Could this be the end of Radio Free Europe in Czech?

President of RFE/RL Thomas Dine and head of the Czech Radio Free Europe Olga Kopecka, photo: CTK

This could be the end of an era in broadcasting. On Tuesday evening the president of the American-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty announced that funding for the station's Czech language broadcasts would end on 30th September this year. Ironically, the announcement has come in the same week that Radio Free Europe's Czech broadcasts are celebrating their fifty-second birthday. David Vaughan reports.

President of RFE/RL Thomas Dine and head of the Czech Radio Free Europe Olga Kopecka, photo: CTK
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that for many Czechs and Slovaks Radio Free Europe was a symbol of freedom during the Cold War. All the Czechoslovak media was heavily censored, and for many people Radio Free Europe was the only source of uncensored information about what was going on both in their own country and in the world at large. Every day thousands of Czechs would try to beat the authorities' attempts to jam the signal and pick up the station on their short wave receivers. The Munich-based Radio Free Europe was also a focal point for Czech intellectuals - artists, journalists and writers - who had gone into exile, and wanted to serve their country from abroad. For the communist regime the station was one of its key enemies.

Five years after the fall of communism the whole of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty moved to Prague, and two years later the Czech section entered a close partnership with Czech Radio. In recent years the station, broadcasting 40 hours of programmes a week, has had a small but loyal audience. RFE President Thomas Dine said that the decision to end the broadcasts has come for financial reasons, especially with the extra financial burden on the US state budget since the 11th September.

Among several prominent Czechs who expressed disappointment at the decision was President Vaclav Havel. He said that Radio Free Europe had played an important role in modern Czech history, and continued to do so. On the other hand, the political scientist Bohumil Dolezal said that he could understand the decision. The Czech Republic is now a democratic country, and Radio Free Europe has already ended broadcasts in Polish and Hungarian.

I spoke with the head of the Czech Radio Free Europe, Olga Kopecka, and began by asking her, is this really the end for RFE's Czech broadcasts?

"Well, I hope not. Of course from the first of October we will not be getting any grant from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as we used to get it, but I have hopes that maybe I can raise the necessary amount maybe in the United States and go on broadcasting in some way."

Do you think it's not too late maybe to persuade Congress or the Broadcasting Board in the United States that this is a bad idea?

"Well, I should think that it might be possible. Let's see."

You said that you hope to find other sources of finance. Where will you find them?

"I'm going to the United States to see if I can find a foundation that could finance us for one-and-a-half years, because I would like to go on broadcasting at least until the Czech Republic joins the European Union in 2004."

On the other hand, the Cold War is over. The Czech Republic has a sophisticated media culture. Does it really need Radio Free Europe in Czech?

"Well, I think the more independent media the better, and I must say that some listeners regard us as the only really independent medium in the Czech Republic. But also of course we have great experience with the western way of broadcasting, because the greater part of us - our editors and myself - used to live in Germany and we know very well the German media, we know very well the American media - I myself am an American citizen - the British media and so on. You have to think that the Czech Republic was for over forty years not a free country, so the media were not free and there is not much experience with the democratic way of thinking, writing and broadcasting. So I think it still had its sense and has its sense."