Severe floods barely mentioned in Communist-era media

The swollen river Blanice, south Bohemia, Photo:CTK

The whole country might be absorbed by this latest wave of severe flooding, the papers full of photos of swollen rivers and inundated fields. It's not the first time the Czech Republic has been hit, at least once a decade the country finds itself filling sandbags and wading through muddy water. The difference is now - almost thirteen years after the fall of Communism - the media can report freely on natural disasters such as floods, a far cry from the situation before 1989. Rob Cameron reports.

The swollen river Blanice, south Bohemia, Photo:CTK
A Czech Television reporter brings viewers up to date with the latest news from the city of Ceske Budejovice this morning, as the city braces itself for a new wave of floodwater. The report - broadcast live on the morning news - would have been unthinkable before 1989, when all news reporting was censored and centrally controlled.

"We didn't have floods like this under the Communists" was the response of one woman watching the swollen Vltava river in Prague last week. She did, of course, she just wasn't told about it. Severe floods hit the Decin area in North Bohemia in 1987, causing extensive damage to surrounding towns and villages. Seven years earlier, the River Morava burst its banks, sending the Moravian town of Olomouc underwater. In 1954 the worst flooding for a century devastated the town of Pisek, South Bohemia. And so it goes on; at least once a decade, the country is visited by severe floods.

But before 1989, such disasters went largely unreported on television or in the newspapers, due to the vice-like grip of the Communist Party. One former reporter told Mlada Fronta Dnes that the media were made to follow strict guidelines whenever such natural disasters occurred. They were told to publish only official reports issued by the state-run Czechoslovak News Agency, which had been approved by the official Communist censor. Sometimes there were no reports at all. Instances of individual journalists breaking the ban and risking their careers were almost unknown.

And so the nation's viewers and readers were kept largely in the dark about people being swept away by raging torrents, houses shifting on their foundations, crops lying ruined in fields of mud. Instead they were fed a bland diet of official news; visiting trade delegations from "friendly" nations, long speeches by the Chairman of the Communist Party Central Committee, figures from the latest Five Year Plan. There might be a brief reference to floods in the back pages, but certainly no front-page photos, and no live TV reports from flood devastated towns.