As an editor and deputy director of RFE/RL’s Czechoslovak Service from 1989 until 2002, Olga Kopecka was an intimate witness to her country’s revolutionary moment and the ensuing collapse of communism in eastern Europe. It was the culmination of more than two decades she had spent working to bring independent news and information to Czechs and Slovaks behind the Iron Curtain.
Olga Kopecka was born in 1941 in Pelhrimov, Czechoslovakia, and was an avid listener of RFE/RL, then known as Radio Free Europe, during its early days in the 1950s. Deprived of a university education because of her family’s political beliefs, Radio Free Europe broadcasters were her teachers, she says.
Kopecka moved to the Netherlands with her family, and soon after began working for Radio Free Europe as a correspondent. A thank-you letter she had sent to Munich headquarters, the first such correspondence received by a listener from Czechoslovakia in ten years, sufficiently impressed the management to grant her a job interview and, ultimately, a contract.
In 1965 she moved to Munich to begin a life-long tenure with the radio, filling the airwaves with translated international news reports and, increasingly, religious programming for young people.
Kopecka adopted the broadcast pseudonym “Valeska,” her grandmother’s surname, to disguise her on-air identity and protect her family. In addition to the dangers of reporting for an “enemy radio,” as Radio Free Europe was derisively referred to by the regime, she remembered the unique demands of reporting on the 1989 Velvet Revolution that paved the way for democracy.
“We had to be very careful about the reports we published, to decide which news was false, sent by the communists… It was a very, very difficult time,” she said. “We hardly got any sleep, especially in the first days when the Czechoslovak media didn’t report truthfully on what was going on. It was a very hard time but also a very happy time.”
But despite the excitement of those heady days of revolution, democracy didn’t come overnight.
“It was a long, long process that still isn’t finished even now,” said Kopecka.
Kopecka returned to the now-independent Czech Republic in 1994.
“When I came back to the Czech Republic, I noticed that the people who had listened to us were more tolerant and democratic than the others. RFE/RL educated its listeners to democratic thoughts and tolerance,” she said. “This was a really great achievement, and I think this is very important because [today] many radio stations concentrate only on entertainment and maybe news, but not educational programming, and this is so important.”
The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and became a member of the European Union in 2004. RFE/RL broadcasts to the Czech Republic ended in 2002. At the request of former Czech President Vaclav Havel, RFE/RL’s headquarters have been located in Prague since 1995.
--Anna Barbara Mazel