Covert communication – Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty


Among the explicitly propagandist radio stations that thrived during the Cold War were Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), operating from West Germany. While the Voice of America was the legitimate broadcasting arm of the United States Information Agency, the Munich-based RFE and RL were covert organizations carrying out a propaganda war against communism in Europe. They were part of what is now called ‘psychological warfare’ in which the ‘campaign for truth’ became the ‘crusade for freedom’.
Free Europe Inc. was established in 1949 as a non-profit-making, private corporation to broadcast news and current affairs programmes to Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain. Radio Liberation (the name Radio Liberty was adopted in 1963) was created two years later along the same lines to broadcast to the Soviet Union (Mickelson, 1983).
Both were covertly funded by the US Government, mainly through the Central Intelligence Agency until 1971, when funding and administrative responsibilities were transferred to a presidentially appointed Board for International Broadcasting (BIB). The two corporations were merged into RFE/RL in 1975. In 1994, its duties were transferred to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversaw all non-military US international broadcasting.
Regular broadcasts of RFE began in 1951 and though RL was also established in 1951, it did not begin broadcasting until 1953. Both stations broadcast from studios in Munich: RFE using transmitters in Germany and Portugal for its programmes in Polish, Czech, Slovak, Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian; RL from transmitters in Germany, Spain and Taiwan for its programmes in Russian (over half the output) and 17 other languages spoken in the Soviet Union. Fighting communism was the raison d’etre of these radio stations and therefore programmes were deliberately provocative to the communist governments, broadcasting emigre petitions and extracts from banned books, including works by anti-establishment writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and scientists such as Andrei Sakharov.
The often crude and insensitive propaganda broadcast led to accusations from the Soviet Union of stirring up the 1956 revolt in Hungary. During the crisis, RFE encouraged the Hungarian people to rebel against the communist authorities, even misleading them with the promises of the imminent arrival of a ‘UN Delegation’ – a euphemism for US military intervention – which never materialized while the Soviet tanks crushed the uprising.
RFE and RL claimed to provide an alternative ‘Home Service’, intended to challenge the state or party monopoly over the media in the communist countries. The Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact regularly jammed RFE/RLs signals, denouncing them as a network of ‘radio saboteurs,’ and an integral part of US ‘electronic imperialism’ (Kashlev, 1984).
Under US President Ronald Reagan’s administration US public diplomacy became more strident and radio stations were directed to undertake a ‘vigorous advocacy’ of American foreign policy (Tuch, 1990). The Polish service of RFE played a key role in its support for Solidarity, the first ‘independent’ trade union in a communist country. During the industrial unrest of 1980s, two-thirds of the Polish adult population tuned in and this level of penetration of Western radio was ‘a major factor in the Soviet’s decision not to intervene militarily in the country as they had in Czechoslovakia in 1968’ “(Lord, 1998:62). In 1981, the Munich headquarters of RFE/RL were bombed, allegedly by Soviet secret services (ibid.).
In 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ended the jamming, allowing RFE/RL signals to reach a broader audience. RFE/RL’s contribution to the end of communism in this region is now widely acknowledged (McNamara, 1992; Sosin, 1999). As one broadcaster wrote: ‘well before the Iron Curtain rusted – let alone was dismantled – its metal had been perforated by the sounds on the airwaves’ (Partos, 1993:91). Even the Russian President Boris Yeltsin personally intervened to help create an RFE/RL bureau in Moscow after the failed August 1991 coup. After many years in Munich, RFE/RLs headquarters moved to Prague in 1995.
It was only in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, that these covert organizations came under public scrutiny, especially with the memoirs of George Urban, a former Director of Radio Free Europe (Critchlow, 1995; Urban, 1997). Because of RFE/RLs role in fighting communism, many thought that the radios had fulfilled their mission and might be disbanded. But officials across the region stressed the continuing need for precisely the kind of broadcasts RFE/RL had brought to this region. Nevertheless, RFE/RL did cut back in some areas even as it expanded in others. It closed its Polish Service, while its Czechoslovak Service was substantially reduced and joined with Czech Public Radio to establish a new public affairs radio programme. In 1994, RFE/RL began broadcasts to the former Yugoslavia, and in 1998, it launched its Persian Language Service and Radio Free Iraq. Such out-of-area activities were not new for these radios – during the years of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, RFE/RL established a bureau in Peshawar in Pakistan for propaganda purposes and in 1984 a new service Radio Free Afghanistan was created within RL, broadcasting in two major languages of Afghanistan – Dari and Pashto (Lord, 1998:64).
In 1999, RFE/RL was reaching 20 million listeners, broadcasting for more than 700 hours a week, in 25 languages, to countries stretching from Poland to the Pacific and from the Arctic to the Persian Gulf and ‘providing an alternative “home service” to countries where the media are struggling amid chaotic economic conditions to achieve genuine financial and editorial independence’ (website).
RFE/RL maintains 22 bureaux across the region and has broadcasting links with more than 1000 freelancers and stringers. It uses short-wave broadcasts to reach its listeners, but increasingly it is utilizing AM/FM stations through more than 90 affiliate partners and more than 220 transmission sites located in all its broadcast countries except Belarus, Iran, Iraq, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. In addition, RFE/RL maintains an active presence on the Internet, claiming that more than 5 million people visit its website every month.
Apart from Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the United States supported other clandestine radio stations such as Radio Free Russia which aimed to use the Christian message to subvert atheistic states. It started operations in 1950 from South Korea and Taiwan as well as from West Germany. Run by the militantly anti-communist Popular Labour Union (NTS), this station also carried religious propaganda in Russian and in the Baltic languages, produced by a parallel organization, Radio Omega.
In addition to political propaganda, religious radio stations also contributed to the ideological battles against ‘Godless communism’. One key player was Trans World Radio, which started transmitting the gospel message from Tangier in Morocco in 1954 and has since evolved into one of the world’s largest radio networks, broadcasting in 75 languages. It now has an international network of transmitters located in every continent – Monte Carlo and Cyprus for Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, Swaziland for Africa; Sri Lanka for Asia, Guam for the Pacific region and Montevideo in Uruguay for Latin America (Wood, 1992:216).

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