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Fostering Independent Professional Media in the Transition; The Contribution of RFE/RL

A. Ross Johnson
RFE/RL’s role in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War has received considerable attention and praise. This experience is reviewed in a new book just published by the Central European University Press, Cold War Broadcasting; Impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which Gene Parta and I co-edited.  

Gloria sic transit – but 1989-1991 was not the end of the story.  RFE/RL broadcasts to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States continued after 1989 for varying periods with the aim of contributing to the development of independent media in the region. Broadcasts and Web sites continue today in 28 languages for all parts of the former USSR except the Baltic States, for parts of the Western Balkans, and for Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Western Pakistan. I focus here on the broadcasts to Polish and Czech audiences after 1989 and distinguish four aspects of RFE/RL’s role – one geopolitical and three developmental.

First, and distinct from media development per se, RFE/RL was a symbol of geopolitical anchoring.  The new democratic leaderships and elites that assumed power after 1989 – overestimating if you will RFE/RL’s importance – viewed a formal RFE/RL presence in their countries as helping anchor them firmly in the West.  We opened bureaus in Prague and Warsaw in early 1990 with great fanfare  (later in Bratislava),  and in 1995 relocated the entire RFE/RL broadcasting center to Prague. This signified more than celebration of the past.  Czech deputy defense minister Pavel Bratinka  said at the time: “First we will get RFE to Prague, and then we will get the Czech Republic into NATO.” This goal of geopolitical reassurance led prime minister Vaclav Klaus as well as president Vaclav Havel to welcome and enable  RFE/RL’s move to Prague.

To understand the centrality of this search for geopolitical reassurance, we should recall the world of late 1989.  At that juncture, no one could know if the Soviet Union would collapse, if Soviet military forces would withdraw from Eastern Europe, if NATO and the EU would expand to include former members of the Warsaw Pact. Remember the long debate in the West about NATO expansion, with  most  “experts” originally opposed.  So in the immediate post-communist environment, in Warsaw and  Prague (and also in Meciar's Bratislava and in Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia), RFE, by planting the American broadcast flag squarely on the still-smoking rubble of Soviet-sponsored regimes, not only provided a model of professional public radio journalism but helped to bolster public confidence -- and the confidence of newly elected governments -- that change was irreversible and democracy would prevail. The symbolism of our presence was perhaps as important as the content of our broadcasting in those first post-Communist years.

At the same time, FE/RL sought to promote development of  professional independent media as a critical element of  democratic transition. In the words of the RFE/RL mission statement:

"Based on the conviction that the first requirement of democracy is a well informed citizenry, and building on over a half-century of surrogate broadcasting:

1. RFE/RL provides objective news, analysis, and discussion of domestic and regional issues crucial to successful democratic and free-market transformations."

This continuing role of promoting a well-informed citizenry was in response to the urging of many in Eastern Europe, most prominently Vaclav Havel, and took three forms.  

First, continued broadcasting in the RFE/RL tradition, providing audience-centric news and information that was   balanced, objective, and  non-partisan but now increasingly East-European based.   Initially this meant strong local  news and production bureaus, led by veteran journalists Peter Brod in Prague and Maciej Wierzynski in Warsaw, that provided most domestic news and features for the broadcasts. A Crusade for Freedom poster had called RFE broadcasts “The In Sound from Outside.”  Now the “in sound” came from inside.  

Bureau-based reporting from Slovakia continued until 2004, but in 1993-1994  the U.S. Congress, as part of post-Cold War budget reductions,  directed that RFE/RL end its broadcasts to Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. We believed that could make a further contribution to democratic transition in all three countries if we could transfer the RFE/RL approach, capabilities, and experience  to local institutions. We were successful only in part.

We found no local possibilities in Hungary, and  RFE Hungarian broadcasts ended in 1993.  In Warsaw, we provided start-up funding to a new entity, RWE, Inc., and director Peter Mroczyk and chief editor Andrzej Mietkowski put together what was widely considered to be an excellent news and information program.  But RWE failed to attract private funding and was not able to secure a country-wide Polish transmission network, and so RWE ended in 1997.  

The Czech project was more successful. There, we established a Czech entity, RSE, Inc.,  which raised some private funds and  entered in to  a partnership with Czech Public Radio that led to the creation of  RSE/CRo6. This  channel, under the chief editorship of Pavel Pechacek, provided Czech listeners (on local transmitters)  the best news and information reports  of six broadcasters – RSE, Czech Radio, RFE/RL Slovak, VOA, BBC, and Deutsche Welle.  The partnership ended in 2002, but the program it launched continues under Czech Radio as CRo6 and  provides solid news and information from 6 pm to midnight daily.

Second, RFE/RL  promoted media development in Eastern Europe through journalism training, both informal and formal. In the language of the mission statement, RFE/RL  “assists in training to enhance media professionalism and independence.” Young staff members  and freelancers worked with veterans in the RFRE/RL bureaus, and later in the spin-offs in Prague and Warsaw. Training programs in Munich and Prague,  some funded by European foundation grants obtained by the RFE/RL European Advisory Committee, brought many aspiring journalists to Munich and Prague.

Third, RFE/RL  promoted media development in the region through the transfer of expertise.  Especially in Poland, veteran journalists who had worked in Munich returned to important media and media training positions in Poland. Former RFE/RL Polish Service deputy director  Leszek Gawlikowski has identified some twenty former RFE/RL Polish broadcasters  who have assumed such positions.  Examples are Andrzej Mietkowski, who is now chief editor of the Polish Radio web site; Maciej Wierzynski, who moderates the Horizont program on Polish television, and  Bronislaw Wildstein,  who was   president of the Polish TVP state-run television in 2006-2007.  In the Czech Republic, Pavel Pechacek also moderated a current affairs program on Czech television and RSE journalist Jan Bednář became a prominent Czech Radio journalist.  

I suggest several lessons from this experience.  

First,  1989 was only the beginning of the democratic transition in Eastern Europe, in the media as in other areas,  and in such periods symbols of Western commitment can be as  important as the content of assistance programs.

Second,  experienced émigré  journalists at RFE/RL (and other Western media) could return to their native countries and become important contributors to democratic media.  

Third,  journalism training, especially “hands-on” training, could contribute to the emergence of a new generation of democratic journalists.

Fourth,   diminishing returns can set in, in  media development as in other forms of assistance.    States that have won or regained  their sovereignty are likely to resist outside  involvement in domestic media, no matter how well intentioned.  Local media institutions are likely to resist partnerships, whatever their source of funding,  that they do not control.  Hungarian Radio was never interested in a local partnership with RFE/RL. Polish Radio, with which RFE/RL in Munich had a good relationship in the early 1990s and from which it had rented local transmitters, was not interested in a local partnership after 1994. (The quality of independent Polish media doubtless contributed to this disinterest, for Gazeta Wyborcza and Radio Zet quickly became self-supporting media of quality.)  RFE/RL’s Czech partnership was the positive exception, but it too ended at Czech insistence after seven years.   

A.Ross Johnson, Acting President, RFE/RL, 1994; Couselor, RFE/RL, 1995-2002.
Remarks for Panel: “Outside Aid in the Transition: The Polish and Czechoslovak Cases,” Association for Slavic, East European, & Eurasian Studies, 42nd Annual Convention, Los Angeles, California, November 18-21, 2010.
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