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Pavel Pechacek – An Appreciation

A Tribute To Pavel Pechacek
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A Tribute To Pavel Pechacek

Pavel Pechacek, who led Radio Free Europe’s Czechoslovak and later its Czech services, helped spur the Velvet Revolution, and twice played an instrumental role in ensuring the continued existence of RFE/RL in the post-Cold War era, died after a long illness on January 16 in Camden, South Carolina. He was 82.

Czech Republic -- Pavel Pechacek speaks at a roundtable discussion on the fall of communism, RFE/RL Prague headqurters, Hagibor, 4 Dec 2009
Czech Republic -- Pavel Pechacek speaks at a roundtable discussion on the fall of communism, RFE/RL Prague headqurters, Hagibor, 4 Dec 2009

Admired for his warmth, good humor and integrity, Pavel served U.S. international broadcasting for 41 years at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. He retired in 2015 and returned from Prague to the United States.

His life spanned and exemplified the tragedy and the triumph of Central Europe’s long struggle for freedom.

Born in 1940, Pavel was one year old when he first saw his father at the infamous Nazi prison and concentration camp at Terezin, where his mother Jana had taken him to demand that jailers of her husband Jaroslav, held for plotting against the Nazi occupation, allow him to see his son. They relented.

After the war, Pavel’s father served as a senior aide to Msgr. Jan Sramek, leader of the Czechslovak People’s Party (Ceskoslovenska strana lidova), a Christian Democratic party that formed part of a fragile national unity government with the Communist Party.

Warned of imminent arrest during the Soviet-led communist coup in the winter of 1947-48, his father and mother fled Prague, leaving their three children behind, trekking on foot through snowy fields into Germany – his mother losing a shoe along the way, according to family lore – where they found shelter in a Bavarian farmhouse.

Attempts to extract Pavel, then 7, and his younger brother and sister, were unavailing. One of his earliest memories, he once recalled, was of the secret police confiscating his toys and other belongings from his parents’ apartment overlooking the Vltava River in the center of Prague.

Pavel and his siblings grew up in the care of their maternal grandmother and aunt in the village of Prosek, now part of Prague. Years would pass before they learned their parents were alive in the West. The family would not reunite again for 19 years, in a brief clandestine rendezvous in Zagreb in 1967, in communist Yugoslavia. By then, Jaroslav Pechacek had become Director of RFE’s Czechoslovak service.

Denied access to universities under communist rule as the son of an “enemy of the people,” Pavel gained entry to the Theater Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU) in Prague. Here he met and bonded with another student denied university entry as the son of a bourgeois businessman – Vaclav Havel. It would be a fruitful, life-long friendship.

A passionate sports reporter, Pavel freelanced from the age of 16 for Czech Radio which hired him in 1965. Later, as his father’s role at RFE was discovered, he was shunted to children’s programming, even farther from sensitive political matters. Pavel nonetheless found ways to practice his passion for sports reporting – until the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 to suppress Alexander Dubcek’s modest attempts at liberalization in the Prague Spring. With Soviet tanks approaching and faced with firing or worse, Pavel, his wife Liba and the first two of their eventual five children fled into Austria, then to Munich. By now an experienced broadcaster, Pavel joined his father’s staff at RFE before moving five years later to VOA’s Czechoslovak service in Washington D.C. He became its Director in 1985.

In early 1989, recruited by the late Ross Johnson, then Director of RFE, Pavel returned to Munich to lead the RFE Czechoslovak service just as Soviet rule across the Baltic states and Central Europe began to crumble.

In an act of pure journalistic panache and exquisite timing, Pavel applied that fall for a visa to Prague, ostensibly to report on an historic religious event, the canonization of the 13th century Blessed Agnes of Bohemia. His unstated purpose was to interview the often-imprisoned playwright Vaclav Havel and other members of the Charter 77 human rights movement.

He had been able to visit before, as the regime regarded VOA as relatively benign, in contrast to the “subversive” RFE service, which focused most of its considerable energy on the internal affairs of the country. (He neglected to inform the consulate of his new employment.)

The Velvet Revolution began on November 17, 1989 in Prague with student demonstrations in Vaclavske Namesti. On or about the 19th – to the astonishment of Pavel and his colleagues – he received his visa. He left immediately for Prague.

As he checked into the Hotel Yalta on the square, the receptionist recognized Pavel and promptly assigned him to a front-facing room overlooking a roaring crowd of some 200,000. He was soon across the square, on a balcony with Havel, microphone in hand, as the future President led the new Civic Forum democracy movement.

As newspapers slipped the bonds of censorship, the regime struggled vainly to suppress news of the mounting revolution, pulling newspapers off trains and trucks. In a calm, even cadence Pavel’s shortwave voice reached millions across the country. To many listeners, the very presence of Radio Free Europe at that moment in Prague signaled seismic change, spurring demand for freedom.

Pavel’s visa expired on the 24th. As he tried to renew it, the authorities tumbled to their mistake and packed him into a taxi with orders to return to Germany. As he reached the border post, Czech radio reported the resignation of General Secretary Milos Jakes, marking the collapse of communism. Pavel soon returned to Prague to report on discussions to form the new democratic government.

Ironically, the end of communism from the Baltic to the Black Sea triggered an existential threat to RFE/RL. As Washington sought to claim an end-of-cold-war fiscal dividend, pressure mounted – led in part by advisors to the U.S. Information Agency, which then oversaw the VOA and coveted RFE/RL’s $208 million budget – to shutter the Munich radios.

If Europe was now free, the refrain went, who needs Radio Free Europe? Leaders of the emerging new democracies were unanimous in saying they did. But much of Washington wasn’t listening.

In early 1990, a proposal circulated in the administration of President George H.W. Bush to terminate funding for RFE/RL, and it appeared that the President might agree.

In February, Pavel arranged a meeting with newly elected President Havel. I was fortunate to accompany him.

There was no security at the Castle. A young man in black jeans and black sweatshirt met us at the appointed door and led us along ornate but empty corridors to what had been the office suite of Milos Jakes. It was now a scene of electric chaos. The desks of presidential staff crowded an ante-room. A secretary worked at a typewriter in Jakes’s former bathroom, alongside a huge porcelain bathtub. Havel was still busy with a guest. Soon, the doors to the inner office swung open, and a berobed Dalai Lama emerged, smiling and nodding. Inside, Havel sat on a sofa, crumpling the wrapping paper of a gift his visitor had left.

Havel embraced Pavel and asked how he could help. “Would you like a petition with a million signatures?”

We said no. Just one signature, his, on a letter to President Bush, might be best. “Fine,” Havel replied. “You write it, I’ll sign it.”

Havel’s letter – combined with lobbying by the Radios and members of its then-governing board – had the desired effect. In April 1991, the White House appointed a Presidential Task Force on International Broadcasting, in part to examine the future utility of RFE/RL. In Munich, the group met distinguished officials and academics from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, who uniformly told them the Radios would remain essential as a model of ethical journalism for emerging new media, and, if necessary, to keep them honest. The task force agreed and declared RFE/RL necessary for the foreseeable future.

By 1993, a new threat emerged, spearheaded by then-Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) who called for slashing the Radios’ budget. Congress agreed to cut RFE/RL funding to $75 million as of September,1995 -- an unsustainable figure at the cost of labor and living in Germany, even if, as happened, the Radios’ huge shortwave transmitter facilities in Germany, Spain and Portugal would be transferred to the federal government (and soon decommissioned).

Pavel Pechacek intervened again. Returning to Munich after a 1993 summer weekend in Prague, he said he had spent a long evening with Havel and with Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus at the President’s countryside residence.

They had proposed, forcefully, Pavel said, that RFE/RL move to the vacant federal parliament building in Prague.

Conversations with senior Czech officials made clear that they saw the move as beneficial for strategic reasons. It would symbolize American confidence in the stability of the new Czech democracy. It would facilitate movement of information among the new democracies. It would help create a special bond with America. The move might help pave the way to Czech membership in NATO. The prestige would be priceless.

Studies quickly showed that the move would be complex but technically and financially feasible, though it would be divisive among RFE/RL’s staff (as many would have to be left behind) and politically sensitive in Washington. In the end, intense lobbying in Washington by the RFE/RL board and by then-president of RFE/RL Kevin Klose, and encouragement by President Clinton’s Czech-born United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright, a telephone call between Clinton and Havel sealed the decision.

On March 31, 2016, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, in a ceremony in Washington, honored Pavel Pechacek and Kevin Klose with Karel Kramar Medals, a high civilian award named for Czechslovakia’s first democratic prime minister, for facilitating RFE/RL’s move to Prague.

Czech Republic--Former RFE/RL Czechoslovak Service Director Pavel Pechacek at home in Prague. May, 2014.
Czech Republic--Former RFE/RL Czechoslovak Service Director Pavel Pechacek at home in Prague. May, 2014.

In prescient remarks, Sobotka thanked RFE/RL “for the enormous work, for its invaluable help, for being a stable point of objectivity in the cosmos of disinformation, for providing guidance to millions of listeners and for speaking the voice of freedom.”

Pavel is survived by his brother Jaroslav and sisters Jana and Maria; his children Maria, Paul, Helen, Anna and Jana; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Following a funeral on February 15 at St. Vitus Cathedral, he is to be interred in Prosek (Prague 9) in a family plot with his grandmother and aunt.


Robert Gillette served as Deputy Director of RFE, Director of RFE and Director of RFE/RL Broadcasting between 1989 and 1998.