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Reporting On Prague Demonstrations Was A 'Fire That Spread'

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.

This year, Czechs join their central and eastern European neighbors in commemorating the 25th anniversary of the revolutions that toppled the communist regimes that had gripped the region for more than 40 years. Pavel Pechacek was the director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Munich-based Czechoslovak Service at the time of the Velvet Revolution and reported from Prague on the demonstrations that would overturn communist rule.

RFE/RL sat down with Pechacek to discuss the pivotal events of November 1989.

RFE/RL: You were able to get a visa to Czechoslovakia and report the historic events of the Velvet Revolution as they took place. How was that possible?

Pavel Pechacek: It was surprising--some colleagues told me not to go, that [the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB,] would hang me on a post, but I decided to go and I went. I’ll tell you why I got the visa--they wanted to show a better face after the massacre. [the police beating of student demonstrators near Narodni Street in Prague on November 17, 1989] Parents also started going to the rallies after the regime beat their children, so it was a ripe time for a coup.

I got the visa, and [the authorities] thought that I would meet with other dissidents, but that I would never do anything that would endanger my stay in Czechoslovakia since I would be expelled. Well, that happened in the end, but later, only after I had reported everything. It was important because I was the only Czech-speaking journalist to be at Wenceslas Square. Czech TV and radio did not dare cover the event independently. I was after the atmosphere and the speeches. I stood on the balcony at the Melantrich building behind Havel and all those who delivered speeches. The square was packed with people.

My reporting from Wenceslas square was aired by RFE/RL to all of Czechoslovakia, and people could hear that something was happening in Prague. I recorded the sounds, and of course I spoke about what was happening, but I thought it was important for the people to hear the sounds. I told them the slogans being chanted and they could hear the speeches.

I had one funny experience when I arrived at the hotel Evropa where I was staying. The desk clerk asked what my name was, my address, and my occupation, and I said “I am the director of RFE/RL,” and he said “oh, so we need to put you in a better room with windows facing the square, but please don’t tell this to the hotel director. And go now! Something is happening!”

There were about 150, 000 people there and I reported from the window of my room the first day.

I met with dissidents, including Havel, whom I had known for many years since our days at DAMU [the Czech Academy for Performing Arts theater department].

You see, on the RFE/RL broadcasts people could hear the joy and excitement, and the slogans. I remember getting a letter from a Slovak student named Juraj Vaculik. He wrote that my reporting was like a fire that spread, because in Slovakia they could hear what was happening in Prague and they wanted to do the same.

RFE/RL: Your father, Jaroslav Pechacek, was also director of the Czechoslovak Service and he lead a very storied and turbulent life. Could you tell us a bit about him?

Pechacek: I was born in July 1940, and my father was arrested by the Gestapo in May, 1940, so when I was born my father had already been in prison for two months. He was sentenced with about four other young people because these young boys had met to discuss how to fight the Nazi regime. It was very hard for him, but in a way, they were all kind of lucky to have been sentenced before the assassination of Heydrich. If it had happened afterward, my father certainly would have been condemned to death.

My mother took me to Terezin, the prison where my father was being held, in a baby carriage when I was two months old. The prison director at first wanted to chase her away, but she insisted that she wanted to show her son to his father. My mother said the prison director looked into the carriage and I opened my eyes and smiled at him. He said my father would never leave the prison and told my mother to hand me to him, that he would take care of me and I would have a good childhood; that the Germans would win the war anyway. My mother didn’t do it.

Germany--Former RFE/RL Czechoslovak Service Director Pavel Pechacek (second from left) at RFE/RL's Munich headquarters with fellow journalists.
Germany--Former RFE/RL Czechoslovak Service Director Pavel Pechacek (second from left) at RFE/RL's Munich headquarters with fellow journalists.

[After the February 1948 communist coup] our parents had to escape or they would have ended up in prison. I was seven years old, my brother three, and my sister two. We children were left behind and met our parents again 20 years later.

RFE/RL: Before the authorities surprised you by granting a visa, you were forced to report from abroad, from Munich during your time with RFE and from the U.S. for VOA. What was it like to be a journalist in exile during the Cold War?

Pechacek: Well, I just loved it, it was a kind of adrenaline rush for me. There were quite a few adventures. But there were also difficulties. At one point when I was in Munich the StB were planning to kidnap my son. It was not easy.

As far as professional journalism goes, at that time it was better to broadcast from Munich or Washington D.C., because we didn’t lie, whereas the Czechoslovak media after 1968 was full of lies and attacks and it was disgusting.

RFE/RL: What were some of the most outrageous falsehoods disseminated by Czechoslovak official media that you sought to push back against with fact-based reporting?

Pechacek: They lied all the time, about everything. They imprisoned a great number of people and executed more than 200. It was a regime that lied all the time. My motto was, “The best propaganda is the truth.” And they just did not respect that. The whole Eastern Block was just lies standing on lame legs.

I avoided airing reactions to what “Rude Pravo” [the communist newspaper] was saying--I did not want to be part of any dialogue with a communist paper, you know, like it was some kind of competition. What I did was to describe the event truthfully.

RFE/RL: How difficult was it for your listeners to actually listen, in light of the jamming and other measures taken by the authorities to disrupt the broadcasts?

Pechacek: We were lucky at VOA not to be jammed, but RFE/RL was jammed, as you said, until 1988. And as the saying goes, that was a nail in the coffin of the regime, because they were most afraid of RFE/RL since most people perceived it as objective and truthful information.

--Emily Thompson/Jana Hokuvova