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RFE 1989

RFE/RL: Reporting 1989


“Everybody knew from the radio.”

“What took 10 years in Poland, took 10 months in Hungary, 10 weeks in East Germany and ultimately 10 days in Czechoslovakia.”

Timothy Garton Ash, Historian and Author

In 1989, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was based in Munich, broadcasting over shortwave radio in 25 languages across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Its mission was to provide accurate and independent news and information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain that were isolated from the West and captive to communist propaganda. As Vaclav Havel has pointed out, the essence of totalitarianism is requiring that people consent and conform to lies in order to live. RFE/RL sought to refute the lies and report the truth.

The revolutions that swept the region in 1989 were the unintended product of the reformist policies known as glasnost and perestroika enacted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in 1986. Gorbachev understood that Moscow’s decades-long, iron-fisted rule over the Warsaw Pact countries was, like the Soviet Union itself, an anachronism, but he failed to grasp that his policies would undo the system, not simply reform it.

For RFE and RL (the former broadcast to Eastern Europe and the latter to the Soviet Union, although they formally merged in 1976), which had been reporting to audiences in the region since the 1950s, Moscow’s decision in November 1988 to cease jamming their short-wave broadcasts was an operational breakthrough. Jamming had already been suspended in the 1960s in Romania and Hungary (and would continue for a few additional weeks in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria) but the overall effect was to allow them to reach audiences in record numbers and assume leading positions among Western broadcasters in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The metrics speak for themselves: 50 percent weekly audience reach in Poland, 48 percent in Hungary, 30 percent in Czechoslovakia, about 32 percent in Bulgaria, and 60 percent in Romania in 1989 - 1990. The Soviet Union would experience the impact most dramatically in August 1991, when RL informed audiences from Vilnius to Vladivostok, and Gorbachev himself who was detained in Crimea, of the attempted coup.

The relationships that RFE and RL developed with their local audiences defined them as “surrogate” media, since they provided information on domestic events that local and official media were unable or unwilling to report. Both outlets also played a critical role in the years and months leading to 1989 by “cross-reporting,” sharing information among audiences across national borders. They shattered the isolation imposed by the Iron Curtain, bolstering the work of reformers by reporting on steps taken and gains achieved by their counterparts next door.

RFE and RL audiences were not limited to dissidents; indeed, the broadcasters’ insistence on extensive cultural programming and regional and international news coverage appealed to diverse audiences. In listener surveys, “information about the outside world” and “entertainment” ranked high among motivations to tune in. In the Soviet Union, survey data indicates that members and nonmembers of the Communist party listened to RL in similar numbers. Party leaders across the Eastern bloc listened to RFE’s “ideological subversion” in an effort to “know thine enemy,” while relying on it for information about their own populations that they used to govern. Indeed, the party leadership in the USSR, Poland, and Romania had daily transcripts prepared of RFE and RL news broadcasts and political content, and their security services conducted surveys of RFE and RL audiences.

RFE’s and RL’s influence did not emerge overnight. The broadcasters built credibility over decades through informed and careful reporting, while giving voice to the dissidents who would ultimately emerge as leaders of the new post-communist democracies. Their courageous journalists earned the trust of their audiences, who relied on them for information about their world – or for a brief escape from it. Their coverage during such historic events as the “Polish October” of 1956; the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; and the Chernobyl nuclear explosion of 1986 helped build a reputation for accuracy and authority that made them an obvious choice for news when the political landscape began to change.

It was a shock when communism crumbled, but the power of a free and independent press helped make it happen. This site, with sections devoted to each of the five countries that emerged from revolution 30 years ago, is meant to remember RFE/RL’s role in reporting the triumphs of 1989.

With contributions by Jeremy Bransten, A. Ross Johnson, Jolyon Naegele, and Jan de Weydenthal, and special thanks to Eric Baker and Emily Thompson.

1989 By Country


Vaclav Havel's Thoughts On The Significance Of RFE

“What made [RFE] important was its impartiality, independence, and objectivity…not only for dissidents but for the entire listening public, who receive not only truthful news about various ideals and other lifestyles, but also hope.”

Vaclav Havel, President of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia

“Radio Free Europe has been a lot more important than the armies and the most sophisticated missiles. The ‘missiles’that destroyed Communism were launched from Radio Free Europe, and this was Washington’s most important investment during the Cold War. I don’t know whether the Americans themselves realize this now, seven years after the fall of Communism, but we understand it perfectly well.”

Emil Constantinescu, President of Romania (1997-2000)

“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.”

Markus Wolf, East German spymaster

“My reporting from Wenceslas Square was aired by RFE/RL to all of Czechoslovakia, and people could hear that something was happening in Prague. I recorded the sounds, and of course I spoke about what was happening, but I thought it was important for the people to hear the sounds. I told them the slogans being chanted and they could hear the speeches.”

Pavel Pechacek, Former RFE Czechoslovak Service Director

“The attempt at complete censorship failed gloriously; it was Radio Free Europe that broadcast the Romanian Revolution live.”

Ross Johnson, Former Radio Free Europe Director (1988 to 2002)

“When I went to West-Berlin Radio to send back to Munich my reports by radio-lines, I was greeted with a lot of emotion, and when I asked what I owed them for using their facilities, they said to me with tears in their eyes that this was the minimum they could do as a big-big thank you to Radio Free Europe.”

Andras Vincze, Former RFE Hungarian Service News Desk Editor

“I travelled to Poland for the first time after 15 years in exile in the winter in 1989. The Polish border guard, after a few questions and answers, shouted: ‘Hey, I know you! I recognize your voice from RFE! Thank you!’”

Andrzej Borzym, Former RFE Polish Service Broadcaster/Editor

“Rebuilding a sense of community was the firstand foremost aim of our radio station. Maintaining hope was its secondpurpose.”

Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, Founder and Former Director of RFE Polish Service

“On Wednesday, December 20, by the time we arrived at my mother’s place in Brasov, we had heard that the number of victims was rising in Timisoara. State media were reporting that Ceausescu had returned from his short visit to Iran and was to address the nation later that afternoon. Waiting for him to speak, we tuned in to Radio Free Europe.”

Eugen Tomiuc, Senior Correspondent for RFE/RL

“This autumn we listened to the radio every day and every night. When the revolution happened in Czechoslovakia, I listened every hour.”

Gabriel Marescu, an Engineering student at the University of Bucharest