“This is Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty”: Historical and current perspectives on RFE/RL in the (post-)soviet space
Interview with Martins Zvaners and Matthew Luxmoore
The Belarusian protest against the fraudulent Presidential Elections of 2020 continues, in the face of brutal repression by Belarusian law enforcement and security services and an ever-tightening legal framework focused on snuffing out any opposition to Alexander Lukashenko’s continued rule. The transmission of information and communication among the protestants proves to be of utmost importance for the movement in Belarus. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is an important stakeholder in the landscape of independent media covering on Belarus, upholding democratic values in the broader region.
Founded during the Cold War the US-American organization has been a voice of freedom and democracy for people in authoritarian states. While governments behind the Iron Curtain may have perceived RFE/RL as a propaganda instrument and a threat to their own hold on power, audiences were endlessly creative in their efforts to listen to the credible, fact-based news and analysis RFE/RL offered its audiences in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
In early November 2020, four months after RFE/RL 70th anniversary and still in the midst of the nationwide protests in Belarus, we had the opportunity to interview Martins Zvaners, Deputy Director for Media and Public Affairs at RFE/RL and Matthew Luxmoore, Moscow Correspondent for RFE/RL.
Mr Zvaners gave us insights into the history of RFE/RL and its current engagement in Belarus, while Mr Luxmoore conveyed his impressions of the situation for journalists reporting on Belarus and the overall situation for the democracy movement in Belarus.
Interview by Martha Schmidt and Philipp Bittner
RFE/RL: Perspectives from History and the Belarusian Context
There are a lot of voices who ascribe RFE/RL an enormous role in the overcoming of the socialist system. What role did RFE/RL play during the time of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe? In which way did RFE/RL contribute to the changes in 1989/90?
Martins Zvaners: Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were created in the early 1950’s to re-engage those who had been driven from their homelands by Soviet communism with their brothers and sisters back home. They pioneered the concept of “surrogate broadcasting” – to model what a high-quality, journalistically strong, independent, public service media could be for audiences whose rulers denied them the trustworthy information they craved. RFE and RL played a simultaneously simple and yet deeply profound role – by providing factual and credible news and analysis, and reminding audiences throughout the region of their true histories and cultural achievements, The Radios gave their audiences a chance to decide for themselves what kind of society they wanted to live in. Ultimately, they empowered and gave agency to the pro-democracy dissidents and opposition leaders of the late 1980’s who brought down the Iron Curtain.
Said Solidarity trade union leader and later President of post-Soviet Poland Lech Wałęsa on the importance of Radio Free Europe’s relationship to the trade union: “The degree cannot even be described. Would there be earth without the sun?”
Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said, “Radio Liberty was our connection with our own country.”
And Czech playwright, dissident, and later President of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia Václav Havel added, “What made [RFE] important was its impartiality, independence, and objectivity… not only for dissidents but for the entire listening public, who receive not only truthful news about various ideals and other lifestyles, but also hope.”
In the view of the former socialist states RFE/RL was a propaganda instrument of the United States. Up until the seventies the CIA financed operations of RFE/RL. To which extent was this a just accusation?
Martins Zvaners: This issue has been dissected in various forums and histories of RFE/RL, by such experts as Ross Johnson and Arch Puddington. All of the credible reports I am aware of ascribe to CIA oversight of the Radios the lightest of touches, as the “political advisors” assigned to the organizations, like Paul Henze and Cord Meyer, understood that credibility was vital for their success; that credibility came from empowering authentic, native voices who spoke the languages the way people really speak, and understood the targeted countries and cultures as well as their listeners; and that credibility could disappear in a flash if the Services were caught lying or “propagandizing” their audience. Of course, for the governments in the target countries, such credibility was a clear threat to their own “messaging” and “propaganda,” and had to be attacked.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the main addressee of RFE/RL was gone. How did the mission of RFE/RL change after 1989, especially regarding Belarus?
Martins Zvaners: I would dispute the idea that our audience disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the previously Communist regimes may have collapsed along with the Iron Curtain, our audiences in all of those markets were still there, and still thirsted for trustworthy news and analysis about what was happening around them. In that sense, the mission never changed – “to promote democratic values and institutions and advance human rights by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.“ In Belarus certainly (the last post-Soviet country to still have a structure named “KGB“), but in many other countries that RFE/RL engages with that are traveling the difficult road from authoritarianism to democracy, old elites transformed themselves into new authorities. Many of the same challenges that our audience members faced under Soviet rule continued beyond 1989. And where appropriate, RFE/RL is serving the needs of these audiences – in some cases returning to legacy markets such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, while in others developing new services such as the 24/7 Current Time channel, targeted at the global Russian-speaking market.
On August 11th, 2020 RFE/RL restarted broadcasting to Belarus, which has been stopped several years ago. What were the reasons for this decision? Is it more a symbolic step or does it make a real difference to people in Belarus? Do you see RFE/RL as an important actor in overcoming the current regime in comparison to 1989/91?
Martins Zvaners: Although our Belarus Service did for several weeks resume cross-border radio operations, the Service’s focus and primary commitment is to reaching Belarusians (and all of our audiences) where they can be found today – and that’s online, in the digital space. As the Lukashenko government throttled access to websites and other social platforms, we’ve moved decisively onto secure platforms like Telegram, and committed to a rich podcasting strategy. We’ve also promoted use of an online app that provides secure access to our content.
As for the Service’s potential role today, I would refer back to a protest in front of Belarus’ state television station on August 15, where employees of the station chanted “Radio Svaboda!” as they condemned the lies broadcast by their own outlet. We intend to continue our mission of showing Belarusians what is really happening in the country, then letting them decide what they want to do about it.
The intention of RFE/RL during the Cold War was to uphold free and independent thinking in authoritarian regimes and by that counteract the consolidation of the socialist systems. In which way does RFE/RL support the protest movement in Belarus regarding its self-declared commitment to democracy?
Martins Zvaners: By letting people hear from all sides of the debate; by letting people see and discuss what is really going on in the country; by giving them the space to make their own decisions – all of these things give the Belarusian people agency to decide what kind of society they want to live in.
Belarus now: perspectives from an RFE/RL reporter in Moscow
Lukashenko’s regime is trying everything to stop independent journalists from reporting on the current protests. New ways of covering events and spreading news like Telegram channels such as NEXTA emerged, but traditional media like radio also witnesses a comeback. Parallel to the protests, are we witnessing a media revolution as well? What are the characteristics of media and its evolution in the post-soviet, Russian-speaking region?
Matthew Luxmoore: I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a media revolution, especially with all the efforts by Lukashenko’s government – many of them successful – to suppress independent reporting. But the emergence of Telegram as a platform for organizing and coordinating protests in Belarus is notable. The following of the NEXTA channel, which is run by a 22-year-old Lukashenko critic living in Warsaw, has ballooned since it started covering the protests against Lukashenko’s re-election on August 9, and it has been a major source of on-the-ground video reports from the protests. The drawback of this reliance on Telegram as a source of information, as I see it, is that the fact-checking practices common to traditional media outlets don’t apply to the same degree on Telegram. NEXTA has been criticized for occasionally amplifying information that later turned out to be misleading or false and has at times appeared to advocate violent means to overthrow the government. If Lukashenko allowed a more thriving media landscape to flourish in Belarus, the quality of the coverage would probably improve as a result, and protesters and international observers wouldn’t have to rely for their information on channels like NEXTA, which operate with little oversight.
How do you report on the events in Belarus, what are your sources? What does being a journalist covering Belarus mean right now?
Matthew Luxmoore: Like many reporters for Western media outlets, I did not receive accreditation to report from Belarus, despite applying ahead of the deadline to cover the election. For stories I write from Moscow I rely on local media outlets like Tut.by and RFE/RL’s excellent Belarus service, which has faced its own share of repression on the part of the government. Several journalists of RFE/RL’s Belarus service have been detained and stripped of accreditation. I also conduct interviews over the phone with sources based in Belarus and analysts who cover its politics. And I follow Telegram channels that actively report on the protests, like Tut.by’s and RFE/RL’s, and to a lesser extent the NEXTA channel.
How do you assess the chances of success for the protest movement in Belarus? Is the violence and repressions going to end or further escalate?
Matthew Luxmoore: My sense is that the violence deployed by Lukashenko’s government has succeeded in part in suppressing the protest movement and intimidating the workers who may otherwise have joined the strikes organized by the opposition. Russia’s support, not least its dispatch of journalists who have flown in to professionalize Lukashenko’s propaganda campaign against the opposition, has also been important here. Lukashenko will continue to suppress the protests that break out each weekend and portray leading activists as Western stooges, but his political legitimacy in Belarus will likely never return to its erstwhile levels. The widespread evidence of fraud in the August 9 election will be used by the opposition to keep pushing the narrative that he is not the legitimate president, even if he manages to continue stifling the protest movement and any other efforts to remove him from power.
Taking into account your expertise on the Russian point of view: What are the interests of Russia/Putin in Belarus? Many Eastern European experts predict Lukashenko being there on borrowed time for the next 1-3 years until the Kremlin finds a replacement they can fully get behind.
Matthew Luxmoore: Russia initially stood aside as it watched the situation develop, probably trusting that Lukashenko, after 26 years in power, would manage in short order to definitively stamp out the unrest. But when that didn’t happen, the Kremlin had to choose whether to back him or to back a transfer of power that it could oversee, or at least in which it could be an active mediator. It chose to throw its support behind Lukashenko, with Putin echoing Minsk’s claims of covert Western involvement in orchestrating the protests and even accusing the US special services of fomenting it. Lukashenko is now in a weaker position vis-à-vis Moscow than he used to be, and probably more likely to acquiesce to its demands for closer integration. Though we’re yet to see concrete evidence of that.
Coming back to the issue of independent press and free speech. Would you agree media freedom is key not only for movements like in Belarus, but also for the future of more experienced democracies like the US or Poland and Hungary?
I certainly think media freedom is key to any democracy and should be upheld as a basic value everywhere.
Thank you both Mr Zvaners and Mr Luxmoore for the valuable and broad insights into your work and RFE/RL’s history and mission.
Martins Zvaners has served as the Washington-based Acting Director of Communications and Public Affairs at RFE/RL since August 2020. Prior to his appointment, he served as Deputy Director, having joined the media organization in 1997. From November 2001-June 2002, Zvaners also was Acting Director of the Communications Division, responsible for RFE/RL’s Regional Analysis, Internet and Outreach activities. Before joining RFE/RL, Zvaners was Director of Public Affairs for the American Latvian Association in the U.S., Inc. from 1990-1997, where he edited that organization’s quarterly newsletter Latvian Dimensions.
Matthew Luxmoore is a writer based in Moscow. He is the Moscow Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Guardian, New Republic, Foreign Policy and Politico. He was a 2018 recipient of New York University’s Reporting Award, which funds projects on under-covered topics, and a 2015 winner of the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award. His 2015 series of dispatches for Al Jazeera America on Russian influence across the former Soviet Union was nominated for the Overseas Press Club of America’s Bob Considine Award.