A few cases of iodine overdosing and various forms of mental trauma such as insomnia, concentration disorders, feelings of insecurity and anxiety: those were some of the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on the local population, stemming from a lack of information and the government’s attempts to play down the gravity of the situation. Fortunately, according to experts, there was no acute risk to people’ health as a result of heightened radiation exposure.
One of the main objectives of the special government commission set up to deal with emergencies was "to regulate media publicity and to monitor and evaluate radiation on the territory of Czechoslovakia" The aim of the regulatory process was to censor Chernobyl-related information.
The Czech Press Agency (ČTK), then controlled by the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, first issued news of the disaster in the evening of April 28, at a time when the radioactive cloud had already crossed the territory of Czechoslovakia. The news item was broadcast in the night hours by public television and radio and appeared in the press on the following day, on April 29.
April 29, 1986, Svobodne Slovo
Accident at Chernobyl power plant
Moscow – The government of the Soviet Union announced yesterday, that an accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, during which one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Aid is being given to those affected. A government commission has been set up to deal with the accident, which is the first of its kind in the Soviet Union. Similar accidents have occurred in other countries on a number of occasions. According to data published by the organization 'Critical mass', 2300 accidents, failures, and other defects on nuclear facilities happened in the US in 1979 alone.
Moscow released news of the accident with a 48-hour delay, at a time when the Swedish government had already began to investigate the cause of the high levels of radioactivity measured on its territory.
In a statement published by the ČTK press agency, the Czechoslovak government proclaimed that the respective authorities were closely monitoring radiation levels on the territory of Czechoslovakia and that heightened radiation had not been detected anywhere. Following this brief statement, there was an information black-out. The next statement was released on May 5, in which the government admitted to “a slight rise of radioactivity”. There were even claims that the previously "non-existing radioactivity" was declining.
The first meeting of the government’s emergency commission took place on May 1, five days after the accident. The commission approved special measures to be taken by the ministries of agriculture and nutrition, foreign trade, the interior, transport and health, and finally in the media, where the main objective was to prevent mass paranoia. The media, a well-oiled communist propaganda machine, was ordered to tone-down all Chernobyl reports, assure the public that there was no cause for concern and explain that any contradictory claims coming from the West, in particular Austria and West Germany were anti-Soviet propaganda.
The annual May Day celebrations and the Peace Race in Kiev went ahead – as further proof that everything was fine and there was no cause for concern. Soviet nuclear expert Yevgenij Velichov went on Czechoslovak public television to reassure citizens, claiming that the Chernobyl accident was only a minor incident. His words were backed by footage from Ukraine, where the local inhabitants went about their daily business, working in the fields and consuming contaminated food. Despite these attempts to cover-up the extent of the disaster, the Czechoslovak public was alarmed and people complained about the lack of information. Ten days after the accident (on May 8), the country’s chief hygienist Dana Zusková went on public radio and admitted that “the levels of radioactivity were higher than usual”. Contrary to official reports, she conceded that in the first days following the accident monitoring stations had reported a rise in radioactive substances. Dr Zusková urged the public to maintain high hygiene standards, and in particular wash all fruits and vegetables before consumption. She concluded her speech by asking people to trust the authorities. However, people mistrusted the communist government and sought information where they could – from the Western media, but also from the Polish and Hungarian press –spreading it by word of mouth.
Meanwhile, the communist leadership maintained the party line – covering up the extent of the disaster and playing down the health risks involved. Broadcasts from the West revealing the extent of the tragedy were jammed. And when leaflets warning of high radiation levels appeared in South Bohemia - distributed by Austrian environmentalists - the police arrested the Greenpeace activists involved and confiscated the leaflets.
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