Frequencies of Protest: Radio Free Europe and protest in contemporary Belarus and Poland8 min read
Key figures of the Belarussian opposition have so far been successful in coordinating, encouraging and invigorating protest from abroad. By using mass media, namely Telegram, Facebook and Twitter, they have succeeded in mobilising vast sections of the population despite relentless attacks in Belarussian national media, accusing them inter alia of foreign collaboration. While the importance of their engagement through social media is well-recognised, one radio channel with a long history with protest movements has been instrumental in supporting the demonstrators: Radio Free Europe (RFE).
The station has not only shone a light on the shortcomings of government propaganda, but has been instrumental in highlighting individual cases of disappearances and repression. While this media strategy—and the related discourse of human rights—may seem natural to us now, it is in fact the product of a long history of protest, that can be seen most clearly in the case of Poland. It is, on the face of it, curious how a German-based, CIA-funded station staffed by émigrés initially perceived as arrogant deserters could grow to become ‘the main centre of antisocialist activity’. Yet RFE’s trajectory showcases important developments in the genealogy of protest that remain significant today for protesters in Belarus and beyond.
Munich: Radio Free Europe
Established in 1949 as a Western propaganda tool in Munich, RFE’s remit was to create a home service abroad, in the model of the BBC. It differed from the more explicit, anti-Soviet propaganda of its sister organisation Voice of America in seeking to broadcast balanced programming on culture, history and current affairs, often airing the remarks of the communist regime in news segments. Given the make-up of RFE’s staff—almost all of whom were émigrés from the communist regime—it is unsurprising that early broadcasting highlighted the positive contributions of emigrants to Polish culture.
Repeated programmes included broadcasts on Copernicus, Chopin, Joseph Conrad, poet Adam Mickiewicz and other historic and contemporary figures in the West. Broadcasts on history focused on events not officially recognised by the communists, such as the Warsaw uprising or the 1940 Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish troops by Soviet forces. Other broadcasts showcased histories of Poles in Western militaries campaigns, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Battle of Britain.
RFE was important not only in providing listeners with information not officially accessible within the country, but also in offering a wider sense of belonging, to Polonia—the Polish diaspora—and to a ‘free’ West. It provided a distinct conceptualisation of Polish culture and history than that of the communists and national media, building its credibility on the history of Polish emigrants.
Nonetheless, in the 1950s and 1960s the communist regime was successful in undermining the station’s credibility by attacking the patriotism of its staff. Echoing the treatment of foreign protesters in Belarussian national media, the communist regime denounced RFE staff as unpatriotic, having fled from the problems the country faced. Adam Michnik, a leading dissident, described how most Poles initially regarded the RFE staff as those ‘who chose easy earnings, security and prosperity and who, for American money, told lies about Poland on Radio Free Europe’.
Criticism of RFE was not limited to the émigré’s lack of patriotism. Jews who had fled Poland during state-sponspored antisemitic campaigns in 1968 experienced discrimination from other émigrés in the RFE’s Polish section. While some programmes broadcast stories on Jewish history, the overwhelming focus on Catholicism reflected the historic association of Polish patriotism and Catholicism. In spite of its own anti-Semitic tendencies, the communist regime exploited RFE’s German location to paint RFE staff as Nazi collaborationists. The strength of feeling on WW2 in Eastern Europe means that this line of attack remains the base of the Belarussian condemnation of dissident figures.
Helsinki: Human Rights
Rather than RFE’s position in these culture wars, it was RFE’s close cooperation with Polish dissidents in the wake of the Helsinki Declaration that consolidated its credibility and meant its conceptualisation of Polish culture would become dominant in the popular imagination. In the background of Détente, the Helsinki Accords of 1975 brought European states together with the USA and the Soviet Union. The final document was a compromise that recognised certain territorial frontiers—a propaganda win for the Soviet Union—but also guaranteed the ‘human and civil rights’ of all the signatories. The Soviet Union did not consider the admission significant—neither did many in the West—but it would go on to fundamentally change the nature of protest.
Opposition figures in Poland saw in the Helsinki declaration an opportunity to use RFE’s broad domestic and international reach to advocate for the safety of individual political prisoners through their ‘human rights’. This approach eschewed previous positions where mass media was used to broadcast calls for wide-spread reform or general condemnation of the regime. In 1976, the first ‘self-defence’ committee was formed, the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) (to be renamed the Committee for Social Self-Defence in 1977). During a series of strikes in 1976, the KOR sent RFE publications calling for the respect of human and civil rights alongside the names and addresses of its members, encouraging listeners to contact them in case of run-ins with the authorities. In this way, KOR encouraged a generation of Poles to actively or passively dissent from the Polish regime and reduced the ‘barrier of fear’ of protest. Other protest groups in Czechoslovakia such as Charter 77 and Eastern Europe followed this approach, marking the birth of civil society dissidence.
Growing trust in the station and closer collaboration with dissidents led to a further change in dissident activities. Whereas previously, opposition figures produced samizdat productions—either directly critical of the government or not to avoid censorship—dissidents began to write samizdat with the sole purpose of being read out on RFE. By the 1980, this amounted to around 600 productions per day, with the Catholic Church also active in sharing communications on political activities, protests or daily life under the regime. Through mass engagement, RFE broke the Soviet monopoly of truth and undermined a key pillar of the communist regime. As the size of the demonstrations shows (and increasingly desperate propaganda attempts of the regime), foreign media has similarly undermined the Belarussian national media’s pretence of truth and objectivity.
Poland: A European legacy
The strength of RFE was marked in Poland relative to other Eastern European countries due the nation’s debt crisis. This rendered the regime particularly sensitive to international opinion and limited its ability to deal with dissent. The regime carried out vigorous campaigns to jam RFE’s broadcast frequencies and intermittently persecuted those caught listening (even though many party officials were keen listeners). But while it managed to limit the clarity of the broadcasting signal, it had no success in challenging RFE’s credibility. Indeed, with RFE’s support, the self-defence committees made the imprisonment or exile of well-known figures counterproductive. The turn to ‘human rights’ further revealed its weaknesses: the party could only attack RFE and dissident’s focus on human rights as ‘a bourgeois criterion’. In contrast to the success of the regime’s previous attacks on the patriotism of the émigré staff, by the end of the 1970s, the regime had lost the ideological battle.
The strikes of 1980 and 1981—where KOR members were a central part of Solidarity’s organisation—laid bare the regime’s instability. Once again offering a degree of press freedom in response to the protests almost resulted in the regime’s fall, leading to the imposition of martial law in 1981. Although this move prolonged the regime’s existence, it was only a matter of time before the regime would fall. The dissident movement of the 1970s sparked the regime’s collapse, with many dissidents who had cut their teeth with RFE going on to become key figures in post-communist Polish governments.
Aside from its role in protests, RFE—Poland’s ‘ministry of culture’ according to Solidarity leader and prime minister Lech Wałęsa—had a sustained impact in the conceptualisation of Polish culture. ‘Europe’ as such was particularly important in this regard; RFE was the only station that regularly broadcast information on European integration and dissidents understood ‘Europe as ‘the cradle of what we describe today as ‘Human Rights’’. The importance of RFE went beyond its work with dissidents, changing conceptions of Germany, the West and Europe.
Parallels with Belarussian protests are clear but worrisome. Foreign radio, press and social media have decentralised protests; enabling mass engagement in organising protest, coordinating support and identifying endangered individuals. However, if Lukashenko’s government retains its determination to govern, there may be much more repression before significant change is achieved. Nonetheless, in its repression the regime may have recognised that it has lost the culture war. It cannot battle with popular opposition figures now resident in the ’West’, perhaps inadvertently changing conceptions of the opposition’s allies in the European Union.
RFE’s history is equally important in the context of unreliable national media within the European Union. Earlier this year, Radio Free Europe announced its decision to reopen in Hungary, expanding its presence in the EU from its bases in Romania and Bulgaria. Those nations clearly do not face the same challenges of Belarus or communist Poland, but the parallels in Hungary’s attacks on individuals commenting on national issues in foreign media are significant. As the example of RFE in Poland shows, it may take a long time before those voices are trusted, but they are a hugely important part of national media landscapes.