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The Extraordinary Meeting Of ‘Student’ Journalists And RFE In 1968

An article about Radio Free Europe published in Student, a Czechoslovak weekly, in July 1968. Editors of Student were only able to publish one article of a planned series before the Warsaw Pact invasion put an end to the short-lived period of press freedom in Czechoslovakia.

During Czechoslovakia’s brief period of political liberalization in 1968 known as the Prague Spring, a group of young Czechoslovak journalists made a historic visit to Radio Free Europe’s headquarters in Munich, something that would have been unthinkable before, and after.

On July 7, 1968 five journalists from the Czechoslovak weekly Student sat down with six Radio Free Europe (RFE) broadcasters for a wide-ranging, frank discussion about the history, management, and funding of RFE, maligned by Czechoslovakia’s communist authorities for nearly two decades as “enemy radio.”

“It was a very powerful experience for me as a young journalist, then only 24 years old,” said Petr Feldstein, an editor with Student at the time. “For many reasons it was an enriching experience, mainly because of a number of great journalistic figures and individuals we met there.”

Among the RFE broadcasters participating in the meeting were Czechoslovak Service Director Jaroslav Pechacek and Deputy Director Samuel Bellus. As the young journalists’ visit to RFE was one stop on a larger reporting trip to learn about the Czechoslovak exile community in Germany, they were especially curious about RFE’s relationship with those groups. They also asked about its editorial line vis-a-vis American foreign policy, and how it maintained its independence as a government-funded broadcaster.

Student was launched in 1965 by the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Youth Union as a means to pay lip service to the mounting demands by the country’s youth for free expression.It had “already slipped out of [the censors’] control in 1966 and 67,” Feldstein said.

Emboldened by the Prague Spring reforms, the team that traveled to Munich had planned to run a series of articles reporting on their visit. RFE management, fearful of triggering a backlash in what was a tense political environment, discouraged the group from publishing, but they went to press with the first article about RFE in late July.They were harshly criticized in the hardline communist press.

Recalling the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that August, Feldstein said,
“We were convinced, or at least we hoped that the events of 1956 in Hungary couldn’t be repeated—that the world had moved beyond that—but that was very naive on our part.”

Feldstein and his colleagues published five special “Occupation Editions” of Student in the days following the invasion, before censorship was reinstated under the so-called Moscow Protocol that renounced liberalization. Feldstein says it made no sense to continue publishing Student under such conditions, and the editors voluntarily closed it down.

“For me, due to my ‘sins’ it was impossible to make a living as a journalist after 1968,” said Feldstein. He worked in a variety of blue collar professions, including as a well digger. He remembers listening to RFE and Voice of America broadcasts, and said they helped sustain his optimism that the communist regime would sooner or later fall.

Feldstein was only able to return to journalism in 1990, after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution toppled communism in 1989.He went on to have a prolific career as an editor, producer, and documentary film maker with Czechoslovak TV and later Czech TV.

“I look back on our visit to Radio Free Europe as an amazing and exceptional event in my life,” said Feldstein. “Even though it had heavy consequence for me, I’m glad I went and I never regretted it.”

—Emily Thompson