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Czech Republic: Cabinet Approves U.S. Broadcasts To Iraq

Prague, 9 October 1998 (RFE/EL) -- The Czech government this week gave conditional approval for a new U.S.-backed radio service, Radio Free Iraq, to broadcast from Czech territory to Iraq.

But Prime Minister Milos Zeman's cabinet resolved it wants a part in deciding where the service will be located due to security considerations.

Following a regular cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told reporters that "the government agrees with (the broadcasts) on condition that, due to security risks involved, the station's location be reviewed with respective Czech authorities."

Spidla said that a currently planned site for the radio at a villa in a Prague residential area would not be appropriate because of its proximity to a nearby kindergarten.

The cabinet's decision comes after the U.S. government formally applied last month for permission to broadcast to Iraq from the Czech Republic.

The Arabic-language service is operated by the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Prague, which broadcasts in local languages to parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union.

RFE/RL has already received permission from the previous government of Josef Tosovsky to operate from the Czech Republic a sister station broadcasting in Farsi to Iran.

According to Spidla, the Farsi language broadcasts were not discussed at Wednesday's cabinet meeting.

Spidla said that Czech officials discussed their security concerns over the location of Radio Free Iraq with U.S. officials and that, in his words, they were understood in U.S. diplomatic circles.

RFE/RL had planned to locate both Radio Free Iraq and its new Farsi language service in the same villa in Prague to save on operating costs. The location also puts both in easy reach of the central RFE/RL building in downtown Prague.

But the question of where to locate the services has attracted repeated debate in the Czech media since the twin-bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August.

U.S. intelligence officials believe the bombings were carried out by followers of Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden, an international terrorist leader operating from Afghanistan.

A recent opinion poll released this week by the independent agency Sofres-Factum showed that 57.6 percent of Czechs feared terrorist attacks associated with broadcasts to Iraq and Iran. But 41.9 percent favored the broadcasts if they were conducted from an isolated location.

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted to permit, but not require, the U.S. government to spend $97 million on aid for democratic foes of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The legislation, approved by the House of Representatives earlier in the week, includes $2 million of additional funding for radio and television broadcasts into Iraq. The president of RFE/RL, Thomas A. Dine, has repeatedly said that the aim of Radio Free Iraq is not the overthrow of the Iraqi government. He has said its broadcasts will reflect RFE/RL's traditional core values of democracy: free expression, rule of law, and respect for human rights.

Spidla said that the Czech government will monitor the impact of both the new services to Iraq and Iran on Czech national security and Prague's relationship with the international community.

The U.S. Congress directed RFE/RL to start the new services and President Bill Clinton signed funding for them into law in May.

During the Cold War, RFE/RL was popular among Czechs and others in the Soviet bloc as an alternative to the Communist propaganda of their own media.

RFE began transmitting from Munich, Germany, in 1950. It moved to Prague in 1995, six years after the collapse of Communism at the invitation of Czech President Vaclav Havel.