Pavel Pechacek - a life in radio, during Communism and after it

Pavel Pechacek

Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on One is Pavel Pechacek, a Czech journalist of some 40 years' standing. Pavel spent much of his life in exile, working as a reporter and producer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America. He was the director of the Czech service of RFE from just before the fall of Communism in 1989 until the service was closed down last year, and is now the RFE's Director of Czech Affairs. His family faced persecution from two totalitarian regimes - first the Nazis, then the Communists. Indeed one of Pavel's earliest memories is being taken to see his father, interned by the Nazis in the notorious Terezin concentration camp.

"I remember being in Terezin. I was maybe one year old. I was there with my mother. She wanted to show me to my father, who was in prison there. There was a man there called Jakl - he was executed after the war - and when he saw her, he said 'What are you doing here?' My mother told him that my father was imprisoned there, and that she wanted to show him his new-born son. Jakl said 'You're crazy.' But then my mother says at that point I opened my blue eyes and when he looked at me, I smiled. And then he said 'Well, OK' and he called my father and let him see me. But then Jakl told my mother to give me to him, because according to him, the Nazis were going to win the war and my father wouldn't survive anyway. Of course my mother didn't give me to Jakl!"

You're father was a political prisoner?

"That's right. He was preparing some actions with young politicians of a number of political parties of that time, and almost the entire group was imprisoned. After World War Two my father was in politics again. He was working at the Office of the Prime Minister, and then after the Communist coup d'etat of February 1948, he was warned that they were going to arrest him again. So he ran out of the house with my mother. They succeeded in going through the snow to Germany. I spent the next 20 years living with my aunt and my grandmother, and didn't see my parents - and my new sister who was born in the States in the 50s - for 20 years."

So your parents chose to leave you behind in Prague.

"They tried a number of times to get us out of the country. But it had been impossible to go with them in 1948, you know walking in the snow for kilometres. It was impossible to get us out, because me and my brother and sister were practically infants."

It must have been a very emotional reunion when you saw your parents again for the first time in 20 years. What do you remember about that?

"What do I remember? That I recognised the voice of my father. Right away. And I was seven when they left the country."

You began your journalist career as a sports reporter, and you've continued to report on sporting events throughout your career, so I think it's fair to say that you have something of a passion for sport. Has that translated into playing sport as well, or are you just a spectator?

"I was involved in track and field when I was younger, and sport was something I wanted to do every since the age of eight or nine. I started as a freelancer for Czechoslovak Radio, and the youngest of all the reporters - I was eighteen when I began in 1965. Then after 1968 I had to leave Czechoslovakia, and I was a sports reporter for Radio Free Europe and then Voice of America. I covered five Olympic Games and 14 seasons of the NHL."

You mentioned the 1968 Soviet invasion which brought the Prague Spring to an end. That's a watershed year for many people in this country - some chose to stay, some chose to go. You chose to go, tell me why.

"Again because of my parents. The secret police knew they had emigrated. And in '68, the managers of Czechoslovak Radio told me 'You get out. Because we will have to fire you for sure. We'll have problems because of you, because we hired you in 1965.' So it was practically necessary in my case to emigrate."

You spent many years working for Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Those stations have their critics. Some people claim they're little more than American propaganda, that they're funded by the CIA etc. How do respond to those accusations when you hear them?

"I know we were not allowed to co-operate with the CIA or any such organisation, we would have been fired if we had. No, it's nonsense. Voice of America was more a radio station broadcasting about the implementation of U.S. policy in the world, about life in the United States. Radio Free Europe was rather broadcasting about domestic affairs, of countries we were broadcasting to."

Some of the changes that have affected this country after 1989 have been good, some less good. Overall, are you happy with the post-revolution development of the Czech Republic?

"Well I'm happy that there's democracy here, that there's freedom here, that people can talk very openly. Of course I'm glad this has happened. On the other hand I am a little bit disappointed. I tell you what: we didn't know how deep the influence [of Communism] was here over those forty years. It was so deep. I remember in 1990, 1991, 1992, President Havel and my office [the Czech service of RFE] received a number of very similar letters. People were asking us what to do, how to orient themselves in the new situation. Because for forty years it was the Communist Party which had practically directed their lives, and now they didn't want the responsibility for themselves. They very often didn't know what to do with it. And then, who were the guys who had the money at that time, and who could privatise, it was very often people who represented the old regime."

Nonetheless the advantages have outweighed the disadvantages for you.

"For me I still prefer to have real freedom and democracy here, and I believe it will take one or maybe two generations."