The scourge of Ceausescu

For people living in the Eastern Bloc during the communist era, Radio Free Europe was one of the few alternative sources for news from the rest of the world. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 revolution, Romania prepares to pay homage to the station that vehemently criticised the Ceausescu regime.

Published on 17 December 2009 at 16:06

How could anyone who grew up in the ‘golden age’ of Nicolae Ceacescu not remember Radio Free Europe (RFE)? In the late 1980s, the corridors of virtually every apartment building in Bucharest were filled with the sound of the jamming signals used to disrupt its Romanian current affairs programme. Even if you decided to take the dog for a walk during the broadcasts, you could still hear snatches of the presenters’ familiar voices in the street outside. Twenty years on, we cannot expect to understand the contemporary history of this country without taking into account the phenomenal influence of Western radio. Without RFE, Radio France Internationale (RFI), Voice of America, BBC or Deutsche Welle, we would never have been exposed to the alternative points of view, which ultimately enabled us to overcome our isolation and protest against censorship. In the last days of the regime, for many of us, RFE broadcasts were part of a daily routine of dissidence to the point where even radio brands—like Selena, Gloria and VEF—became symbols of the resistance. As for myself, a teenager at the time, it was Radio Free Europe (RFE) which first made me aware of the textbook manipulation of the media that characterized Romania under Ceacescu—a realization that resulted in an enduring vocation for journalism.

Against the ‘Genius of the Carpathians’

Launched with a brief to undermine the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe, Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) were supposed to project enlightenment beyond the Iron Curtain, and it was on this basis that they were jointly funded by both the CIA and Congress until 1971, when an outcry in the press led to a severing of links with the CIA. In spite of this initial objective, RFE and RL soon acquired a reputation for solid news reporting and during the Cold War, they were often criticized for not being sufficiently anti-communist. By the time they merged to become RFE/RL in 1976, they were providing listeners in the Eastern Bloc with verified and largely impartial coverage, which was simply unavailable in countries where communist censorship prevailed. The Romanian broadcasts, which were launched in 1951, were finally discontinued in 2008. But to all practical purposes, the end of the Romanian service had already begun with the fall of communism and the death of the Ceausescus, on 25 December 1989. Today, Radio Free Europe continues its mission to promote democratic institutions and values from its headquarters in Prague, where it broadcasts in 28 languages to 20 countries in an area that extends from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and from Russia to Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Throughout its history, RFE’s insistence on respect for human rights and basic freedoms often provoked the anger of communist regimes, which made a number of attempts to seek revenge on the station’s staff. These included a 1981 bomb attack on the RFE’s headquarters, which left one dead and four wounded, perpetrated by the infamous terrorist Ilitch Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. Carlos, on orders from the Romania’s notorious secret police, the Securitate. But even the bombing did not prevent RFE from continuing to broadcast the Romanian language programmes, which remained until the end of the regime, the scourge of the ‘Genius of the Carpathians.’ In view of the immense influence of Radio Free Europe on the history of Romania, it is not surprising that scholars in the country now want to evaluate the material contained in the 3,500 reels of recordings kept at the Hoover Institute in Stanford University, in California.

Bringing back the archives

In mid-December, a nationwide campaign, which aims to build a Free Europe Center of Research and Documentation was launched by the Romanian Institute of Recent History (IRIR), in cooperation with former members of the RFE (Romanian Desk) team, and media and celebrities for whom Radio Free Europe was particularly important. The [“Europa Liberă, Aici!”]( “”Europa Liberă, Aici!””) or “Free Europe, Here!” campaign aims to remind Romanians of the particular role played by this station and its contribution to the struggle for the freedom and well-being of Romanians. In the first days of the revolution in 1989, Radio Free Europe was the only media source to inform all of Europe of the events that that were to trigger the overthrow of the regime in a report that began with the following words: “Parishioners have gathered outside the home of Laszlo Tokes, a pastor of the Romanian Reformed Church in Timisoara, to protest against his eviction by the Securitate from his church flat… “

“The plan to bring the RFE archives to Romania and to make them available to young people is extremely important,” explains Liviu Tofan, director of the IRIR. We are now experiencing “problems that have arisen over the last 20 years, because Romanian society has not had the opportunity to come terms with this period in public debate. Today’s social ills of corruption and favouritism are a legacy from that era, that is why it is essential to understand our mistakes.” Bringing over the archives will be expensive, he adds, “but we firmly believe that when it comes to the understanding of history we should count the cost! With the exception of Bulgaria, ours is the only country in Central and Eastern Europe that has yet to recover these archives.”


Paris muffles RFI

Times change, and radio is no exception to the rule. In the wake of similar initiatives at the BBC and Deutsche Welle, Radio France Internationale (RFI) has embarked on a campaign to cut low ratings programming which will result in the termination of services in six of the twenty languages covered by the broadcaster. Polish, Albanian, Laotian German are set to end on 19 December, Turkish content will disappear by the end of the year, and Serbo-Croat has been given a stay of execution for a few weeks more. Other services, including programmes in Romanian, will be subject to major cutbacks, while the broadcaster’s subsidiaries in Belgrade, Sofia and Lisbon are being put up for sale. The measures are being implemented as a part of a global reorganization of France’s external media service, which involves the loss of 200 jobs. Starting in May, RFI staff responded with a strike which remains ongoing—it has already become the longest strike in the history of the French audiovisual sector. For Le Monde Diplomatique, the restructuring of RFI—which, with 45 million listeners in 74 countries, is the world’s third-ranked international radio service—marks a shift in the geopolitical priorities of the French government, which appears to have set aside any interest in Europe to focus on new targets that are “mainly located in Africa.”

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