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RFE/RL Marks 60th Anniversary Of Czechoslovak Service

Two RFE/RL employees prepare balloons that were to carry leaflets into Czechoslovakia, behind the Iron Curtain, in 1951.
Two RFE/RL employees prepare balloons that were to carry leaflets into Czechoslovakia, behind the Iron Curtain, in 1951.
PRAGUE -- RFE/RL has marked the 60th anniversary of its first broadcast service with an event hosted by Johns Hopkins University in Washington. Those first broadcasts were to a country that no longer exists today: Czechoslovakia.

To commemorate the start of the broadcasts JHU's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) held a roundtable at its campus on June 2.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg opened the event, which was co-hosted by the Czech Embassy in Washington and RFE/RL. Schwarzenberg spoke about the legacy of RFE/RL as a surrogate broadcaster during the Cold War.

Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Walter Isaacson introduced a panel discussion about U.S. foreign broadcasting and its goals and challenges today. The Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, was one of the panelists who spoke about the need for uncensored news and information in authoritarian societies.

The Washington session caps a year of commemorative events for the Czechoslovak Service that already has included ceremonies in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and in Munich, which was the seat of RFE/RL during the Cold War.

'Tearing Down The Information Barrier'

Last month, on May 5, the Czech Republic marked the service's anniversary with a panel discussion held in the Senate of the Czech Parliament. Participants, including former dissidents and historians, recalled the activities of the radio. But many also recalled their personal experiences with "Svobodka," as the radio was affectionately known to its listeners.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas told the conference that "RFE tore down the information barrier erected by the communist regime. The truth and RFE will always stay in our conscience."

Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radicova, who also took part, said RFE's broadcasts "brought a small island of freedom to people's homes."

Other notables attending or sending letters were former Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel; former political prisoner, writer, and scriptwriter Jiri Stransky; journalist and writer Karel Hvizdala; and the auxiliary bishop of Prague and former cofounder of the Civic Forum, Vaclav Maly.

"This gathering was important for giving an example of good journalism to young Czech journalists, showing how strong the truth is in confronting totalitarian regimes, and for helping to establish deeper democracy in the country," says the last director of RFE/RL's Czechoslovak Service, Pavel Pechacek, who also participated.

At the same time, the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague and Czech Radio launched a public exhibition in the Senate garden about the Czechoslovak Service's history. The exhibition, which will last until the middle of September, highlights the station's work on more than 30 large-format panels.

Response To Occupation

The Czechoslovak Service was the first of the Radio Free Europe stations to go on the air as a response to the Soviet Union's occupation of Central Europe following World War II.

The station's first broadcast was on July 4, 1950, from an office in the Empire State Building in New York City. The shortwave station signed on with the pledge of delivering news "in the American tradition of free speech."

Within less than a year, the station had moved to Munich, where it began beaming regular programs across the Iron Curtain. The programs challenged the communist government's monopoly on the media and its myth of delivering a better life while in fact depriving people of their freedom.

In the early years, from 1953 to 1956, the Czechoslovak and the other incipient broadcast services of Radio Free Europe did not just use shortwave; they also floated small helium balloons loaded with news reports eastward across the German border. But it was the on-air voices of the stations' broadcasters -- many of them respected emigres who had fled Czechoslovakia's communist coup in 1948 -- that won a devoted audience.

Pechacek says listeners took grave personal risks to tune in to the radio. The penalties for listeners, and even more so for those who sent information to the radio, were severe.

"The listeners were very brave. If caught, they were punished, mainly in the case where they were spreading RFE/RL news," Pechacek says. "There were cases of imprisonment, children of dissidents couldn't attend high schools and universities, people lost their jobs."

Later in the station's history, the Czechoslovak regime did not just try to punish listeners and jam broadcasts; it also tried to strike out at the station in Munich itself, which it regarded as a CIA outpost. That is despite the fact that, although both RFE and its sister organization Radio Liberty (RL), which broadcast to the Soviet Union, initially were originally funded principally by the U.S. Congress via the CIA, all CIA involvement had ended by 1971.

Communist Ire

From 1972 to 1976, the communist regime in Prague infiltrated the Czechoslovak Section with an agent from its intelligence service. The agent, Captain Pavel Minarik, worked as a broadcaster while trying to collect information about the station's work with informants in Czechoslovakia. Upon his return to Prague, the regime feted him as a hero while cracking down on those he betrayed.

The Czechoslovak regime even composed an anthem in agent Minarik's honor as it sought to turn him into a national hero. The song, titled "Statecny Chlapik" (or Brave Lad) and sung by Josef Laufer, included this chorus:

"Thank you, thank you, brave lad, for your courage, brains and brawn.
You are our captain. They are useless. You have opened cerulean skies for the wings of peace." (Click below to listen)

Since the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic ended in 1989, much more has been learned about Minarik's spying activities, including his proposals to bomb the Munich station and to abduct the Czechoslovak Service's director.

Those suggestions were rejected but a bomb was placed outside the Czechoslovak Section of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) building in Munich in February 1981. The bomb, which gravely wounded three employees and caused $2 million worth of damage, was ordered by Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and carried out by the terrorist Carlos the Jackal. But if the objective was to cow RFE/RL into silence, it failed.

'Journalism Models'

Many people during this year's commemorative events, which included a conference on April 28-30 in Munich, have paid tribute to the determination of the Czechoslovak Service's broadcasters to challenge totalitarianism.

"For me, staffers from the Czechoslovak broadcasting section were journalism models," says Peter Duhanek, interim director general of Czech Radio.

But arguably the greatest tribute of all has been the Czech Republic's decision to welcome RFE/RL in 1995 to its current home in Prague.

"It was with great satisfaction that we could welcome RFE in Prague after the fall of the Iron Curtain and thus start to repay our debt for its credible work," former Czechoslovak (and subsequently Czech) President Havel wrote in greetings to RFE/RL he sent for this year's 60th-anniversary celebrations to express his country's feelings about the decades of broadcasts. "I hope that RFE continues to pursue its mission in today's postmodern and politically unstable world: defense of human rights, civic rights and human dignity."

RFE continued broadcasting in Czech (after 1994 in conjunction with Czech Radio) until 2002. It continued broadcasting in Slovak until 2004.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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