”
With these words, the Ukrainian Service of Radio Liberation began its first broadcast on August 16, 1954.
The broadcast was unique in its content, covering topics live and on the air that people were afraid to talk about even with their closest friends. But it was also unique because it was aired in the Ukrainian language.
The directors of Radio Liberation, later named Radio Liberty and finally merged with Radio Free Europe to form RFE/RL, established separate language services to reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of the Soviet Union, which, despite what many Westerners imagined, was not a monolithic Russian-speaking country.
“The listeners needed to be addressed in their native language to be able to identify with the content,” writes RFE/RL Ukrainian Service journalist and historian Olena Removska in her book titled Radio Liberty Speaks.
The failed uprisings in Poland and Hungary in 1956 provoked a change in thinking about the branding of the radio. As it turned out, the U.S. could not really “liberate” anybody at the time, so the name was changed from “Radio Liberation” to “Radio Liberty.”
“The word ‘liberty’ would be unobtrusive on the one hand, but on the other hand, it would remind the Soviet citizens what to strive for,” explains Removska.
Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian Service, known locally as Radio Svoboda, sought to address topics and ideas that were suppressed in the Soviet Union, such as the Holodomor--the man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933--and religion.
Similarly, radio hosts used broadcasts to read and discuss literature banned in the USSR, as well as samizdat work published in secret. Radio Liberty had a special department established to collect samizdat materials which, according to Removska, comprise one of the largest collections in the world.
Because of their content, Radio Liberty programs were continually jammed, beginning with the first broadcast up until 1988, requiring dedication and inventiveness on the part of listeners.
A new chapter
The Ukrainian Service has won distinction over the decades with its coverage of dissident politics, the events surrounding the country's independence from the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, and the Orange Revolution.
Beginning in November, 2013 the pro-European demonstrations that came to be known as the Euromaidan, Russia's annexation of Crimea, and war in the country's eastern regions have presented new challenges.
As Ukrainian Service Director Maryana Drach explains, the members of the Radio Svoboda team had to learn how to work under a new kind of pressure while remaining faithful to ethical standards of journalism.
“Our colleagues were beaten by the police in Kyiv, humiliated in eastern Ukraine, and even briefly abducted in Crimea, but morale remained very high, with correspondents feeling great responsibility for covering events for both domestic and international audiences,” she said.
Oleksiy Matsuka, anchor of the Ukrainian Service’s TV program Donbas Realities, was forced to leave his home after his life was threatened. “Matsuka even figured in the death threat list issued by the pro-Russian separatists," said Drach.
Correspondents in Crimea have been interrogated by agents with the Russian security services that now work in Ukraine, and portrayed in the media as deliberately maligning the country in exchange for Western money. In response to threats, the head of the service's Crimea desk had to leave the peninsula and relocate his family.
Award-winning freelancer with the service Levko Stek reports from the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, producing compelling news reports, feature stories, and video packages. Stek recently recorded dramatic evidence of the cease-fire in Ukraine being violated, with pro-government forces coming under sustained shelling in the village of Shyrokyne.
In Kyiv, Ukrainian Service journalists investigate official corruption and hold public servants to account. A recent investigative report revealed that Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko may have used his presidential influence to shut down an inquiry into damage of a protected historic site caused by unauthorized construction on his private property in central Kyiv.
“We have faced many challenges covering Ukraine so far, and no doubt, will face many more,” said Drach. “But Radio Liberty’s team has all it takes to continuously deliver just, unbiased news to its audience no matter the circumstances.”
--Anna Shamanska, with research by Olena Removska and Zydrone Krasauskiene.