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John Feffer

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Pushing Boundaries

Posted: 09/27/2013 10:22 am

Approaching 1989, the Communist governments in East-Central Europe were like the residents of a continuing care facility. Some governments -- in Czechoslovakia, for instance -- appeared to be very sturdy and, although quite elderly, were capable of living independently for some time. Others, as in Poland, were already in assisted care, needing the help of the opposition to stay alive. By the end of 1989, of course, all of the Communist governments had weakened to such an extent that they urgently needed hospice. They would eventually expire, one after the other.

The process of deterioration began, of course, before 1989 and was the result of millions of acts of everyday rebellion. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, dissidents like Vaclav Havel refused to tailor their lives to the dictates of the state. But rebellion took other forms as well -- like reading the samizdat works of Havel or participating in clandestine conversations.

For many journalists, the rebellion took the form of pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. Miroslav Krupicka was a radio journalist who'd been working at Mikroforum for a couple years before the Velvet Revolution in 1989. I met him in 1990 when he was part of a delegation of Czech journalists visiting England and then interviewed him later the same year in Prague (summary at bottom). In 2013, at a bar near the National Theater in Prague, he told me about the days before 1989 when he and his colleagues tried to enlarge the space for free expression in the official media.

In early 1989, for instance, he did a report on the peace movement in Czechoslovakia and included an interview with a representative of the dissident peace group, the Independent Peace Association.

"The representative of the association spoke very wisely, gave quite a well-balanced speech," Krupicka told me. "He said that peace is very important for both West and East. But he was not supposed to be in the official media. The program was broadcast. The next day, in the early morning before I came to work, my editor got a call from the Central Committee. Perhaps by chance one of them listened to the program or they had someone monitoring it -- who knows -- but they found out about everything. They said, 'You have to talk to the producer who did this and tell him he can't do this or else there will be problems.' We had a small meeting and he told me I couldn't do this again. 'I understand what you meant,' he said. 'We are living at a historic time. But this was over the line. This was too much.'"

Sometimes, however, the boundaries couldn't be pushed. In the summer of 1989, Krupicka visited North Korea and witnessed a very rare act of rebellion when participants at the international festival of youth raised banners protesting what had recently happened in Tiananmen Square. Because of the presence of foreign journalists, the North Korean authorities did not crack down on the courageous festival participants. But Krupicka knew that if he reported on the protest, it would simply be edited out back in Prague.

Today, after a stint in the 1990s at BBC World Service, Miroslav Krupicka is the editor-in-chief at Radio Prague. We talked about the heady days of journalism during the Velvet Revolution, the key political issues that journalists covered in the aftermath, and the few Czech stories that still command attention today.

The Interview

When things started to happen here in Prague in 1989, what was your involvement as a journalist?

On the 17th of November, I was not in Prague. I was in West Germany. It was a strange story. We could somehow travel to the West if you produced foreign currency. You also needed a special exit permit to leave the country, which I had. So I decided to go with my friend to West Germany for this weekend, from November 17 to 19, to Munich and Nuremberg. And on Saturday evening or Sunday morning, we listened to the Bayern 3 radio news in German, which said that there were some gatherings in Prague because a student Martin Smid had died at the demonstration. We said, "If this is true, then something serious is happening. If someone was killed, the people won't leave it at that." We returned to Czechoslovakia on Sunday the 19th. It was around midnight when we went through Prague by car, and we met groups of people with flags. When we saw that, I said to myself, "The regime cannot survive this."

Then on Monday, I went to work at Czechoslovak radio, and it was very busy. Everyone was talking about the experience on the street. Havel and others set up a coordination center and there were groups of people in various factories, everywhere, establishing chapters. There was a group of people forming Civic Forum at Czechoslovak radio, and I joined them. The first thing we did was to ask for a space on Czechoslovak radio for the voice of the street, where people on the street could talk. We fought for this for a few days. The director of Czechoslovak radio had to be persuaded. He finally agreed five days later, and this Civic Forum broadcast began. I was engaged in that activity, broadcasting news every day, going into the streets and recording people's voices: students, activists like Mr. Havel, and others. We were trying to bring the news to people as soon as possible.

Then there was the general strike. In the first few days it was still not clear whether the revolution would develop as it started. But little by little, the Communist regime collapsed. They did nothing. They were afraid of the people. They were afraid to crush the movement with tanks. Luckily there was no massacre. It took about a month to assure ourselves that we were really becoming a democratic country again.

There was a big difference between the cities and the large towns, and the countryside. We went to the countryside to report on the situation there, and many people said, "This is about your students and intellectuals in Prague. It has nothing to do with us. We have other problems. We don't believe that the regime has collapsed. We have to go with the old way, there's no other way."

One of my colleagues was assaulted by a big man in northern Bohemia. It was a town with a coal mine, so this was probably a coal miner. When my colleague produced a microphone and started to ask him a question, the man hit him a few times.

Weren't there also a lot of people coming to Prague from the countryside?

That happened at the time of the big manifestations, which was not every day. Also for the general strike, people came in from the countryside. But it wasn't everybody. It was the revolutionary people, the ones who formed the Civic Forum groups in factories and institutions.

As the Communist Party collapsed, it withdrew the general secretary of the Party and started talks with Mr. Havel about forming a new government. Within about a month, it was clear that things were going the right way.

Was it difficult for you to be a journalist at this time in terms of objectivity?

We were very revolutionary, everybody was, and it was a really fantastic feeling. We didn't sleep in those days. We stayed overnight in the radio building working from early morning. I'd been a journalist for about two years at that time. I really didn't have to change anything. There had been some self-censorship, but we were quite normal journalists. We knew very well what we could write and what would cause problems. On the other hand, it was the time of perestroika and we pushed the border further and further.

I had a boss responsible for the Mikrofoum broadcasts, and when we were pushing the borders or went a little over the line, he would have problems. He would get a call from the Central Committee of the Communist Party and they would say, "This is not possible." And he would come to us and tell us, "No, sorry, we can't do this." Usually it was too late because it was already on the air.

So, we were pushing this self-censorship further and further. It simply disappeared within the first few days after November 17. I tried to be objective and report on as many things as possible because it was a time rich in events. Something was going on every two hours -- news from the government, or the Communist Party, or the police. The police were being pushed to investigate what happened on November 17, why it happened. I don't feel that I was more or less objective than before. We simply lost the self-censorship.

The media was also changing. It took a few months before everything changed at Czechoslovak radio. The director was kicked out about two weeks after the Velvet Revolution. A new person came in and introduced new bosses and managers. Some were good, some not. A number of the Communists from 1968 had been expelled from their jobs in the early 1970s and were trying to get compensation for what they lost. Those that returned who were in their fifties and sixties couldn't cope with the business of radio. There were some sharp discussions with them. Some left; some stayed a couple months, some a couple years.

The change was much quicker in the press. The newspaper Rude Pravo [Red Truth] became Pravo; they only took out the "Red." It still publishes today. It's left-oriented like The Guardian, and it's not bad. They at first kept to the Communist Party line because they were the organ of the Party, but then they separated from the Party. The other magazines and newspapers cut themselves off from the Party and started publishing the real news. It was a question of a few weeks, unlike radio and TV, which was a few months.

Can you give me an example before 1989 when you pushed the boundaries and your editor received a call from the Central Committee?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

 

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