The End of an Era: Czech Radio Free Europe broadcasts for the last time

Czech Radio Free Europe broadcasts for the last time, photo: CTK

September 30th - this Monday, 52 years after it came into existence, the Czech section of Radio Free Europe shall broadcast for the very last time. Broadcasting began May 1st 1951...

Czech Radio Free Europe broadcasts for the last time,  photo: CTK
Without question Radio Free Europe was a symbol of freedom for many Czechs and Slovaks during the Cold War, moral support and a source of uncensored information about both Czechoslovakia and the world beyond its borders. Authorities tried, but often failed, to jam the signal as thousands of Czechoslovaks tuned in each day to on their short-wave receivers. Media analyst Jan Culik recalls:

"I started listening to Radio Free Europe in my teens, in the late 60s, early 70s; the broadcasting was absolutely fantastic. Why the broadcast was so incredibly good was because there was a decision made by the American authorities, shortly after the Russian invasion of 1968, to engage, to hire for the Munich set-up, the best reporters and commentators from the Prague Spring era. As a result, basically when censorship started working in Czechoslovakia during the period of "normalisation", people really switched their allegiances to listening to these real journalistic stars..."

Switching allegiances was not without its risks for both Czech listeners at home and the station's Czech journalists abroad. Terrorist attacks were a threat: in 1981 a bomb exploded in front of Czech section offices in Munich - no one was killed but several people were injured. The Czech section was also infiltrated by communist agents, most famously Pavel Minarik. Also, as if that were not enough, the station's most noble aims were not always so clear-cut, says media analyst Jan Culik, who himself worked for Radio Free Europe in the years 1990-1995:

"Milan Sulc, who was a top commentator when they were still in Munich writes in his testimony that there were actually - and this is an incredible paradox - problems in the early 80s, in Munich, there were some people in the Czech section who were objecting the station giving space to Czech dissidents. There was this view that they are all Communists anyway, they are sort of corrupted by the Communist regime and why should we be giving them a voice, we have to preach democracy from the "purity" of the Western standpoint. There was quite a struggle. Actually there was quite a struggle to assert give Vaclav Havel and other dissidents a voice on the station - and the Americans contributed to this. It wasn't automatic. History is usually much more complex than it looks on the surface. "

Better intentions, in the end, did prevail and broadcasting continued to provide analysis and moral support for Czech dissidents and Czech listeners through to late 1989, when the Iron Curtain began to fold. Five years later the whole of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty would relocate to Prague on invitation by former dissident cum president Vaclav Havel. Just before: the Czech section broke away from the mother-ship that was Radio Free Europe to become Radio Svobodna Evropa, which would eventually work more closely with public Czech Radio, becoming part of Czech Radio 6 and broadcasting from the Czech Radio building. With 40 years of communism in the dustbin, the Czech Republic began its fledgling's return to democracy, and the Czech section continued daily broadcasts throughout, though in recent years the number of listeners had begun to flag. Then in July of this year Radio Free Europe's president Thomas Dine announced that the Czech Radio Free Europe, or "Svobodka " as it had come to be affectionately known, would no longer receive funding from the US Congress, an annual budget of almost 20 million US dollars. The reason: new priorities after September 11th, and the need to put finances elsewhere.

In a certain light it would seem the ending of Czech Radio Free Europe's broadcasting would indicate a good thing, that with democracy taking firm hold in the Czech Republic, it was, in a way, no longer needed. But, as the station's head Olga Kopecka has indicated: the more independent media there is on the Czech scene, the better. The decision to end broadcasting was one that left many public figures, including President Havel and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in dismay. Former Chancellor of the President's office Ivan Medek was equally displeased:

"In a word it's a pity that Czech Radio Free Europe's broadcasting is coming to an end. But, that's not the only question at hand. It seems to me the more complex issue is the fact that after 52 years of broadcasting, paid for by the Americans, something the majority of us took for granted, today most public officials no longer give the broadcast maximum priority. Yet in a way it is our responsibility to make an effort for broadcasting to continue. Sure, it would no longer be exactly the same broadcast, but it could continue along similar lines as the Czech section of Radio Free Europe. I know that the head of the Czech section [Olga] Kopecka tried to find new funding, but the fact she was unable to do so just reflects how little priority the whole issue has been given overall in the Czech Republic. Money is always the issue, but it seems that it could be found for everything else other than this cause. This broadcast, the way it should be, is meant to hold a mirror up to Czech society, it should criticise society, the government, official representatives, and monitor all events here that are taking place."

So, in the end, it seems that the question of the Czech Radio Free Europe - and its role in broadcasting - has become strictly a Czech issue, no longer an American one. It will be now be interesting to see how the broadcast will undergo transformation as it redefines itself under Czech Radio 6, in what form it will survive, and what standards reporting and analysis it will set. Whether it will continue the tradition of the original Radio Free Europe and hard-hitting commentary and reporting that Ivan Medek stresses, remains to be seen. It is certainly something that will be worth following as the situation develops.