Nostalgia reigns at RFE/RL as broadcaster prepares for moving day

Radio Free Europe

Radio Free Europe was established by the Congress of the United States to broadcast news and current affairs programs to Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain. A few years later it was followed by Radio Liberty broadcasting to the nations inside the Soviet Union. Even though broadcasts to most countries of Central Europe were stopped several years ago, RFE/RL still brings news to 19 countries in 28 languages including Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan.

In 1995 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, on the invitation of the President Vaclav Havel, moved from Munich, Germany - where it had been based for decades - to Prague.

Jiri Pehe, who used to work as a journalist in the RFE Czech section during the communist era - was one of the main advocates of the move. Now he says he still believes the presence of RFE/RL here has benefited the Czech Republic a lot.

"It is certainly good economically. Even with the reduced budget the radios spend a lot of money in the Czech Republic and I think the presence of various people, people of various nationalities like top journalists and people with various backgrounds in political science and so on has benefited the Czech Republic. The radios - especially Radio Free Europe - have served as a benchmark of sorts for Czech media. Also the source is important - it has huge archive, it has experienced people... Czech journalists are in touch with many of those people."

In the middle of the 1990s most Czechs seemed to share this view and welcomed the two stations in their capital. They were even given the building of the former Czechoslovak Parliament right in the city centre, just above Wenceslas square. But after the attacks of 9/11 people realized that RFE/RL could also be a potential terrorist target, and the Czech government started to consider moving the station out of the centre to a place where it could be more easily protected.

Jiri Pehe says that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has already faced terrorist attacks in the past and therefore these concerns are legitimate.

"Undoubtedly, they have been threatened and both radio stations have for a long time been targets of various terrorist threats and in fact - while they were still in Munich - they were even attacked. At that time, of course we know, that the radios were bombed and there were people who worked for the radio who were even killed."

"On the one hand, of course we could argue it's not good to make concessions and one should be tough and keep the radio in the centre of the city because it looks that we are afraid of the terrorists. On the other hand, I think it's a very reasonable decision. If we know that this particular station is the biggest security risk then it should be certainly in a place where if it is ever attacked the collateral damage will not be huge."

At first the radio management did not seem to be very keen on this idea, and pointed out that these concerns might be exaggerated but later representatives of the Czech and US governments managed to reach agreement.

A few days ago it was announced that the radio had accepted an offer to make a site available for a new headquarters in the Prague district of Hagibor in the north-east of the city, a little way out of the centre. The RFE/RL spokesperson Anna Rausova says that security aspects are not the only motive of the move. The new building will be much better suited to radio work and the use of modern media technology.

"One of the criteria for the new site is that it's a secure and safe location. Although we have the word radio in our name, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has ambitions to be a multiple media institution, and we expect the new building will also meet these requirements, that there will be flexible space for us inside the building. Nowadays we are trying to reach our audience not jus through the radio but also extensively through the internet and also in some cases, in some language services, we have some TV programs with local affiliates in our target countries."

Before the agreement was reached there was speculation that the radios might look for a place outside the Czech Republic but Anna Rausova says that this was never seriously considered. She says that RFE/RL is already well established here and most employees and their families have integrated into Czech society.

"It seems we are hidden in this building but I would like to say that we really feel a part of the Prague community. A lot of our broadcasters, journalists and our support staff learned Czech, follow Czech news, Czech media.... So in this sense you would find many people here in the building that speak the language, understand it, follow the news and feel a part of the community."

Sergei Danilochkin, who is originally from Russia but now is leading the Iraqi Section, agrees with this view.

"I personally enjoy it very much. Prague is a beautiful city and it's like in the middle of Europe. You can easily reach many points from here - it's just a couple hours of drive. Besides, it's a country with very interesting history, with a lot of funny and useful traditions, huge variety of nice places where you can go to if you want to have a day out."

Sergei Danilochkin says he feels quite safe at the radio's current headquarters and he doesn't feel the need to move.

"I am personally very happy with this location because it's a central location, so it's easy to reach the city centre. Of course like many foreigners I also enjoy hanging out in the city centre. As far as I know, the second location will not be too far from this one - perhaps just a couple of metro stops away. They say it will be more secure. I am no specialist in security. I personally find myself pretty much secure being in Prague as well as being located in this particular building."

Radio Free Europe
Also Merkhat Sharipzhan, director of the RFE/RL Kazakh Service doesn't feel like leaving the old building where he has worked ever since the station moved from Munich.

"I don't feel any threat in this building. When they imposed the new security system and there were some armoured personnel carriers - three or four kind of tanks - I wasn't really concerned, I was rather curious. We were even laughing. I don't feel that we are threatened here. The Czech Republic and Prague is such a safe place."

"If I said that ten years living in the Czech Republic made me think that the Czech Republic, the Czech nation, the Czech language is a part of my life - this building is also part of my life. I think in two years when we are going to move, then I will start having this terrible feeling of loosing some part of my life."

But even though some of the radio employees may feel nostalgic about moving out from the old building, it is already decided that the move takes place in 2007 when the new building in Prague's Hagibor neighbourhood should be finished. The old communist architecture of the former Czechoslovak Parliament will probably undergo reconstruction and house a different institution. One of the projects under consideration is a new university that would focus on European affairs.