In this week's edition of our special on the history of Czech Radio, marking the station's 80th anniversary, Jan Velinger looks at the role of the station during the fall of Communism in 1989.
November 17th, 1989. On that day, almost fourteen years ago, Czechoslovakia witnessed the start of demonstrations that would bring down its Communist government in a matter of days, and lift a leading dissident and playwright, Vaclav Havel, into the leadership of a country that was about to reinvent its self. Who could have foreseen how fast events would unfold? Friday, November 17th began innocently enough, with a traditional student meeting at Prague's Charles University, commemorating the death of Jan Opletal, a student murdered by the Nazis in 1939. This is how Czechoslovak state radio began its broadcast on the morning of the 17th...
"Where else than to start broadcasting on November 17th, 1989, than from the Karolinum. Once again at the beginning of this day the ancient university hall resounded with the notes of the student hymn Gaudeamus igitur..."
The station described the commemorative meeting bringing together representatives from the student body and the country's Socialist Youth League. But, by late Friday Czechoslovak Radio would be grappling over how not to report on a far less expected event - a previously sanctioned student rally that had turned into a demonstration calling for democratic reforms. A peaceful protest in the centre of Prague. In scenes made infamous around the world, riot police moved against the students on Prague's National Street, beating many of them severely with their batons. Some 170 were hurt. Instead of reporting the truth, Czechoslovak Radio opted for clipped and guarded words suggesting there had been a limited incident in which only a few individuals had tried to demonstrate against the Socialist system. Not surprisingly there was no mention of brutal police intervention, or those they had arrested and attacked.
"According to our latest information some individuals are trying to take advantage of today's commemoration and twist it into anti-Socialist provocation."
The next day Czechoslovak Radio offered another version of the event, saying that 17 had been hurt. The station also "reported" that allegedly members of the police militia had also been injured. However, by now, the real news from the street had spread. November 19th dissidents and intellectuals opposed to the regime, including future president Vaclav Havel, decided to found Civic Forum. Shock over the attack on the students had provided a major catalyst, fuelling further protests against the regime, spreading from Prague to Brno to Bratislava over the next nine days. Students joined with workers and intellectuals alike in protest on the country's major squares. After the first few days Czechoslovak Radio was no longer able to downplay the significance of the events at hand.
"Wenceslas Square was full of people even at five p.m. It's difficult to estimate just how many, but I probably won't be too off the mark if I say about 100, 000. Most were young people, there were even children, but all generations were represented. The sheer numbers slowed traffic on the thruway above Wenceslas Square, then blocked it entirely. It was impossible to pass. They chanted slogans, discussed in groups, and carrying placards expressed their dissatisfaction. They called for political pluralism, free elections, real dialogue, and radical reforms."
For the Communists, as well as for official censors and the many pro-regime reporters at Czechoslovak Radio, the beginning of their fall had come. The station, of course unlike the oppressive and decayed Communist regime teetering on collapse, would eventually emerge reinvented, purging itself of its ignoble past. How Czechoslovak Radio evolved with the return of democracy to Czechoslovakia - that is the subject for our series next time.
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