Czech Radio leads commemorations to mark 60th anniversary of Radio Free Europe broadcasts

Radio Europe Libre

The Czech Republic is preparing to mark the 60th birthday of the launch of Radio Free Europe broadcasts in Czech across the Iron Curtain to Czechoslovakia. The broadcasts were a key factor in telling people under communism not only what was really happening in their own country but also keeping them up to date about events in the West.

In May 1951 the broadcasts in Czech targeted at Communist Czechoslovakia from exiles in Germany began to be transmitted from the then West Germany. At the time, Joseph Stalin was in charge of the Soviet Union and his faithful follower Klement Gottwald had a firm grip on Czechoslovakia after taking control there three years earlier. The Cold War still threatened to blow up into a conflagration.

In Czechoslovakia, like most other Communist regimes, censorship was already in operation. Opponents were forced underground or to flee for their lives. One of those opponents was the first director of the Czech division of RFE, Ferdinand Peroutka. He was joined by other exiled journalists, for example, Pavel Tigrid.

John O’Sullivan,  photo: Martin Kutil
The broadcasts, as well as some stranger propaganda exercises such as leaflet laden balloons sent across the border, clearly had some effect. The communist regime tried to jam broadcasts, outlawed listening to them, tried to infiltrate the Munich, Germany, based service and the secret police even launched a successful terrorist attack against its headquarters.

On Tuesday, the main force behind this year’s commemorations, Czech Radio, outlined the series of special programmes, exhibitions, conferences and events lined up over the next months. These have been organized in cooperation with Prague-based Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, Charles University, the Czech Senate, and the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

Executive editor of RFE-RL, John O’Sullivan said the Czech broadcasts had a real impact on their target audience.

RFE studio in Munich
“Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic were probably the three most important services for us because there was a real audience here. We had extremely good journalists operating out of Munich, who were Czechs who were broadcasting to the Czech people. They helped to keep alive the dissident movement, such as Charter 77, and so on.”

Historian Prokop Tomek, who has contributed to a book to be published about Radio Free Europe, says that in spite of moves by the regime to jam broadcasts, they did often get through and had a real impact which was sometimes crucial.

“In key moments like 1968 and 1969 and 1989, Radio Free Europe broadcasts had a definite impact on events. In 1989 reporting about the petition, a few sentences and about the progress of the independence movement in Czechoslovakia was really, really important.”

Today’s bosses of Czech Radio stressed the links between the two stations and the fact that the fight for freedom of speech is still going on, albeit in different countries. John O’ Sullivan commented on the parallels.

“We have people from Iran broadcasting to Iran, Russians broadcasting to Russia, Central Asians broadcasting to Central Asia. The authoritarian regimes are slightly less coherent than the Soviet bloc was. They are often personalistic and have dictators which are sometimes odd characters, but having said that the KGB is often still running the show in these societies.”