In the turbulent year of 1968, Radio Prague was "freer" than Radio Free Europe

In the early years of Radio Free Europe, the U.S. station – although initially founded and largely secretly funded by the CIA – played a critical role in providing balanced, objective news to listeners in the Eastern Bloc, especially during turbulent periods of history. Having failed to live up its own standards when covering the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, RFE took a radically different approach to its coverage of the Prague Spring and Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, says former RFE director A. Ross Johnson.

Hungarian Revolution in 1956, photo: ismeretlen, CC BY-SA 3.0Hungarian Revolution in 1956, photo: ismeretlen, CC BY-SA 3.0 In covering the Hungarian Revolution, some RFE commentators were even accused of having fomented the revolt, or having urged Hungarians to fight a battle against the Soviets – which they couldn’t win – and promised Western support – which would never come.

So in 1968, when it became clear that Moscow might resort to military action to crush the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubček, RFE management were determined not to repeat past editorial mistakes or provide the Soviet Union with any fodder for its propaganda machine, says former RFE director A. Ross Johnson, who has written a book on the radio’s first two decades.

Ross Johnson (lecturing): “Now, sure, we can all imagine some hypotheticals. And if in 1968 there had been some Czech editor [for RFE] who started saying to resist the Soviets with violence, he would have been cut off and fired…”

I caught up with Mr Johnson, author of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty: The CIA Years and Beyond, at a recent conference on the Prague Spring. Addressing the audience, he had noted that – for a time in 1968 – Czechoslovak Radio was actually far “freer” than Radio Free Europe, in terms of editorial policy. While RFE, for example, did relay a lot of information from the underground radios, it never carried calls for active resistance, even when such reports appeared in Western media. These steps were controversial internally, Mr Johnson says, but RFE broadcasts to Czechoslovakia throughout 1968 won high praise from Czechs and Slovaks.

“In Munich, at Radio Free Europe headquarters, I think both the Czechoslovak broadcasters and American management wanted to be very cautious not to give any excuse to the Soviet Union to crack down – any additional excuse. There was a very conscious policy, which was written down by the then Radio Free Europe director, Ralph E. Walter, to be very cautious. And Walter said later that we understood we would not be broadcasting things that Czech Radio was broadcasting. For two reasons: One, to avoid any pretext that the Soviet Union might seize on, its propaganda might seize on. And the other reason was the history of Radio Free Europe. It had only been 12 years since the Hungarian Revolution.”

The News Magazine of the Screen (1957) by Warner Pathé News:

“This is battered Budapest under the brutal Russian boot. Soviet tanks roam the streets amid the ruins they made as communist secret police hunt down heroic freedom-fighters. Here, for all the world to see, is grim evidence of the brutality and savagery with which the Red tanks blasted a defenceless people and their city... Twenty-five thousand Hungarians are dead. Budapest is ravaged. But the Soviet masters cannot crush a proud people. Defiantly, they chant, We shall be free!”

A. Ross Johnson, photo: archive of Wilson CenterA. Ross Johnson, photo: archive of Wilson Center Forty years after the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising, which resulted in a bloodbath, documents concerning Radio Free Europe broadcasts were made public that seemed to confirm much of what many Hungarians remembered having heard on the radio – or thought had transpired: some RFE commentators had encouraged people to resist or fight the Soviets with the false understanding that reinforcements would come from the West.

“Radio Free Europe was in part incorrectly, but in part correctly, criticized for, directly or indirectly, giving encouragement to the Hungarian uprising to continue – not promising Western assistance, but just sort of uncritical support of the revolution.

RFE’s own Policy Handbook issued in November 1951 had cautioned against broadcasting any promises of Western intervention. But in 1956, some RFE broadcasts were highly emotional, included tactical advice, or otherwise fell short of normal standards of journalism.

“And that led to all kinds of reactions, later in Hungary of course but also in Washington. And so the management of Radio Free Europe were bending over backwards not to use information that somebody could consider inflammatory. So, we could say in one sense that in June and July of 1968, Radio Prague, Czech Radio, was freer than Radio Free Europe – just in terms of conscious editorial policy.”

Radio Prague announcer (August ’68): “This is Radio Prague, Czechoslovakia, the legitimate voice of occupied Czechoslovakia…”

In the first few days after the Soviet invasion of August 1968, staff at Czechoslovak Radio managed to continue broadcasting from their headquarters in central Prague even though tanks had been stationed outside the building.

Radio Prague announcer: “All the transmitters which we had at our disposal have been gradually forced out of operation, and we do not even know how many of you, our listeners, can hear us. But we shall try to stay in touch with you, even though some of our phone lines are cut and since two in the morning, foreign aircraft have been circling above the Czechoslovak Radio building.”

Once the headquarters were occupied entirely, radio staff began using mobile transmitters to broadcast on medium wave for listeners at home and a shortwave transmitter in Litomyšl, 140 kilometres east of Prague, to address the world. Radio Prague, the station’s international service, became the voice of free Czechoslovakia.

Radio Prague announcer: “Prague has woken up to a sixth day under foreign occupation. The night was one of terror. Occupation troops fired at cars, motorcycles – every moving object – without warning.”

The Prague Spring reforms had begun in January 1968. Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček – who was loyal to Moscow and had no intention of leaving the Warsaw Pact – had wanted to introduce “Socialism with a human face”. He all but ended the censorship of media, restricted the activities of the secret police and brought in economic reforms. Ross Johnson, again:

Soviet invasion in August 1968, photo: Engramma.it, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0Soviet invasion in August 1968, photo: Engramma.it, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0 “Radio Prague, Czech Radio, became freed of censorship in the late spring, summer of ’68. I guess if there were any prohibitions, I don’t know what they were. I think the journalists were broadcasting whatever they thought made good news. So they covered not just things like the Dubček programme but they had discussions, some references, to foreign policy changes, neutrality; some references to a multiparty system, and so on.

ITN report: “At their stands in Wenceslas Square, the newspaper sellers literally cannot sell their papers fast enough to satisfy the demand. With the print still wet and hot from the presses.

In July 1968, at the height of the reform period, British-based outlet Independent Television News (ITN) reported that the Czechoslovak people’s desire for reform – which the report characterised as amounting to a “revolution”, a term that RFE would never have used – outpaced that of the government.

ITN report: “With the press and television leading the way, it’s considered that public opinion is one jump ahead of the leadership in the desire for changes. And this, in turn, could mean that even if leader Dubček and his comrades wish to slow down the pace of the revolution, either by choice or because of outside pressure and intimidation, it’s unlikely that the people would allow it.”