Commentary by Ted Lipien

RFE Polish Radio Page

Polish Television will air next weekend a five-part documentary film about the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe as a tribute to its message of freedom.

Radio Free Europe no longer broadcasts to now free Poland, but the American taxpayer-funded institution is highly valued in the country for helping to sustain the struggle for democracy during the Cold War.

The documentary film titled “Radio of Freedom” offers a condensed history of nearly half a century of communist rule in Poland. The station played a critical role during that entire period by exposing human rights abuses and serving as an open forum for pro-democracy Poles living in Poland and in the West.

Leaders of the Catholic Church, including the future pope John Paul II, left-wing activists and intellectuals like Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, and workers such as Solidarity leader Lech Walesa relied on Radio Free Europe for uncensored information and commentary. They also contributed to its programs, both secretly and openly.

Jan Nowak Plaque in WarsawLast year, Poland celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first Polish broadcast of Radio Free Europe which aired in 1952. The late first director of the Polish Service, Jan Nowak Jezioranski, was honored with a special plaque in Warsaw. In 1996, Jan Nowak Jezioranski received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, highest civilian award in the United States.

Polish Radio digitized the entire collection of preserved RFE Polish tapes (using the copies at the National Digital Archive in Warsaw) and has them available on its site in digital format.

The Polish Television film is just one of many honors Radio Free Europe is receiving in Poland. Politicians, intellectuals, artists and ordinary Poles have expressed in various ways their appreciation of the station’s remarkable role in the nation’s recent history.

But its influence was not limited to Poland alone. Led by Peja of the Polish rap group Slums Attack, Europe’s rappers recorded last year a multilingual tribute to the political and cultural freedom message of Radio Free Europe.

Using historical film footage of Radio Free Europe broadcasters, rappers from several European countries make statements similar to dissident voices heard on the station before the fall of the Iron Curtain. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe broadcast both news commentary and music, which communists in Poland and other Soviet-dominated nations tried unsuccessfully to silence through jamming of radio signals.

But in today’s unusable and not much freer world, the station’s important voice of freedom to nations which continue to suffer under authoritarian regimes is becoming unfortunately much weaker due to decreased U.S. funding and growing indifference in America to showing solidarity with dissidents who fight for their rights in countries like China, Iran and Russia.

Last year, the former American management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) fired dozens of journalists in Russia without even allowing them to say good bye to their audience. It was perhaps the lowest point in the station’s pro-freedom history. It happened at the time when President Putin was intensifying his war against civil society. A new management, installed earlier this year by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the U.S. government’s sponsor of the station, is reportedly working on repairing the damage and bringing the journalists back.

But the fact remains that most Americans have forgotten how effective dissident voices from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and Voice of America (VOA) were in peacefully transforming unfree societies at a minimal cost. It is still the best investment in democracy abroad and security at home, but it needs additional funding from Congress to remain effective in technologically transformed world and to counter increased pushback from dictators, authoritarian regimes, terrorists, and other anti-American ideologists.

Poland’s tributes to Radio Free Europe serve as a reminder that while Central and Eastern Europe are now largely democratic, many less fortunate nations still need a platform for uncensored, dissident voices and a show of solidarity from America.

Ted Lipien listened to Radio Free Europe while growing up in communist-ruled Poland and later served as Voice of America (VOA) acting associate director. He is a co-founder of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB).

Watch RFE/RL Video: Radio Free Europe at 60