USAGM Watch Commentary

By Ted Lipien

Happy Birthday Radio Free Europe!

I had lived in communist-ruled Poland until the age of 16 listening to RFE Polish Service. Its broadcasts opened my mind, although as far as knowledge of history and understanding of Marxism, communism, state-run media, schools and socialist economies, I had already learned basic facts from my family, neighbors, Catholic priests and nuns, and a few courageous teachers. I was also old enough to make my own observations of life in a country ruled by a Soviet-imposed, illegal, and inhuman regime.

What Radio Free Europe gave me was hope that I might be able to escape such a life and live in freedom, which I did in 1970. I did not know then and did not expect the Soviet communist empire to collapse within my lifetime. When I was a teenager in Poland I dreamed of working for Radio Free Europe, but because I emigrated to the United States to join my father, in 1973 I started working instead for the Voice of America in Washington, DC as a 20-year-old college student.

In the 1980s I had the honor of leading the VOA Polish Service during Solidarity trade union’s struggle for human rights and Poland’s independence. I interviewed future Pope John Paul II and Solidarity leader and future Polish President Lech Wałęsa. In 1989 I covered for VOA the fall of communism in Poland. I retired in 2006 from my last VOA job as acting associate director in charge of central programs.

Thank you Americans for supporting Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America during the Cold War!

Thank You RFE!

I also want to say: Thank You VOA!

It was not always easy, but I had a rewarding and meaningful career in Cold War journalism.

Until the Ronald Reagan’s presidency, we at the Voice of America did not have the same freedom as RFE journalists had. We envied their superior programming to Poland. But even with various policy restrictions, the Voice of America also contributed to restoring democracy in East-Central Europe from the early 1950s through the end of the 1980s.

Yet I’m convinced that the Voice of America could not have done it alone if there were no Radio Free Europe. The end of Communism in Europe would not have come as fast as it did. RFE’s administrative setup and personnel were far superior to VOA’s.

VOA also had a much more problematic history than RFE and unlike RFE its leadership has never acknowledged some of its biggest mistakes and failures. There were Communist and Soviet sympathizers among Voice of America’s early officials and journalists, people like Howard Fast, the 1953 recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize; RFE never hired Communists unless they had already left the Communist Party and condemned Communism.

There were times between 1942 and 1981 when VOA repeated Soviet propaganda, censored Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and downplayed reports about the Gulag; RFE never did.

In the last decade, both RFE/RL and VOA went through some very difficult times. In 2012 and 2013 I successfully helped RFE/RL reform its management after dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia were unjustly fired. Most of the dismissed journalists were eventually rehired by RFE/RL.

The Voice of America experienced even greater difficulties. The management fired or disciplined several anti-Communist VOA Mandarin Service journalists who wanted to expose crimes of the Communist Party regime in China. They are still waiting for justice. Under former agency director John F. Lansing who is now running NPR, and former VOA director Amanda Bennett who has recently resigned, VOA editors posted materials in praise of Che Guevara and American Communist Angela Davis. They at times repeated without challenge propaganda from Russia, China and Iran, leading finally to a public rebuke from President Donald Trump and the White House.

VOA and even to some degree RFE/RL have acquired in recent year a strong partisan bias of left-leaning American media which now defends the failed former agency executives and biased VOA editors while attacking the new management which at least promises to bring administrative reforms and to respect the VOA Charter. Reading U.S. media accounts of the controversy and looking at some recent Voice of America programs I sometimes feel I’m back in communist-ruled Poland reading communist newspapers.

But I still have faith in American democracy, free elections, free press and hopefully the ability of U.S. government-funded broadcasters to change and improve as they had done in the past. I have not yet lost my faith in Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. May they still help those who want freedom and uncensored news without propaganda and ideological bias.

Happy Fourth of July 2020!

Radio Free Europe started broadcasting 70 years ago on July 4, 1950. This publicity pamphlet describes RFE circa 1960.

Radio Free Europe started broadcasting 70 years ago on July 4, 1950. This publicity pamphlet describes RFE in 1957.

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