Romania saw the year’s final revolution, and the region’s only violent transfer of power, as the country’s ruthless dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, responded to public protests with brutal force. The unrest began on December 10 with a small demonstration in the city of Timisoara, where members of Romania’s Hungarian community gathered in support of their pastor, Lazlo Tokes, who was persecuted by Romanian authorities. As the protests quickly grew, so did the protesters’ demands, with thousands of people beginning to shout “freedom” in the streets. As Tokes once recalled, "The crowd forgot the initial reason for their resistance, and in general terms they opposed the regime itself."
On December 17, police and security forces turned their guns on the protesters, killing approximately 100 and unleashing anarchy. Ceausescu addressed an enormous crowd in Bucharest on December 21 in a televised display that captured his failure to grasp that change had seized the country and his reign of terror was over. Romania shocked the world on Christmas day, when Ceausescu and his wife Elena, who had fled the country, were brought back to Bucharest and executed by firing squad. A National Salvation Front led by a coalition of dissidents, military officers, and second-tier Communist officials pronounced Romania free.
In the years leading up to 1989, RFE had a larger audience in Romania than in any other Eastern European country. This was partly due to the suspension of jamming in Romania in 1963, but it was also a reflection of the Service’s content, including the emphasis it placed on connecting Romanians at home and in the diaspora – a practice that elicited the fury of the Ceausescu regime. The Service registered a weekly audience of over 60 percent of the adult population during the revolution, the culmination of decades of dangerous and unflinching work by its journalists that the regime acknowledged with savage, retaliatory attacks.
The Romanian Service first reported on the protests in Timisoara on December 18 using a recording by a German tourist, although it missed the opportunity to break the news because of the company’s two-source verification rule. In the protests’ initial days, it relied heavily on witness reports and Western sources based in Munich, New York, Budapest, and Rome, including such renowned journalists as Monica Lovinescu in Paris. Once the protests moved to Bucharest, “[…] the whole editorial policies were changed because of the high speed of the processes. We started broadcasting live, without scripts,” recalled Liviu Tofan, the Service’s news director at the time.
In addition to reporting events, the Service helped audiences brutalized by years of terror to understand the meaning of “freedom” and “democracy.” It aired open letters and interviews with dissidents, while calling for restraint. It directed special programs to the country’s military and security forces reminding them of their professional duty not to turn their weapons against civilians, and provided examples of armies elsewhere in the region that renounced the use of force. RFE received reports from soldiers who listened to these broadcasts, and has been widely credited with helping to avert greater violence during those revolutionary days.