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Czech Republic: Radio Svobodna Evropa Bids Listeners A 'Last Farewell'

  • Don Hill

Radio Svobodna Evropa, the Czech-language version of RFE/RL, goes off the air tonight after almost 52 years of continuous broadcasting. The Czech Service covered the 1968 Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, the dissident movement of the 1970s, the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and the 1993 breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Prague, 30 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech-language service, the first official breath of Radio Free Europe, breathes its last today.

On 1 May 1951, in the first official transmission from Radio Free Europe headquarters in Munich, respected Czech journalist Ferdinand Peroutka began by saying, "This is the voice of a free Czechoslovakia," and then uttered these prophetic words: "One free radio station in a dictatorship means a revolution."

The Czech Service of Radio Free Europe, and then Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, continued to broadcast in the Czech language for almost 52 years:

-- Through the Prague Spring liberalization movement in early 1968 and the Soviet-led invasion by Warsaw Pact countries on 20 August that ended it;

-- Through Czechoslovakia's dissident movement, Charter 77, in the late 1970s that made prominent a new name in Czechoslovak leadership, that of playwright Vaclav Havel, now Czech president;

-- Through a bomb attack on RFE/RL's Munich headquarters in February 1981 outside the section that housed the Czechoslovak Broadcast Service, which severely wounded three of its broadcasters;

-- Through the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia;

-- Through the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into Slovakia and the Czech Republic;

-- And through RFE/RL's move in 1995 from Munich to Prague, at the invitation of President Havel, and into the radios' symbolism-rich new home, the former Czechoslovak Federal Parliament Building overlooking historic Wenceslas Square, where Czechs had gathered to protest en masse in 1968 and 1989.

At the radios' 50th-anniversary celebrations in Prague in 2001, Havel spoke warmly of the radios' value during communist rule. "All through the long years of communism, [RFE] provided the only avenue for the free exchange of information, for free journalism, and also the only, or rather, the main, source for communication between the opposition at home with the public, the general society, and the nation. I believe that our society owes Radio Free Europe immense gratitude for the role it has played in the past," Havel said.

Success almost killed RFE/RL's Czech-language broadcasts 10 years ago. The main mission of RFE had been to serve as surrogate radio stations for countries in transition from communism, providing examples of free news media to countries that lacked such institutions. As the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland developed free and competitive press and broadcast outlets, U.S. Congress, which funds the private, nonprofit organization, moved to stop funding broadcasts to those countries.

But at the urging of Czech leaders, including Havel, the radios spun off Czech RSE, Radio Svobodna Evropa, and provided funding and assistance for its continued existence. That arrangement ends today.

RFE/RL President Tom Dine said today in a letter to the radios' staff that, if it were possible, RFE/RL would have continued its broadcasting to all three countries, even as RFE/RL intends to sharpen or broaden its reach in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia.

Dine wrote: "Alas, our resources are finite. Yes, a need exists for our kind of daily news, information, and commentary in the Czech Republic, [but] we are now needed more urgently elsewhere."

Visiting early today with RSE's staff, RFE/RL's acting director of broadcasting, Michele DuBach, said the entire organization takes pride in what the Czech broadcasters achieved in their time. "You can be so proud of what you have accomplished -- what you have accomplished as a group and what you have accomplished individually. We are so proud of you, and we're all glad that we were all a part of your family," DuBach said.

RSE plans to continue its tradition of broadcasting impartial news and thoughtful commentary until its final broadcast later today. Then, senior broadcaster Jan Bednar intends to send these final words into radio history: "We thank our listeners for their attention. And this is our last farewell."