Rudolf Zeman, dissident, journalist and co-founder of the samizdat paper Lidové Noviny

Lidové noviny, or People’s Newspaper, is a leading Czech paper with a tradition going back more than a century. The liberal daily was first discontinued by the Nazis during the war, and then banned by the communist authorities in the 1950s. But in 1987, a group of dissidents in Prague decided to launch a samizdat version of the respected newspaper. In this edition of Czechs Today, we talk to one of the founders of the samizdat Lidové noviny, and its first post-communist editor-in-chief, Rudolf Zeman.

Lidové noviny first started to come out in the Moravian city of Brno in 1893. It became a leading Czech daily, with respected writers including Karel Čapek, Edvar Valenta, Karel Těsnohlídek and others. When the communist regime banned the paper some sixty years later, few would imagine that the paper would one day come back to life. But it happened – in the late 1980s, a group of dissidents in Prague thought the time had come for a monthly that would reach more people than those directly involved in dissident activities. Former radio journalist, and current window cleaner, Rudolf Zeman, was one of the people who re-launched Lidové Noviny in 1988.

Rudolf Zeman in 1999, photo: CTKRudolf Zeman in 1999, photo: CTK “The circumstances had changed to a certain extent, thanks to Gorbachev. And so we decided to try something like this. The idea came from Ladislav Lis at Jiří Dienstbier’s birthday party in May 1987. An important factor was that we had access to modern technology. In 1988, they shipped us an IBM electric typewriter from the West, and it had some extremely useful features, because you could type bold, italics, upper case, and all this made the newspaper look very different although it was made in very modest conditions.”

Most of those who re-launched Lidové noviny in 1988 were in fact journalists who lost their jobs for opposing the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia two decades earlier. In the 1960s, Rudolf Zeman was working at Czechoslovak Radio’s current affairs department.

“We did some really well-known and popular series – one of them was called People, Life and Times. I was also the parliamentary reporter, I wrote Saturday op-ed pieces, and so on. I was really busy by the late 1960s, and I also did work for other departments of the radio. There was this one show, which was broadcast live without any censorship. It was called Songs with Telephone.”

Communist Czechoslovakia was only formally a democracy, and its parliament was not a real political body, as it followed instructions from the Communist Party headquarters. So what exactly did a parliamentary reporter do in such a situation?

“There was in fact no such thing, and I wasn’t really a parliamentary reporter in the true sense. But I wanted to get all kinds of contacts there, because it did offer various topics. It was actually quite useful for some programmes as there were some people who were a little bit more liberal, and could be used for our purposes.”

Lidové noviny in 1988Lidové noviny in 1988 In 1969, Rudolf Zeman was fired, and after several years of various jobs, he ended up being a window cleaner. One of the first signatories of Charter 77, he still cleaned shop windows in the streets of Prague when he got involved with Lidové noviny. He says that some people the ‘grey zone’, that is people who were not directly opposed to the communist regime but did not support it either, also began contributing to the samizdat, usually under pseudonyms to avoid persecution.

“I was personally trying to involve people who were not dissidents, just regular people who had normal jobs. One of those who worked with us regularly was Jan Lukeš, who used the pseudonym Unzeitig. I wanted to make sure the paper did not only depend on people who had been working in the dissent for years who were close to one another and trusted each other but did not necessarily cover everything.”

The people behind Lidové noviny did not want to be confrontational at all costs. In fact, their strategy was to officially apply for a licence. It was obvious to everybody they were hardly going to get one, but Rudolf Zeman says the game in fact made it possible for the paper to come out, as the authorities had to pretend to take them seriously.

“They did not know what to do. On our part, it was an elaborate and targeted game because we knew this was the only possible way of pretending we wanted to be legitimate. We wanted to get officially registered and they had to do something about it because we did things as required by the law. So it was a game we played with them.”

Jiří RumlJiří Ruml Shortly before the end of communism, the authorities finally moved against Lidové noviny. Rudolf Zeman and Jiří Ruml were arrested in October 1989, and were only released after November 17, when it became obvious that the regime had fallen.

“I think it later became obvious that none of the officials and local authorities and censors were ready to move on us directly. The secret police also began to pretend as if they didn’t care too much, although they kept a close watch over the paper and over us. So when Jiří Ruml and I were detained and charged in October 1989, it came as a surprise. I didn’t expect that at all.”

After the fall of communism, the samizdat monthly successfully transformed into a daily. Between 1990 and 1991, Rudolf Zeman was the daily’s editor-in-chief, and he stayed on in the paper as an editor for several years after that. This month, the former dissident and journalist turned 70. Looking at the Czech papers today, Rudolf Zeman says they pressure to sell has changed them to what he calls “tabloids light”.

“Today, the big decisions lie with the publishers who will always pursue whatever brings them the biggest profits. That’s why the so-called serious Czech papers today have shifted to what I call light tabloids. It’s not that the texts themselves would be tabloid-style but it’s the headlines they come up with, the topics they choose, and so on. News-wise, they are not as ample as they could be.”