Revolutionary Reporting: The Media, Democratization, and Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

Amid the turmoil of the Cold War, the dramatic events of 1989--when communism fell in Central and Eastern Europe--proved a powerful show of journalism's influence as a global force. Then, more than a decade afterward, where mass gatherings forced the old regimes in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine to give up their hold on power through a series of "People's Revolutions," the power of journalism's influence was demonstrated again.

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The domestic media--both legal and illegal--made individual protests and their demands national, put elite divisions and disaffections in the public eye, and gave people a sense of what was wrong and what could and should be the status quo. The international media often legitimized their disaffection, letting people know that the world knew and cared about their plight. In the process, it gave those fighting for change a platform. Stories, broadcasts, shows such as Bonanza and Dallas, and press footage of international political events showed people a world of possibilities and also how freedom, at least of the media, worked.

Before 1989 and before the People's Revolutions, the media were far from unfettered. However, the drive to have a media that told the truth and reported the reality of life instead of a fantasy version encouraged people to take the risk to fight not just for economic gains but also for media freedom. In every upheaval in Central and Eastern Europe from the 1956 Hungarian uprising and on, the call was, "The press lies." This culminated in August of 1980, when Polish workers at the Gdansk shipyard published the 21 Demands of Solidarity, which made demands for the government to guarantee freedom of speech and print as delineated by the Polish constitution, to prevent the persecution of independent publishing houses, and make available mass media to representatives of all political denominations--as well as inform the general public about the true political and economic situation of the country, and allow participation by all social groups in discussions concerning the reform program.

Anticipating the People's Revolutions of the 2000s, demonstrations over the closing of broadcast stations or, in one Ukrainian case, the killing of a muckraking journalist, transformed into practice runs for post-election demonstrations of outrage over election fraud and corruption. These displays of public anger ultimately forced authoritarian leaders out of power in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. In addition, besides the presence of independent broadcast stations, regular contact with international media was a key difference between places where demonstrations were effective and other locations such as Belarus and Uzbekistan where demonstrations ended with police attacks on protesters and a strengthening of the authoritarian leader's control.

Journalism Across Barriers

The meaning of journalism has changed with technological development, expanding the reach and speed of the media. Journalism is not directly able to stop leaders from beating or jailing those who criticize their rule, but its coverage has increasingly made the repression more visible to the world as it happens. The key messages have remained the same: "The world is watching," and, "There are better options." Initially, airborne balloons dropped leaflets, which could mean jail sentences for the daring citizens who picked them up. Then radio broadcasts from Western broadcasting stations started up, ranging from the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America's world news broadcasts to Radio Free Europe (sponsored by the CIA). They reported on international and domestic news and broadcast the opposition's opinion over the radio waves to people in media-restricted countries, bypassing bans on information reporting by Communist rulers. In doing so, RFE and the other stations encouraged people to demand more from their regimes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, reports beyond the news barriers were supplemented by Samizdat dissidents who produced illegal, uncensored journals across Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. …