Communication and resistance. The instrumental role of Western radio stations in opening up Eastern Europe - article ; n°1 ; vol.2, pg 55-69
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Communication and resistance. The instrumental role of Western radio stations in opening up Eastern Europe - article ; n°1 ; vol.2, pg 55-69


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Learn all about the services we offer
15 Pages


Réseaux. The French journal of communication - Année 1994 - Volume 2 - Numéro 1 - Pages 55-69
Summary: Throughout the Cold War two types of radio stations broadcast to the Communist countries: 'sovereign' radio (e.g. BBC, RFI) and 'substitute' radio (e.g. Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty). They developed, from the same sources of information, two distinct styles of production and relations with listeners. These radio stations were both a political instrument and a cultural vector, a link with the West and a medium for local communications, until broadcasting finally gained its freedom through political change.
15 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1994
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Jacques Sémelin
Liz Libbrecht
Communication and resistance. The instrumental role of
Western radio stations in opening up Eastern Europe
In: Réseaux, 1994, volume 2 n°1. pp. 55-69.
Summary: Throughout the Cold War two types of radio stations broadcast to the Communist countries: 'sovereign' radio (e.g.
BBC, RFI) and 'substitute' radio (e.g. Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty). They developed, from the same sources of information,
two distinct styles of production and relations with listeners. These radio stations were both a political instrument and a cultural
vector, a link with the West and a medium for local communications, until broadcasting finally gained its freedom through political
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Sémelin Jacques, Libbrecht Liz. Communication and resistance. The instrumental role of Western radio stations in opening up
Eastern Europe. In: Réseaux, 1994, volume 2 n°1. pp. 55-69. COMMUNICATION
The instrumental role of Western radio
stations in opening up Eastern Europe
Translated by Liz Libbrecht
Summary: Throughout the Cold War two types of radio stations
broadcast to the Communist countries: 'sovereign' radio (e.g.
BBC, RFI) and 'substitute' radio (e.g. Radio Free Europe, Radio
Liberty). They developed, from the same sources of information,
two distinct styles of production and relations with listeners.
These radio stations were both a political instrument and a
cultural vector, a link with the West and a medium for local
communications, until broadcasting finally gained its freedom
through political change. 55 COMMUNICATION AND RESISTANCE
Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Lib
3 COMMUNICATION erty (RL) both of which broadcast from
Munich. The former was aimed at Central
and Eastern Europe, from 1950, and the
AND second at the Soviet Union republics,
from 1953. The more modest role of Vati
can Radio, Radio France Internationale
RESISTANCE (RFI), the Iteutschlandfund (broadcasting
to East-Central Europe) and Deutsche
Welle (broadcasting to the USSR), as well
as Austrian, Luxembourg and Swedish
radio stations, must also be mentioned.
The Western instrumental radio stations role of in
What roles did these radio stations play
opening up Eastern Europe in Eastern European countries' slow and
difficult march away from communism?
The thoughts presented here are based
mainly on recent research on the develop
ment of Western radio broadcasting t
owards Poland during the 1980s*. This
work could also provide a wealth of info
rmation for an analysis of modes of politi
cal communication in the context of other
authoritarian or totalitarian régimes - in Jacques SÉMELIN
the East or the South - since its goal is to
better understand listening habits with
respect to foreign media, within a country
where the media are subjected to ex
tremely severe censorship.
Many observers were struck by
the role of Western media in
'Sovereign' 'substitute' the process of political and
change that shook Eastern
radio stations and Central Europe during the course of
1 989. The penetration of the East by these
Two types of 'political' radio stations must media was not however a new phenomen
first be distinguished. On the one hand, on; from the time of the Cold War,
the BBC, VOA and RFI which are so-called Western radio stations broadcasting on
'sovereign' radio stations and, on the short or medium waves tried to break
other hand, RFE and RL which can be through the isolation of communist bloc
considered as 'substitute' radio stations. populations.
Sovereign radio stations are essentially
The most important of these were the the mouth-pieces of those countries from
which they are broadcast and their main British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
which broadcast to these countries with function is to be a radiophonie 'mirror' of
out interruption from 1939, the Voice of the State financing them. In this respect,
America (VOA) which broadcast from these radio stations must fulfil the r
1947, and two other American stations equirements set by their regulatory autho
hosted by immigrants from the East, rities, generally the Department of
* Research carried out with the assistance of the Programme Communication of the French
national scientific research centre (CNRS).
57 Jacques SÉMELIN
Foreign Affairs. Their functions are prin hand, to instigating or amplifying internal
cipally the explanation of the broadcast opposition to these regimes. In contrast to
ing country's foreign policies, the sovereign radio stations, the aim was not
promotion of its economy and the diffu that of attracting, but of pressurizing the
sion of its culture and language. A sover targeted country. Presenting itself as the
eign radio station's main task is therefore Voice of the people", this type of radio
to address the whole world, which basi station wanted to provide an alternative
to the 'official voice' of State-controlled cally means that, in principle, it cannot
be adapted to the specific characteristics media. In other words, the logic behind a
of national audiences. This claim of substitute radio station was not formed in
reaching a worldwide public means that relation to the source, as in the preceding
case, but in relation to the target, i.e. the it permanently risks talking to nobody at
all, precisely because it does not take into supposed expectations of the chosen
account whoever it is addressing. Broad audience. The legitimacy of its pro
casting in the languages of the target grammes was primarily based on every
populations is of course the first way of thing that the official media did not say or
reaching potential foreign audiences, but that they manipulated, whether facts and
this merely amounts to correcting the current events or elements of the receiv
principle of international communication ing county's history and culture which
defined from the source and not the tar were purposely concealed or twisted by
get. In this sense, the logic behind a sover the communist State.
eign radio station's communication is
based on attraction dynamics, since its
A common ideology, different goal is to contribute to the broadcasting
country's influence. Consequently its messages
functions do not include - in theory - that
of providing an alternative source of info Whether sovereign or substitute, Western
rmation for those countries with severe radio stations all adopted the same ideo
media censorship. If it does - in practice logical references by claiming to be moti
- do so fairly often, this is over and above vated by common political or moral
its general mandate, and with the specific principles, i.e. those of democracy and
intention of attracting particular listeners authentic information. In this sense, they
and thereby broadening its international tried to ensure that their programmes
audience. reflected the democratic values that they
wished to convey, and thereby hoped to The logic of a substitute radio station
contribute towards educating their lisuch as RFE or RL was quite different.
steners about democracy. This basic funcThese stations were established by the
tion of political 'representation' could United States in the Cold War context, to
however, lead them to account for only the counteract Soviet domination in Europe
most positive aspects of Western so(Michie, 1963; Mickelson, 1983). In the
cieties. Because of this, and by means of terminology of the time, it was a question
a selection of subject matter, they tended of forming an 'ideological arm' to contrib
to present a simplified and idealized view ute to the 'liberation of the captives of
of the West. communism*. The radiophonie instr
ument seemed particularly appropriate for
These radio stations also stried to respect implementing this strategy which was to
the principle of authenticity of informatcontribute, on the one hand, to vigorously
ion by presenting themselves as contrary denigrating the legitimacy of communist
to the system they opposed; if totalitarianregimes in Europe and, on the other
ism is synonymous with propaganda.
news. By means of its manner of presentthen democracy must be synonymous
with truth. The radio stations that repre ing current events, the BBC also strives
to give the right to speak to both the sented must therefore pro
vided their listeners with this guarantee authorities of a country and the main
of 'truth' which was one of the minimal representatives of its internal opposition.
conditions for ensuring the credibility of In short, the detached tone of its an
their 'messages' and developing listener nouncers is the permanent expression of
loyalty. It was a concept that was fiercely the objectivity that the British stations
defended by Jan Nowak within RFE would like to practise. The VOA displays
(Nowak, 1988). There was also, amongst very clearly what it is: the Voice of
the Westerners who practise foreign America. An instrument of 'public diplo
broadcasting, an ideology, a 'philosophy macy', the station aims at explaining
of truth', clearly expressed in the titles of America to the whole world. Every day an
several English language books on the editorial is announced by the phrase:
subject: Gerard Mansell's reference book This is the viewpoint of the American
on the BBC's history, Let the Truth Be government'. However, because all the
news programmes remain steeped in a Told, those of the two American experts,
Edward Barret, Truth is Our Weapon, and somewhat official American vision, this
Wilson Dizard, The Strategy of Truth. This preliminary warning appears very formal
position of principle does not however and has often been condemned. As East
mean that Western radio programmes European immigration radio stations fi
nanced by the United States, RFE and RL have never been 'biased', particularly
since propaganda is not necessarily de have yet another approach. The hosts of
these stations, whose personal histories ceptive, as was shown by Guy Durandin
(Durandin, 1982). None of these authors reflect the refusal of communism in their
considers these radio stations 'propagand countries, select news items and build
ist', no matter what their hosts say, programmes which do not even try to
simply because their mission is to pro conceal their bias. As the Polish journalist
David Varszawski explains, 'for RFE, the mote the positions of the governments
world is divided in two - East and West - that support them, or because they pro
vide a kind of 'advertisement' for democr and the Third World doesn't exist.
acy and its values. Through its programmes RFE tells us
every day: 'You are the soldiers of free
dom', without this meaning that we arms'.*
Although all radio stations are inspired by should take up As for RFI, its
original style distinguished it from the the same principles, the ways in which
other stations when it resumed its prthey present them on the *waves* differ
ogrammes broadcast to Poland after greatly. Because they are primarily the
General Jaruzelski's bid for power on 13 product of the society from which they are
December 1981. According to Jacek broadcast, they offer listeners a repre
Fedorowicz, a famous Polish humorist, sentation of the world seen from Paris,
London or Washington, one that is always •RFI was the only radio station that, in the
specific. Thus the BBC 'World Service' darkest moments of the 'state of war',
knew how to talk with humour and somenews bulletin, translated into 43 lan
guages, claims to provide a 'balanced' times even joke, and it's strange, those
jokes that theoretically should have representation of international news so
shocked us, rather brought us closer to that listeners may evaluate the signifi
RFI. It's really quite an interesting psy- cance of events in their own countries,
within a continuous flow of international
• Interview with David Varszawski, July 1989.
59 Jacques SÉMEUN
chological phenomenon. When RFE an the diffusion of popular music (jazz and
nounced an event with a sinister voice, then rock). For example, when Elton John
was invited in 1979 to tour the Soviet adding one of Beethoven's most serious
pieces, RFI talked about it quite normally' Union, he was amazed to hear the public
(Fedorowicz, 1988). singing along with him even though none
of his records was on sale in the country;
In other words, although they all use the his fans had learned his songs by heart
same sources of information, every radio when listening to the VOA. Western radio
station has its own style and 'message'. stations were similarly a vehicle for the
Their listeners can often recognize them diffusion of books published in the West
from their tone and the vocabulary used, (from 1975 the Deutsche Welle read Solz-
before the announcer has given the radio henitsyn's Gulag Archipelago in Russian),
station's name. This suggests that li as well as articles in intellectual journals
steners are not necessarily so easily de not found in the East, which were propa
ceived by propaganda fed to them. Whilst gated surprisingly quickly. The former
they turn to foreign radio stations to hear editor of Esprit, Paul Thibaut, tells of his
other versions of events than those broad amazement when, upon his arrival in Po
cast by the media of their own country, land in 1984, a friend immediately con
they also learn how to decode 'messages' gratulated him on his article published in
from outside. this journal shortly before his departure.
He had just heard it read in Polish on RFI.
Windows to East-West
communication For their listeners in the East these radio
stations were a primary source of info
rmation on international news seen from During the Cold War period Western radio
stations were the only possible daily link the West, on lifestyles in the West, and on
scientific and technological progress and that people in the East had with the West, jammed.* in spite of these stations being its applications in daily life. Their pr
ogrammes also provided the main foreign were therefore the main medium of They
source of ideological contestation of the a West-East communication flow, and for
listeners in the East, they provided 'win communist regimes, a point emphasized
dows' open onto the West. Some border by the Hungarian sociologist Elemer Han-
kiss: 'In the worst moments of our isolatelevisions played a similar role from the
tion, Western radio stations and 1970s, in particular between the two
especially RFE provided us with radical Germanies, but Western radio stations
criticism of totalitarianism, which was were historically the first to establish this
type of 'bridge' vital for all those who lived within the by means of radio waves.
system and had to tolerate if/ These In retrospect this appears to have been of
stations were thus an element of permaconsiderable strategic importance, since
nent contradiction of communist ideology the initial communist project was aimed
diffused by the State media. One of the precisely at isolating the Eastern Euro
basic principles of totalitarianism, as pean populations from any 'capitalist
contamination'. shown by Jacques Rupnik (Rupnik,
1990), was to scramble all the reference
In spite of the division of the continent, points of history and of people's memories
these radio stations were a significant so as to deprive people of their own identi
West-East cultural vector, starting with ty. In this truly psychological war, listen-
* See Variables of information production, below.
t Interview with Elemer Hanklss, December 199 1 .
ing to Western radio stations was a means papers like Le Monde or The New York
crazy' in totalitarian isola Times who carried out this function, and of not 'going
tion. Even if their programmes also partly their dispatches and articles were a signi
consisted of propaganda, at least they had ficant source for external radio station
the advantage of providing listeners with programmes. Bernard Guetta, a corr
another conception of reality and of his espondent for Le Monde in Warsaw be
tory. tween 1980 and 1983, explained how his
article 'sent by telex to his editors at
around 7.30 am and published in the first
The Loops of edition of the newspaper available in Paris
at around 2 pm, was immediately transEast-West/West-East
lated by RFE and RFI, who broadcast
Communication large extracts of it in the late afternoon'.*
Western radio stations were therefore not
A second and more complex circuit of out of step with current news, since they
communication was superimposed on could offer their Polish listeners informat
this first West-East flow, one in which ion and analyses on the events of the day.
information from the East 'passed
through' the West and finally returned to In the second place, these stations be
the East. This loop ensured a supply of came the most favoured medium for the
East-East communication via the West, national expression of resistant public
i.e. via Western radio stations. The latter opinion, notably by serving to amplify the
were thus in a sense 'ricochet radio sta underground press. The latter was except
tions' in that a news item from the East ionally dynamic in Poland, were 2,077
was reflected back by them to a target in newspapers and news bul
the East. This course of information t letins were counted between 1982 and
owards the outside, and then back into the 1986, with a circulation of between 1 ,500
country, was an obvious means of ci and 80,000 copies (Jakubowicz, 1990).
rcumventing the censoring of national The diffusion of these papers, mostly
media. Western radio stations were thus limited to a town or region, was extended
the first to inform people in the East of the by means of Western radio stations which
main crises in the communist bloc, from would read the articles that they con
the strikes in East Berlin in 1953 to the sidered to be the most significant. Instead
Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. To of having at best 20-80,000 readers, they
this end, RFE and RL developed the tech thereby reached a potential audience of
nique called cross-reporting, which aimed several million. According to Jan Marcin,
at informing each country in the Eastern RFE was by far the most active in this
bloc of current events in the other Soviet field, which 'was one of the main reasons
for listening to this station* states. (Marcin,
In the Polish case, three modes of oper
ation of East-West-East communication This national amplification of the opposit
during the 1980s have been identified. ion's voice was also an unquestionable
Most importantly, Western radio stations advantage for Its leaders. For example,
indirectly ensured the pluralism of the Lech Walesa's views after his liberation in
media in the receiving countries, as was December 1982 often constituted the edi
shown by Georges Mond in particular torial of the Gdansk weekly, SoUdamosc,
(Mond, 1984). It was mostly journalists which had a circulation of around 40,000.
from Western press agencies or news- I When Western radio stations used one of
♦ Interview with Bernard Guetta, February 1990.
61 Jacques SÉMELIN
Walesa's texts they gave the union leader therefore the most practical means for
strikers to be informed on what the others the possibility of addressing the entire
Polish nation, something which was at the were doing, and thereby facilitated com
time denied to him by the official media. munication between groups separated by
During the course of the Polish liberation, hundreds of kilometers (e.g. between
in 1987 and 1988, opposition leaders Szczecin and Cracow) but sometimes also
within the vast shipyards of Gdansk itself. such as Lech Walesa, Jacek Kuron, Adam
Michnik, Bronislaw Geremek and others,
agreed to be interviewed by Western radio
The variables of information stations - first the BBC, VOA and RFI and
then RFE. During Pope John Paul II's production
different trips (1979. 1983, 1987). Vatican
Radio was also a way of rapidly being Western radio stations thus served as
informed on his different sermons, some springs that with varying degrees of sens
of which were partly or entirely censored itivity and strength transmitted informat
by the official media (Ash. 1990). Simil ion from the West to the East, or from the
arly, all strikes, protests and symbolic East back to the East. The strategic node
acts by the opposition were reported on of this communication system pivoted on
Western radio stations. A demonstration information processing in the West, i
organized in the morning in Warsaw ntended for the peoples of the East. But the
could be known throughout Poland the nature and intensity of this mediation
same evening (via the circuit of Western varied depending on the countries con
radio agency dispatches), whereas the of cerned and the period, and so had a
ficial media remained silent and the considerable influence on changes of
underground press was unable to report Western stations' staff and programmes.
on it until several days later. In this respect, the West-West mediation
process resulted in the interaction of sev
eral variables: Finally, at times of social or political
crisis, Western radio stations and espec
ially RFE became the internal liaison i authorities' policies Regulatory nstruments of the opposition movement
which was itself deprived of its own means It is often believed that international
of communication. For example, during broadcasting always benefited from the
the Solidarnosc period of August 1980 to unfailing support of the States financing
December 1981 the independent trade it. This is not at all so. In several countries
union, which wanted urgently to as its history is characterized by successive
semble its national committee, had the crises during which its very existence was
convocation broadcast by RFE. This en sometimes threatened, which shows the
abled all its delegates in Poland to be at depth of conflict between international
the meeting on time (Picaper, 1987). Dur radio stations and their regulatory autho
rities. The most varied and contradictory ing the strikes of the spring and summer
of 1988, RFE also contributed towards criticism was directed at their pro
facilitating contact between strikers. grammes towards the East which were in
Since telephonic communication was very turn accused of being too accommodating
towards the communist system, too difficult between the different striking
areas, but paradoxically far easier with 'diplomatic', not efficient enough and
foreign countries (and particularly via therefore useless, too aggressive and
Paris or London), RFE served as a permaembarrassing in a process of
nent centre for information on the deve rapprochement with the East. For
lopment of the conflict. This station was example, the period of McCarthyism in
the United States severely shook the VOA, more when contact with the receiving
accused of being a 'den of communists', country was reduced.
while budgetary restrictions in Britain af Since Poland was the former communist fected the development of the BBC World
bloc country that underwent the most Service. It was in France that this calling
social and political crises, generating a into question was the most radical, for in flow of immigrants towards the West, it 1974 the newly-created RFI was obliged
was the Polish sections of Western radio to cease all its programmes to the East stations that experienced the highest staff and concentrate its resources on the
turnover. This was the case with the BBC South. France only resumed its pr and RFI, where the majority of staff (workogrammes to the East seven years later
ing in 1989) had left Poland between 1970 when it reopened its Polish service at the
and 1983. The Deutschlandfunk and RFE end of 198 1 after General Jaruzelski's bid
(established in Munich) benefited less for power. Later, other programmes for from this stream of immigrants because Eastern Europe were launched again (Ro
of strict labour legislation in West Germanian, Serbo-Croatian and Russian). many which protected employees and was
therefore less favourable to staff mobility
than that of France or Britain. By comp
Recruitment of immigrant staff arison, the renewal of staff in the other
Eastern sections was far more limited
In the wake of the Second World War, (with the exception of the post- 1956
programmes to the East were mainly period for Hungary and the 1968
hosted by immigrants who, after having for Czechoslovakia), which might
fought Nazism, committed themselves to explain notably the lack of vitality in the
the struggle against communism. Many Russian sections, at least until Soviet
of them soon found themselves removed Jews were allowed to emigrate. Western
from the realities of their countries that radio stations were often unable to recruit
they had left several years earlier and of real journalists for their Eastern sections,
which the new political regimes were because they could not find any. Recruit
foreign to them. Until the start of the ment criteria were therefore essentially
1970s these 'pre- communism' immi based on the candidates' political convict
grants constituted the majority of the ions, their motivations for working in
radio stations' staff, but the various crises radio, and their intellectual qualities. The
in communist Europe (1956, 1968, 1981) result was a sad lack of professionalism
initiated fresh waves of immigration in the 'journalists' of these stations, not
within which the managers of Western ably as far as RFE was concerned.
radio stations looked for new talent for
their services. These new arrivals were
indeed more perceptive of the expecta Functioning of the radio stations tions of a country that they had recently
left than the preceding generation. The Whatever their origin, immigrants from
cohabitation of two or three generations Eastern Europe knew how to adapt thems
could, however, only be a source of ten elves to the organizational requirements
sion between those who had always re of the radio station for which they worked.
jected communism, those who had In this respect, modes of functioning dif
believed in it, and those who had grown fered greatly between the above-ment
ioned 'sovereign' radio stations. The up within the system. Each wave of immi
grants arrived with its own concept of the production of news broadcasts was for
supposed expectations of the targeted example highly centralized at the BBC or
audience cencepts that clashed all the VOA, where the language services needed
63 SÉMEUN Jacques
only translate the news bulletins pro ist regimes and to favour their progressive
duced centrally by the news room. In liberalization, whilst also taking care to
contrast, RFI's journalists had always en avoid thorny questions such as frontier
problems or that of Soviet unity. joyed considerable autonomy in the cre
ation of their programmes, including
news bulletins. These different internal In spite of this general orientation, two
practices largely explain the serious and conceptions of programmes regularly
formal style of the VOA or the BBC and clashed. On the one hand that of the
the more direct and relaxed style of RFI. 'hard-sellers' who considered that the
radio station was first and foremost an The case of the substitute radio stations
instrument for political persuasion inRFE and RL is altogether different. Every
tended to educate listeners drugged by 'guides' drawn up centrally by section day several decades of disinformation; and, heads with the approval of the American
on the other hand, that of the 'soft-sellers' management, listed the subjects to be
who thought that their main mission was dealt with, the way in which they had to
to inform, and that this information had be handled, and, when relevant, the sub
to be 'objective' and 'professional', leaving jects to be avoided. Before being broad
listeners in control of their judgement cast, the programme scripts were
since they were in the best position to submitted to the editors for their signa
know that the communist system was a ture. Journalists were moreover obliged
'failure' (Buell, 1986). In reality the analto respect a 'professional code' defining
ysis of programmes shows that the two the limits of their activity. This code was
approaches co-habited in RFE and RL established following the Hungarian
programmes until the 1980s, something crisis in 1956 when RFE was accused of
of which the American managers were instigating insurrection (Fejtó, 1981;
aware. In 1986 a report by the Soviet Sémelin, 1992). It specified for example
dissident historian, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, that 'public actions of the USSR govern
criticized the 'extreme nationalism of RL's ment and party officials must be di
Russian programme, particularly in hisscussed by the RFE/RL staff in a
torical and religious programmes' (Alexresponsible and dignified manner' (point
eyeva, 1986) and in 1987 several experts, 3), ... , that 'nothing must be broadcast
commissioned by the radio station's diwhich could legitimately be interpreted as
rectors to analyse its Polish programme, an incentive to violence or as irredentist',
urged them to 'abandon its eternal compthat 'RFE/RL neither supports nor en
laining tone, forever harping on everycourages any separatist or secessionist
thing that is wrong in Poland' for The movements nor raises any territorial
Polish listener is sufficiently educated questions' (point 4) ... that 'any sugges
politically; he does not need to be contion which could lead listeners to believe
vinced that communism does not work' that the West might intervene militarily in
(Pomar, 1987). In fact, the presence of any part of their territory in the event of
employees who had been with the radio civil strife or international crisis, is to be
stations for many years, and more so with avoided' (point 8) and ended by declaring
RL than RFE, contributed to maintaining that 'RFE/RL professionals must repre
a way of thinking and of expression insent a model of tolerance and respect of
herited from the Cold War. This practice plurality, diversity and human rights for
probably drove listeners away from both all' (point 10) (RFE/RL professional code
stations, although many remained loyal RFE/RL 1987).
because they saw in RFE and RL indi
The station's policy was therefore to en spensable allies in their aspiration for the
courage gradual change within opening up of their societies.