Radio Free Europe begins broadcasting from new location

New RFE building on Hagibor Plain, photo:

Radio Free Iraq, part of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has begun broadcasting from the station’s new headquarters. Located on Hagibor Plain, on the outskirts of town, the brand new facility will soon become the hub of all of Radio Free Europe’s operations in 20 countries, including such hotspots as Iraq and Afghanistan. In this week’s Panorama, we’ll take a closer look at the radio station, its role in the present-day and its new headquarters.

New RFE building on Hagibor Plain,  photo:
It’s 6 PM in Prague and 8 PM in Baghdad, Monday February 16. Rawa Haidar, of Radio Free Iraq, delivers her live news bulletin with the latest events relating to Iraq, one of 20 countries to which Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty beams daily transmissions.

Radio Free Iraq was the first service to start broadcasting from the station’s new headquarters in early February. In 1950, communist Czechoslovakia was the first country ever to receive the newly-founded station’s broadcasts, and for more than four decades, Czechs and Slovaks tuned in to Radio Free Europe for information they couldn’t get elsewhere. Six years after the fall of communism, RFE/RL moved its headquarters to Prague and started broadcasting from the former Parliament building, just off Wenceslas Square. Now, 14 years later, the radio station is moving to a brand new facility.

For a tour of the new RFE building, I met up with Julian Knapp, of the radio’s communication department. After passing through the outer and inner security zones, we enter the building proper and find ourselves at ground level, the future central newsroom of the radio station.

“We have a central newsroom which works in English and which is the hub that connects all the services that work in all the other languages in which we broadcast – Russian, Persian, Arabic, and so on. The central newsroom produces stories, mostly international stories that are then distributed to all the services; it also collects individual stories. Say the Afghan service has a story that is relevant to others. It produces it in English and makes it available to all the other services.”

Unlike in the old building, where everybody would sit in small, separated offices once occupied by communist lawmakers, the layout here should make it make more natural for people to communicate in the course of the work day.

“Our journalists will occupy the first and second floors and there will understandably be constant communication back and forth. The first and second floors are connected by this staircase with the central newsroom. This will make it easier to go there and back, to make contact and to exchange information.”

The decision to abandon the old federal parliament building was made soon after 9/11; in fact, Czechs still remember the embarrassing incident when the army dispatched two armoured vehicles to the RFE headquarters for special protection, but only one actually made it there. When I asked Julian if they were happy that the decision had been made long before the global economic crisis, he said he didn’t think it was that important.

“I’m not sure. The decision was made before and we are happy it was made. These days it might be more difficult, or then again it might not, I’m not sure. But we are glad we are moving in now.”

Only one section of the new headquarters is currently occupied. It’s the new seat of Radio Free Iraq which broadcasts in Arabic 17 hours a day. Its director, Sergei Danilochkin, says that the state of the art technology will present something of a challenge.

“The building is of a different design and it’s all new. We are used to certain conditions, services. Here we have a lot of new technology; it’s really state of the art. But it is also a challenge, we have to cope with all of that, learn to use it on a daily basis and understand its possibilities which are way more enhanced than we can apply at the moment. So that’s the biggest challenge – to learn to make use of all the wealth of technology that is available here.”

Established in 1997, Radio Free Iraq now has seven broadcasters working in Prague and some 25 reporters working on the ground in Iraq. Sergei Danilochkin says the Iraqi service has since established itself as one of the most trustworthy news organizations in Iraq.

“During Saddam Hussein’s trial, Iraqis only had four places in the media gallery, and only one of them was for radio. Eighty percent of the time, it was our reporter who was chosen to be there to work for the Iraqi media pool. The reason? Everyone knew he would be professional, well-trained, and unbiased. That’s what the others wanted from us, whether they were biased or not, but they really needed some unbiased reporting to base their programming on.”

In his brand new office, Sergei Danilochkin has photos of two of the radio’s correspondents who were killed in Iraq in 2007.

“It’s very unsafe to work for a foreign news organization because many who have no understanding of what they are doing consider them to be rich people who are simply there to be robbed, or traitors who work with infidels or foreigners, you name it. So it’s very dangerous. We have unfortunately lost two of our colleagues, and several others were severely harassed and had to stop working as journalists and some of them even had to leave the country.”

In Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the station is not allowed to operate at all. In Russia, the number of local affiliates that distribute RFE programming has dropped from over thirty to two or three, and many other countries accuse the station of spreading US propaganda, rather than independent journalism and information. What does Julian Knapp say to those claims?

Former federal parliament building
“I would refer them to our programming and our journalism and that speaks for itself really. But you are right – sometimes people who have an interest in discrediting us use this general accusation. But we can only take it seriously if people have concrete examples. Whenever they come up with concrete examples where there was biased reporting, we take it very seriously and we do correct it. However, these general accusations, I’m confident to say, are usually made for political reasons, and if you look at the motifs of the people who make them, I think you can draw your own conclusions.”

The whole of Radio Free Europe should relocate to the station’s new headquarters by May of this year, and the old federal parliament building will become part of the nearby National Museum. The modern Hagibor headquarters are certainly better equipped for a news operation than the 1970s structure but as the head of Radio Free Iraq Sergei Danilochkin says, there are things that will be missed.

“The central location, of course. There is a beautiful view from many windows there, it’s a different setting, and many people have spent almost 15 years there, and that building became part of their soul, part of their personal history. So of course we will miss it. It’s also a pretty important historical building in the centre of Prague, and we appreciated that.”