Radio Free Europe: mission accomplished | Freedom House

Radio Free Europe: mission accomplished

The Weekly Standard By Arch Puddington

On November 28, the Broadcasting Board of Governors announced a decision that effectively closes down Radio Free Europe. The board eliminated practically all of the historic RFE broadcast services, leaving only a South Slavic service that was added after the end of the Cold War, during the later stages of the Yugoslav conflict.

Radio Free Europe was arguably America's most successful venture in what has come to be known as public diplomacy. RFE went on the air in 1950, beaming a pro-democracy, anti-Communist message (first from a transmitter near Frankfurt, later from Munich) to five Soviet satellite states: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The station was covertly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, as was America's other "freedom radio," Radio Liberty, which broadcast a similar message to the Soviet Union in both Russian and the languages of the non-Russian peoples.

The decision to eliminate the European language services was driven by budget constraints, the development of an independent media (though with varying degrees of professionalism) in these countries, and geopolitics. Broadcasts to the countries that were historically the province of Radio Liberty--Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus and Central Asia states--will continue, as will broadcasts to Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The name by which the freedom radios are now known, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, will remain for the time being. Still, it is the end of an era.

There were, of course, other international broadcasting services that could be heard across the Iron Curtain. The distinguishing feature of RFE was that it was neither an official government mouthpiece, like the Voice of America, nor a forum for neutral reporting, like the BBC. Instead, each language service functioned much like the press of a democratic opposition movement. Radio Free Europe focused on the travails of agricultural collectivization, the persecution of religion, the suppression of culture, party purges--in other words, the whole range of inhumane and irrational acts that defined communism.

Soon enough, Radio Free Europe boasted a huge audience throughout the satellite bloc. Poles regarded RFE with reverence; the station played an important role in bringing down at least three party leaders and was instrumental in sustaining the Solidarity trade union when it was forced underground by martial law. During Nicolae Ceausescu's time, RFE was Romania's most popular source of news. Ceausescu responded with fury; he dispatched hit squads to assassinate RFE journalists and hired the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal to bomb the station's Munich headquarters. The emigre writer Georgi Markov was murdered in 1978 in the infamous umbrella assassination, on direct orders of Bulgaria's party chief, Todor Zhivkov, because of broadcasts over RFE by Markov that touched on Zhivkov's personal life. (The assassin used an umbrella to inject poisonous ricin into Markov's leg while he was standing at a London bus stop.)

It was not just Communist strongmen who were hostile to RFE. In the early 1970s, Senator J.W. Fulbright led a coalition of isolationists in a campaign to kill off both Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The United States, the Arkansas Democrat argued, should jettison these "relics of the Cold War" and accept that domination by Moscow was Eastern Europe's destiny. But other liberal Democrats rallied to the stations' cause, and Fulbright was rebuffed. At the same time, the administration of RFE/RL was transferred from the CIA to an independent agency, and their future for the duration of the struggle with the Soviets was secured. When communism collapsed and the exiled RFE journalists visited their native lands--some for the first time in 40 years--they were greeted as conquering heroes of a revolution that had prevailed almost without bloodshed.

The passing of Radio Free Europe provides an opportunity to reflect on a related matter of some urgency: America's seeming inability to make its case for freedom to the Arab world. The Bush administration's post-9/11 public diplomacy has been notable for its confusion and lurches in strategy. True, the challenge of penetrating the fog of misinformation and conspiracy-mongering that pervades Arab discourse is daunting. But so, too, was the assignment of reaching the Soviet-dominated people, shut off from the outside world by a system whose very existence depended on rigid isolation. Radio Free Europe was uniquely successful at breaking through the information blockade to present an argument for democracy. Its legacy includes a model of speaking to people in closed societies that remains relevant today.

There are obvious differences to take into account. The Arab masses are prone to suspicion towards American ideas and political leaders. Radio Free Europe, by contrast, had access to a captive audience of subjugated people who admired American freedoms and respected American leaders. No matter how much their bogus state media lied about the United States and other democracies, no one in what is now known as New Europe would have believed that the events of 9/11 were orchestrated by the Bush administration, to take just one example of the paranoid fantasies rampant in the Middle East.

Still, there are plenty of applicable lessons to be learned. Radio Free Europe benefited immeasurably from its relative independence from the U.S. government and Congress. In its early years, the CIA shielded the station from the depredations of Joseph McCarthy and other anti-Communist primitives. (The Voice of America, on the other hand, was nearly destroyed by McCarthy and Roy Cohn.) Later, a quasi-independent agency was established to serve as a firewall between RFE/RL and Congress.

This semi-autonomous status enabled RFE to develop strategies that at times clashed with the objectives of American diplomacy. For example, throughout the Cold War, the American government opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yet RFE's broadcasts to the Baltic peoples had the conscious objective of encouraging the idea of freedom and national sovereignty by stressing the uniqueness of Baltic culture and reminding listeners of the many crimes committed against their countrymen by the Russians. In the end, of course, the demand for independence by the Balts and other non-Russian nationalities was the crucial element behind the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

Radio Free Europe derived much of its credibility from the popularity of its commentators: men who, had they lived in normal societies, would have been the editors, columnists, and news anchors of a free press. When Ceausescu dispatched his thugs to kill or maim RFE journalists, he chose as his targets those who were the most beloved by the Romanian people. Each of RFE's services could place before the microphone commentators who had the rare ability to give quiet inspiration to oppressed people without polemics, pontification, or condescension.

Radio Free Europe kept its audience informed about the fate of cultural icons whose works were banned or who had been forced into exile. When Karol Wojtyla was named Pope John Paul II, RFE immediately opened a bureau in Rome to provide regular coverage of the determinedly anti-Communist pontiff to his devoted followers in Poland.

Although everyone understood that RFE was an American project, it consciously cultivated the image of a European radio station. Its broadcasts did not emphasize American popular culture, and when it pointed to examples of Free World achievement, it cited countries like West Germany and Austria--Central European societies that had attained both freedom and prosperity.

From the outset RFE had an intelligently strategic approach to the question of whether to target the masses or the elites. In its early years, RFE broadcasts deliberately tried to reach the East European masses through harsh condemnations of Communist leaders and personalized attacks on individual Communists, even to the point of denouncing by name a Hungarian factory manager who demanded sexual favors from women workers. Eventually, the station's message evolved: It was accessible to a mass audience (a legendary Hungarian broadcaster introduced rock music to his country's youth) while concentrating on comprehensive coverage of political developments. The core audience included, naturally enough, the democratic opposition (RFE ignored opposition groups that advocated violence), but also included members of the governing apparatus, military officers, and high party officials who understood that the day of reckoning with the people would eventually come.

Finally, Radio Free Europe fought the good fight over the long haul; it did not engage in the Cold War competition with the expectation of instant success. If its leaders did not understand the nature of the struggle in 1950, they soon grasped that the peaceful triumph of freedom--and the very existence of RFE assumed that the Cold War would be won through the battle of ideas--would require faith in the superiority of the West's democratic values and a great deal of patience. Patience included spurning the demands of ultra-hawks for broadcasts that would encourage East Europeans to take to the barricades. It also meant rejecting the arguments of neutralists and detentists, who contended that, given communism's apparent stability, RFE's services were no longer useful. RFE's quiet conviction that the defeat of the world's most durable totalitarian system was worth the protracted fight is perhaps its most important lesson in an era in which patience and long-range commitment are in dangerously short supply.

The countries of the Middle East are more open and freewheeling than were the Communist regimes that RFE spoke to. But these societies retain many features in common with the Soviet bloc states: unelected, remote, and corrupt leaders; an unreliable press; political movements driven by totalitarian ideologies; economic policies that preclude prosperity; the repression of dissenting voices; and political forces that decry democracy as a Western imposition.

Radio Free Europe can rest in peace, having made a noble contribution to one of history's great freedom struggles. But those who are now engaged in the campaign against the newest enemies of liberty should heed its example and, rather than merely espouse American values, give the Arab world a vision of what their own, unique free societies could be.

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author of Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. He is completing a biography of the trade union leader Lane Kirkland.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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