On August 27, 1968, six days after Soviet tanks rumbled across the border into Czechoslovakia and an occupying army put an end to the brief period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring, a consoling Czech voice on Radio Free Europe (RFE) implored listeners to take heart.
“Czechoslovakia has survived the last six days—with scars and deep wounds, but it survived…During these difficult days, Czechoslovakia has demonstrated its hopeful resolve, its vigorous strength, and its free will.”
The commentary was part of RFE’s historic, 24/7 coverage of the Warsaw Pact invasion, and marked the start of a new period of broadcasting that would last until the Velvet Revolution toppled the communist regime in 1989.
Beginnings of the Czechoslovak Service
RFE began broadcasting to Czechoslovakia and other Soviet satellite countries in local languages on short-wave from its headquarters in Munich in 1950, acting as a surrogate provider of news and information. Unlike the Eastern Bloc’s domestic media, which was under the thumb of state censors and published communist propaganda, RFE promised reliable local, regional, and international reporting “in the American tradition of free speech.” Its programs included international press roundups, verified news from unofficial sources inside Czechoslovakia, commentary on domestic events, and educational features that were suppressed by the communist authorities. It also gave airtime to programs that reminded listeners of the country’s forbidden history as a sovereign, democratic state.
The invasion brought an abrupt end to the Prague Spring, which reformist leader Alexander Dubcek had ushered in only eight months before with changes that included an easing of media censorship and restrictions on free speech. Among the Soviets’ first targets that August were the studios of Czech radio and Czech TV. Seventeen people were killed in violence that erupted outside the flagship Czechoslovak Radio building on Vinohradska street in Prague.
The crushing of Czechoslovakia’s nascent free media meant RFE had to redouble its efforts to reach audiences under the occupation’s information blackout. For several weeks after the invasion, it increased broadcasting from 19 to 24 hours daily. Programs were repeated throughout the day in response to the jamming of RFE’s signal, which, while suspended during the Prague Spring, the Soviets quickly resumed. It was difficult to listen to RFE in big cities where jamming was most intense.
RFE listener Peter Collak explained that he discovered RFE when foreign radio became the only source of information after national broadcasters were shut down. “All of my favorite local radio programs ended when the Russians came, because the first thing they did was occupy the Czechoslovak radio and TV stations,” he said.
Tuning in required some ingenuity on the part of listeners because of the jamming, but Czech and Slovak listeners were endlessly creative in their attempts at defiance. Some listened at their cottages in the countryside where jamming was weaker. Other listeners remember waiting for power outages because they knew the jammers would also be down during the blackout and they could catch the signal.
During the invasion and immediately after, RFE journalists and commentators were especially mindful about the tone of their broadcasts, intent on avoiding mistakes made during coverage of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. While no promises of American aid were made by the Hungarian Service during that crisis, some critics felt the broadcasts were emotionally charged and may have been misunderstood as encouragement to revolt against the Soviet troops.
“RFE saw its task as keeping its audiences informed while avoiding even the appearance of encouraging active resistance that might lead to violence,” said Ross Johnson, former director of RFE, who in 1968 worked in Munich as an assistant to RFE Director Ralph Walter.
“RFE always called for calm,” said Prokop Tomek, a Czech historian who has studied RFE for the Czech Military History Institute. “If you look at the whole political context of U.S. policy toward Czechoslovakia at that time, the U.S. supported the peaceful developments of the Prague Spring, but did not support any violence in response to the invasion. The journalists at RFE focused on informing rather than commenting. It wasn’t emotional.”
A period referred to by Soviet leaders as “normalization” followed the invasion, during which the Prague Spring reforms were quickly rolled back and the reformers pushed out of official positions. Tens of thousands of disillusioned Czechs and Slovaks emigrated, among them some of the country’s most popular young journalists. Many of them came to work for RFE in Munich, bringing fresh talent and new energy to the Czechoslovak Service, whose role was arguably more important than ever in the face of totalitarian retrenchment at home.
“I felt like a rat deserting a sinking ship,” said Lida Rakusanova, a Czech journalist who started working with RFE in 1975, expressing conflicted feelings typical among emigres who left Czechoslovakia in 1968. Rakusanova started out reporting for a program called Insights (Rozhledy), where she produced features on life in Western countries. “I did stories I thought people in Czechoslovakia would be interested in, like the first men to take paternity leave, people who refused military service, volunteerism, and average family life.”
Czechs and Slovaks on the other end of transmissions from Rakusanova and her colleagues took great personal risks by listening to RFE, and had to do so in secret. While it wasn’t illegal to listen to foreign radio per se, it was a crime to spread information obtained from foreign broadcasts. Moreover, authorities judged listening to foreign radio as a sign of disloyalty to the state; many people lost their jobs or were denied entry to university when it was discovered they listened.
In addition to news, the banned works of musicians, artists, poets, and intellectuals were broadcast on RFE, as were the self-published samizdat essays of playwright Vaclav Havel and other leaders of the Charter 77 dissident movement that would eventually bring down the communist regime.
RFE also provided a rare platform for its audience. Czech and Slovak listeners were in constant contact with the radio through letters postmarked with no return address, and phone calls made from public telephone booths to avoid detection.
It was more than 20 years after the 1968 invasion until the famous Czech watchword that “truth prevails” once again rang true. In the meantime, on a clear day in the countryside on just the right frequency, listeners knew how to find a signal of hope.