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Established at the beginning of the Cold War to transmit uncensored news and information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) played a significant role in the collapse of communism and the rise of democracies in post-communist Europe.

Many Eastern European and Russian leaders, including Vaclav Havel and Boris Yeltsin, have testified to the importance of RFE/RL broadcasts in helping end the Cold War. Former Estonian President Lennart Meri nominated RFE/RL for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Today, RFE/RL is one of the most comprehensive media organizations in the world, producing radio, Internet and television programs in countries where a free press is either banned by the government or not fully established. RFE/RL broadcasts in 27 languages in 23 countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, and the Central Asian republics. RFE/RL also reaches Russian-speaking audiences in 26 countries (12 beyond the RFE/RL region) and globally via the Current Time digital television network. ​

Established After the Second World War

A broadcaster prepares a music program.
A broadcaster prepares a music program.

Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), originally separate organizations, were conceived by George F. Kennan (United States Department of State) and Frank G. Wisner (Office of Policy Coordination, later the United States Central Intelligence Agency) to utilize the talents of post-World War II Soviet and Eastern European émigrés in support of American foreign policy.

RFE was founded in 1950 and initially broadcast to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Three years later, RL began broadcasting to the Soviet Union in Russian and 15 other national languages. RFE/RL began broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1975 (click here for list of all the language services history).

Initially, both RFE and RL were funded principally by the U.S. Congress through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but RFE also received supplemental private donations.

In 1972, all CIA involvement ended, and thereafter RFE and RL were funded by Congressional appropriation through the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB) and after 1995 the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The two corporations were merged into RFE/RL, Inc. in 1976.

Providing What Was Missing Behind The Iron Curtain

In the first years of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty adopted more confrontational editorial policies than other Western broadcasters. The broadcasts produced in accordance with these policies did not, however, promote uprisings. Broadcasts instead emphasized evolutionary system change.

Germany -- A broadcast from the first Radio Free Europe studio in Munich. RFE began broadcasting from Munich in May 1951.
Germany -- A broadcast from the first Radio Free Europe studio in Munich. RFE began broadcasting from Munich in May 1951.

In what came to be called “surrogate” broadcasting, RFE and RL provided an unbiased, professional substitute for the free media that countries behind the Iron Curtain lacked. Unlike other Western broadcasters, the programs focused on local news not covered in state-controlled domestic media, as well as religion, science, sports, Western music, and locally banned literature and music.

The “radios” provided news, features, and music aimed at communist and non-communist elites as well as the general population. RFE and RL also gave a voice to dissidents and opposition movements that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, would emerge as leaders of the new post-communist democracies.

The programs were produced primarily at the radios’ Munich headquarters and broadcast on shortwave and medium wave transmitters from Germany, Spain, Portugal, and, until the early 1970s, Taiwan.

One of the greatest challenges for RFE and RL was to operate in information-poor environments. To this end, they carefully monitored print and electronic media of the Soviet bloc and interviewed travelers and defectors in field bureaus throughout the world. They also gathered information from regime opponents, often at great personal risk, and cultivated ties with Western journalists reporting from the countries RFE and RL covered.

The radios established research departments to support broadcasting, but their research and analytic reports also served many Western observers as a major source of reliable information about the communist bloc. RFE and RL’s programs were so comprehensive that communist authorities relied on secret transcripts of the broadcasts for information they could not obtain from local media they controlled.

Jamming And Bombs

At the same time, regimes launched technical, espionage, diplomatic, and propaganda offensives intended to discredit the broadcasts. Stalin personally ordered the establishment of local and long-distance jamming facilities to try to block broadcasts. The radios utilized high power and multiple frequencies to overcome jamming.

The aftermath of a terrorist bombing of the RFE headquarters in Munich, 1981.
The aftermath of a terrorist bombing of the RFE headquarters in Munich, 1981.

The Soviet KGB and Warsaw Pact intelligence services penetrated the stations, jailed sources, and even resorted to violence in attempts to intimidate RFE and RL staff. For example, Bulgarian Service correspondent Georgi Markov was murdered in London in 1978, evidently by Bulgarian intelligence. In 1981, a terrorist bomb paid for by Romanian security services exploded at RFE/RL's headquarters in Munich, West Germany, injuring six and causing one million dollars in damage to the building.

Emboldened by the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, increasing numbers of dissidents and other regime opponents began to challenge the communist system. As the leading international broadcaster in many countries behind the Iron Curtain, RFE and RL provided a “megaphone” through which independent figures--denied normal access to local media--could reach millions of their countrymen with uncensored writings.

One such leader, Nobel laureate Lech Walesa, told an audience in 1989 that the role played by the radios in Poland's struggle for freedom "cannot even be described. Would there be earth without the sun?"

Mission Complete?

The master control room at the Munich headquarters in the 1980s.
The master control room at the Munich headquarters in the 1980s.

With the collapse of communism, some thought RFE/RL had fulfilled its mission and could be disbanded. But officials throughout Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, many of them former dissidents, saw a continuing need for precisely the kind of objective broadcasts that RFE/RL provided, especially during democratic transition. Czech President Vaclav Havel spoke for many when he said, "we need your professionalism and your ability to see events from a broad perspective."

As the new governments grappled with the challenges of building new democracies from 1989 onward, RFE/RL established local bureaus throughout its broadcast region, trained local journalists, and served as a model of the journalistic ethics of fairness and factual accuracy for developing local media.

As many countries from the former Soviet sphere became democracies and some joined NATO and the European Union, RFE/RL fulfilled its mission in several places. The Hungarian service was closed in 1993, the Polish service in 1997, and Czech broadcasts (produced in cooperation with Czech Public Radio since 1995) ended in 2002.

Subsequently, broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria were closed in 2004, and RFE/RL’s broadcasts to Romania ended in 2008.

Reaching New Audiences

At the same time, RFE/RL launched several new broadcast services in the past quarter century. Responding to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, RFE/RL began broadcasting in Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian to the Yugoslav successor states in early 1994, in Albanian to Kosovo in 1999 and in Macedonian and Albanian to Macedonia in 2001.

Reflecting American attention to the greater Middle East, RFE/RL began broadcasting in Arabic to Iraq and in Persian to Iran in 1998; after 2002 the broadcasts to Iran continued as Radio Farda. [In 2015, RFE/RL’s Iraq broadcasts were merged with MBN’s Radio Sawa.]

In 2002, RFE/RL resumed broadcasts in Dari and Pashto to Afghanistan that had begun in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation. Also in 2002, Radio Liberty reinstated broadcasts in Avar, Chechen and Circassian to the North Caucasus (three of the North Caucasus broadcast languages during the 1950s and 1960s); while Avar and Circassian broadcasts were discontinued in 2016, programs continue to be produced in Chechen.

In January 2010, RFE/RL began broadcasting in the local Pashto dialects to northwestern Pakistan and the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in an effort to provide an alternative to Islamic extremist radio stations. Radio Mashaal covers local and international news with in-depth reports on terrorism, politics, women's issues, and health care, and gives listeners a chance to be heard through roundtable discussions tribal leaders and local policymakers in addition to regular call-in programs.

Following Russia's unrecognized annexation of Crimea in 2014, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reached out to audiences on the occupied peninsula with special programming in Crimean Tatar, Russian, and Ukrainian, and created targeted content for the war-torn Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. RFE/RL further expanded on these local news efforts between 2016 and 2019 by creating websites serving the needs of audiences in the North Caucasus, Middle Volga, Siberian, and Northwestern regions of Russia.

In October 2014, RFE/RL also launched, in cooperation with Voice of America, a Russian-language digital news network for the global Russian audience under the "Current Time" brand -- which has expanded from its debut as a 30-minute daily news show into a 24/7 satellite and online television channel with distribution in 26 countries, including 12 beyond the RFE/RL region. In all cases, RFE/RL is using the latest digital and social media content distribution strategies to meet and engage with our audiences at times, and on platforms, of their choice.

In January 2019, RFE/RL returned to Romania and Bulgaria, amid growing concern about a reversal in democratic gains and attacks on the rule of law and the judiciary in the two countries. For similar reasons, RFE/RL resumed content production in Hungary in September 2020.

Governments throughout RFE/RL's coverage area regularly demonstrate their concern about the credibility, reach, and impact of RFE/RL's professional journalism. RFE/RL is not allowed to operate a local bureau in Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. RFE/RL journalists are regularly harassed and detained while doing their jobs, and experience accreditation denials and other forms of official sanctions throughout the region. The Iranian government has sent SMS messages to citizens accessing Radio Farda online content, informing them that it is illegal to do so. In December 2017, the Russian Ministry of Justice declared RFE/RL and eight of its Russian-language reporting projects to be "foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent;" in November 2019, it added the Northern.Realities project to their list.

Continued Partnership with the Czech Republic

RFE/RL headquarters
RFE/RL headquarters

​Facing massive funding cuts that precluded continued operations in Germany, RFE/RL accepted the invitation of Czech President Vaclav Havel and Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and relocated its broadcasting center to the former Czechoslovak parliament building in Prague in 1995. For over 13 years, RFE/RL called this former communist headquarters its home, until 2009, when RFE/RL relocated to a custom built, state-of-the-art building just outside the city center.

Compiled by A. Ross Johnson, December 2008. Johnson is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was formerly a Senior Advisor to the President of RFE/RL, Inc., and Director of Radio Free Europe. [Updated to reflect developments since 2008 by Martins Zvaners.]