Liberation on the Airwaves

Will the information technology that contributed so much to the revolutions of 1989 help sustain them?

THE peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe that snowballed into the reunification of East and West Germany raise intriguing questions. Is it possible that the information technologies George Orwell predicted would enslave humanity have instead proved to be a means of liberation? Are totalitarian governments viable in a world where information can no longer be controlled by a ruling elite?

The greatest test of this theory is happening in Lithuania, where Soviet television explained the introduction of Soviet Army tanks into the republic as a response to an ``invitation'' from the citizens of Vilnius to rid their city of ``counterrevolutionaries.'' Shades of Budapest, Prague, and Afghanistan. It's too soon to predict where events will lead.

Although East European communist states could not be considered ``high-tech'' societies, by the mid-1980s their access to television and radio was almost universal (more than 93 percent of households). Just as important, significant numbers of East-Bloc residents could, and did, tune in to TV and radio from across the border in Austria, West Germany, and nonaligned Yugoslavia.

``The enemy of the people stands on the roof,'' former East German Communist Party boss Walter Ulbrich once said of antennas.

Cable and satellite reception was growing in the 1980s (Poland is now estimated to have upwards of 150,000 ``dishes''). Cable News Network could be seen in the big hotels in Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague, and at Communist Party headquarters.

A formidable black market existed in video and audio cassettes, smuggled from outside or produced by the growing media underground. Even in the darkest days, Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation - together with the underground press - kept a critical mass of people informed.

This was hardly the scenario envisaged by communist governments which, early on, adopted the ``Stalinist model,'' a media policy designed to keep the flow of information bottled up or under tight control. Tamas Szecsko, director of Hungary's International Association for Communication Research, likens that model to a pyramid. ``Information was supposed to flow in one direction: from the top down. Horizontal flow was to be kept to a minimum.''

Tomas Goban-Klas, media sociologist at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, says it was no oversight that maps and telephone directories for Moscow simply didn't exist. ``In the Stalin model, only the leader has the right to know everything. For such a system to survive, the flow of words, images, and sounds has all to be contained and controlled. It is a system based on secrecy, ignorance, and fear.''

With the spread of information technology in the '70s and '80s, accompanied by the worsening of economic conditions, the old Stalinist model became increasingly difficult to enforce. By the late '80s, certainly in Poland and Hungary, the secrecy and ignorance components of the triad were no longer operative. The coming to power of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 did much to eliminate the fear.

Marian Terlecki manages Gdansk television today. In 1981, he helped found the Solidarity media underground which, over the next nine years, produced and distributed tens of thousands of illegal audio and videocassettes. In one year, he recalls, cash in hand amounted to $300,000 from wholesale and retail distribution (catalog titles ranged from ``Death of a Priest'' - the story of the murder of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko - to ``Polish Anti-Semitism,'' to smuggled versions of ``Sophie's Choice.''

When a wave of strikes erupted in Poland in 1988, then President Wojciech Jaruzelski ordered a media blackout in hopes of containing the growing rebellion. Mr. Terlecki sent his video crews across the country to film the strikes and the terrible working conditions that had precipitated them. Screenings were held in churches and ``safe'' houses and for the Western press and TV.

These strikes finally forced Mr. Jaruzelski into negotiations that led to elections and the country's first noncommunist government.

Peter Heltai of Radio Free Europe credits the coverage of the Bulgarian revolution with galvanizing the Romanians. ``When Todor Zhivkov, [Romanian ruler Nicolae] Ceausescu's Bulgarian counterpart, was kicked out after 25 years of Stalinist rule,'' he recalls, ``this had a powerful effect on the Romanians, who saw everything on Bulgarian TV. [They said] `Amazing! If they can get rid of Zhivkov, it's possible for us!'''

``The Romanian revolution itself was actually conducted on TV,'' says Mr. Heltai. The massive crowd in Bucharest, which first hooted Ceausescu down, proceeded immediately to occupy TV headquarters. There, an assorted group of actors and journalists took charge, operating a command post, walking on and off the screen, ordering the broadcast of ongoing street battles, verifying Ceausescu's helicopter flight and capture, and urging Romanians everywhere to seize their own local media headquarters.

Television made it possible for the first word of the early Leipzig riots to reach the rest of East Germany via West German television. East Germans could also pick up the Hungarian transmissions and watched their fellow countrymen, in the tens of thousands, cross the Hungarian border for reunion with the West. Thanks also to Hungarian TV, they were able to spot the best border crossings through which to plan their own escapes.

The most bizarre example of the electronic media's impact took place in Bulgaria where an amateur's video camera accidentally picked up the voice of the newly elected president urging that tanks be used to quash a peaceful student demonstration. Within days, he was forced to resign.

Andra Kepes, a Hungarian broadcaster and former Fulbright scholar, is concerned that Hungary, and the other former Soviet satellite countries, are ill-prepared for democracy. ``Nobody is tolerant [of political dissent]. The system didn't teach people to be tolerant.''

The question now is: How much control are the new governments really willing to relinquish? Mr. Szecsko and Mr. Koban-Klas have been enlisted by their respective governments to formulate media policies appropriate for the new democracies. They agree that the government monopoly must end.

The British system, part public, part private, with efforts to keep the goverment at arms-length, appears to be the favored model.

But how to accomplish this in countries where, as in Poland, only the top level of media management has been replaced? How can free and unfettered media be built with people who have lived under censorship and terror for years?

Will the information technology, which contributed so much to the revolutions of 1989, help sustain them? Or will new totalitarian forces, such as we begin to perceive in the Soviet Union, reemerge to seize control?

An American foundation sponsored a conference in Eastern Europe last summer: ``The Fax Will Make You Free.'' So-called ``Democracy Kits'' were distributed to the delegates.

Each kit contained a fax machine, a computer, and a copier. The accompanying literature said: ``The tape recorder means a loss of government control over what people hear; video means a loss of control over what people see; computers mean a loss of control over what people read.''

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