Washington — During Pope John Paul II's recent visit, many Poles had trouble getting all the news from Poland's censored media. They ended up getting much of it from Radio Free Europe (RFE), a private organization operating under American management and funded by grants from the United States Congress.
RFE got through despite increasingly sophisticated Soviet radio jamming.
Poland's martial law regime did provide a considerable amount of coverage of the Pope's visit. But with the exception of one papal mass and meetings between the Pope and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, television coverage was local. Full coverage was denied unless a person happened to be right in the city the Pope was visiting.
As part of what some consider an intensified propaganda war between the two superpowers, the US Congress has increased the funding for RFE. The Soviets, meanwhile, have intensified their jamming and have been seeking through various international organizations and conferences to brand RFE as an outlaw and restrict its operations.
During the Pope's visit, RFE increased from 7 hours a day to 17 the amount of original broadcast material it was providing to Poland, thus more than doubling its output. If one counts material repeated, the total came to 22 hours a day.
''We were able to pick up from Western correspondents who were there, their tapes, their sound, and all of the significant public statements made by the Pope, and we got that right back into Poland,'' said James L. Buckley, a former US senator who was appointed late last year to be president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Radio Free Europe broadcasts to Eastern Europe and Radio Liberty to the Soviet Union.
''The Polish people, only by virtue of the existence of Radio Free Europe, were able to have full and complete coverage of a very special event in their lives,'' Mr. Buckley said. ''One way or another - in London, Rome, Paris, Germany - we were able to patch the entire thing together.
''We were also able to inform other parts of Eastern Europe of what was going on,'' he said. ''Czechoslovakia hardly admitted that the Pope was in Poland. Hungary was pretty good. But the rest of the East European countries handled it like a non-event.''
In an interview, Buckley said that RFE intends to open new news bureaus and provide more coverage of the Afghanistan war, Islamic world, and the Pacific region to its East European listeners.
In addition to $90 million already appropriated, the Congress has authorized year 1983. The supplemental funds will allow RFE to replace aging studios and equipment and to make its equipment more ''jamproof.''
Buckley says that people often ask: ''Why spend more than $100 million a year of the taxpayers' money on such broadcasts?''
His answer: ''If you don't want vacuums to be created where people can be manipulated, then you've got to have some instrumentality such as this.''
The organization that tries hardest to fill any vacuums is Radio Moscow. It broadcasts more than 2,000 hours weekly in 82 languages.
The American broadcasting agencies - the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty - are only slightly behind Moscow, with an output of some 1, 900 hours weekly in 60 languages.
According to Buckley, the most conservative estimates show that the Soviets have been spending more to jam than RFE does to broadcast. American officials charge that the jamming flagrantly violates the 1975 Helsinki Accords, under which the signers were supposed to ''facilitate the freer and wider dissemination of information of all kinds.''
Buckley says that East Europeans hunger for straight news, not propaganda. He said that in the case of Poland, 60 to 70 percent of the programming is about Poland itself, making RFE a surrogate radio station for the Poles.
''We, in effect, say to ourselves - and ourselves are emigres: 'What would we in an uncensored society as Poles like to hear about?' Or, to put it another way , 'How do we want to make up for what we're denied by virtue of censorship?'
''We talk about domestic history in these countries, all the history that's being rewritten,'' said Buckley. ''We have religious programming into Czechoslovakia, because it's denied. We will have the works of banned authors.
''And also, we are, in effect, a bulletin board for dissident people like Solidarity. When Solidarity issues a statement, we report it.''
Founded in 1950, RFE became a highly controversial organization 20 years later, when it was revealed that it received money from the US Central Intelligence Agency. Under pressure from Congress, connections with the CIA were severed in the early 1970s, and congressional appropriations were granted through the presidentially appointed Board for International Broadcasting (BIB).
Buckley acknowledged that there was concern among some senators and congressmen that new appointments by President Reagan to an expanded BIB and changes in the way oversight for RFE is conducted might ''politicize'' its operations. But he contended that such fears have not proved justified.