PRAGUE -- Four years ago, Czechs invited an old friend that had helped them through darker days to share their capital. Today, some here are wondering whether new plans by their guest won't lead to hard times ahead.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was the friend -- the source of Western news and information for listeners in communist countries during the Cold War. What didn't occur to Czechs when they welcomed the stations to Prague was that among the new targets of the U.S.-sponsored broadcasts would be Iran and Iraq.
Now Czech officials fret about the possibility of lost trading opportunities. Of more immediate concern to ordinary citizens is the worry that their country could be entangled in current and future Persian Gulf conflicts.
"These broadcasts won't win us any friends in the gulf," retiree Karel Erben says. "And we're opening ourselves up to terrorism with them."
There have been no overt moves by Czech officials to shut the stations. But some members of the government and Parliament complain that RFE/RL did not consult local authorities before planning the Persian Gulf service. Others question the latitude the broadcaster's management has in conducting operations in the country.
"It's not good to have a private company operating here under circumstances the Czech authorities can't influence," says Deputy Premier Egon Lansky.
"That seems very odd to me, to put it mildly."
The U.S.-funded broadcaster, set up by the CIA in 1951, enjoyed a wide Czech audience during the communist period. Much of today's political elite were among the most avid listeners. Then three years ago, in the wake of the political changes in Eastern Europe, RFE/RL moved its studios to Prague.
After the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Czechs needed a tenant for the old Czechoslovak Parliament building -- an eyesore that sits at the top of Wenceslas Square in central Prague.
President Vaclav Havel offered the premises to RFE/RL for the token rent of one crown (3 cents) a day. The proposal made good financial sense for the stations, as the U.S. Congress had slashed their funding and RFE/RL's former home, Munich, is one of Europe's most expensive cities.
Czechs welcomed the stations at first as a symbol of their country's political maturity and a measure of the political turnaround the Czech Republic had undergone since the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew the communist regime.
That began to change in the weeks leading up to the launch of broadcasts to the Persian Gulf region this fall.
The programs -- originally an hour a day to each country, but in light of the current crisis expanded to four hours or more daily -- are aimed at "promoting the free flow of information to provide people with the materials they need to build a free society," according to Paul Goble, RFE's director of communications in Washington.
The stations' budget, as appropriated by Congress, will total about $9 million for the first year or so, including start-up costs, and then an outlay of about $4 million annually thereafter. While the broadcasts are run largely by members of the Iranian and Iraqi exile and emigre communities, each is overseen by an American veteran of the State Department.
Although there is little opposition to RFE/RL's continuing
broadcasts to its traditional target markets in the former Soviet bloc, concern about the new programming has grown.
Some members of the Czech government were taken aback when they learned of RFE/RL's plans to broadcast to Iran and Iraq, especially when it was revealed that the studios for those programs were to be just yards from a nursery school in a residential neighborhood of Prague's Bubenec district.
Members of the government criticized the stations for not seeking government approval before planning the new services.
After several weeks of terse dialogue, the Czech government approved the broadcasts. Foreign Minister Jan Kavan said the government would monitor the broadcasts for accuracy and fairness, although he was unable to say what criteria would be used.
Citing security concerns, the government also asked the RFE/RL management to find a new location for the studios. One minister quipped privately that perhaps the stations should be "run from a bunker."
Those worries intensified after Kavan revealed that Czech security police had been following the movements of a terrorist in the country. And in the wake of this week's U.S. airstrikes on Iraq, Kavan announced that security around the RFE/RL headquarters was being stepped up.
Iraq's possible response to the broadcasts is not Prague's only concern. Iran, too, has taken umbrage.
Shortly after the broadcasts began, Tehran recalled its ambassador to Prague, Seyyed Jafar Hashemi, who called the programming "terrorist" and "an act of aggression against the government and people of Iran by the United States."
That, in turn, led to concerns about trade relations with Iran. One of the country's largest companies, the Skoda Plzen engineering works, says it fears it will lose substantial business if relations with Iran worsen.
Zdenek Skromach, a member of Parliament and deputy chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party, says the broadcasts could cost the Czech Republic millions of dollars in trade.
He acknowledges that he appreciated being able to listen to Radio Free Europe's Czech service before 1989 -- and he notes that many Czech journalists could "learn a thing or two from RFE's standards" -- but he says that RFE/RL should pay the Czech Republic compensation for lost trading opportunities.
"There are several dozen companies that could be hurt by this," Skromach says. "The Iranian market represents long-term growth possibilities for our industry."
RFE/RL's Goble doubts that compensation is likely because he doesn't believe there will be significant economic consequences.
"The Iranians have pulled their ambassador more than 30 times over the last several years, and they've always restored their ambassador and trade has been maintained," Goble says. "I don't expect Iranian-Czech trade to fall, but I can't say that for certain. Just because 30 times out of 30 it hasn't happened doesn't mean that on the 31st it won't."
For now, the broadcasts are going ahead as planned, but from RFE/RL's studios in the old Parliament building rather than the residential neighborhood.
Goble says he respects the Czechs' security concerns and the government's desire to have a voice in where the station locates its studios. But he balks at allowing it to monitor the programming, as suggested by Foreign Minister Kavan.
"Anyone is welcome to listen to what we broadcast, but as a
journalistic organization we could not accept someone telling us what we're to put on and what we're not," Goble says.
"We are not only resident in the Czech Republic but we are guests of the Czech government, and so one makes a distinction between what our programming is and our physical location."
Pub Date: 12/18/98