Radio Free Europe and Freedom of Expression

If there was one thing the leaders of the communist regime in former Czechoslovakia hated, it was the signature tune announcing a Radio Free Europe broadcast. This radio station started broadcasting full-time in Czechoslovakia on 1 May 1951, and continued to do so until the early 1990’s, well after the end of the Cold War in 1989. It goes without saying that the regime did everything it could to portray the broadcasts in a bad light.

Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Prague

During the communist era, the Czech branch of RFE, called Rádio Svobodna Evropa, was one of the few objective sources of information for the people in what was then Czechoslovakia. The broadcasts started with the sentence: “Volá hlas svobodného Československa, rozhlasová stanice Svobodná Evropa” (The voice of Free Czechoslovakia calls, radio station Free Europe).

Radio Free Europe Headquarters

Radio Free Europe, was founded in 1950 by the National Committee for a Free Europe, part of the CIA. The purpose of this radio station was to provide listeners behind the Iron Curtain with objective news.

The radio station in Munich in the free west provided the broadcasts for Czechoslovakia. Its location close to the border with Czechoslovakia allowed RFE not only broadcast, but also to send helium-filled weather balloons carrying packets with news stories across the border. This practice occurred frequently between 1953 and 1956 as Czechoslovak authorities attempted to jam the broadcasts and often succeeded.

Czechs caught spreading news from RFE were given prison sentences or lost their jobs while their children were denied educational opportunities. In 1995, RFE moved its headquarters to Prague.

Boycott of Radio Free Europe

In 1981, a bomb exploded at the headquarters in Munich. The intention was to hit the Czechoslovak broadcast, but the bomb was placed at the wrong door.

Between 1972 and 1976, the Czechoslovak branch in Munich was infiltrated by an agent of the Czech secret police who sought information about informants at RFE. On his return to Czechoslovakia he was hailed as a hero but after the fall of Communism, he lost his job at the Ministry of the Interior. Like many informants, he embarked on a second career as a businessman but was found guilty of insurance fraud and sentenced to four years in prison in 2009.

There was also a failed attempt by the Czechoslovak Secret Service (StB) in 1959 to poison the salt in the salt shakers in the RFE canteen.

Origin and purpose of RFE

Radio Free Europe offered a counterbalance to the tightly controlled state media in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Funded by the United States, the organization aimed to provide accurate news, analysis and commentaries to those living under communist regimes. The broadcasts were intended to promote democratic values, human rights and freedom of expression and to present a neutral perspective on world events.

The programs of Radio Free Europe

The broadcasts covered a range of topics including news, cultural programs, and discussions on political and social issues. These broadcasts provided information that was often suppressed by local authorities, and fostered a sense of connection with the outside world.

Czechs were also part of the audience, but listening to the broadcasts was sometimes difficult. Citizens needed shortwave radios, and although owning such radios was technically illegal, many people took the risk to have one and stay informed.


The communist authorities were wary of the influence RFE had on the population and frequently jammed the broadcasts. RFE then adapted the technology, but it remained a cat and mouse game. The Zizkov television tower in Prague was built specifically as a jammer, but missed its purpose because the tower became operational after the fall of Communism.

RFE is still active

RFE broadcasts in 27 languages to 23 countries including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, and other countries where free speech is banned by governments or suppressed.

With more than 700 full-time journalists and 1,300 freelancers, RFE is one of the most comprehensive news providers in the world.Since RFE is banned in some countries, the sources often remain anonymous because reporters can be arrested in those countries.

Radio Free Europe New Building

Radio Free Europe is still present in Prague, even if it does not broadcast to the local population. The station’s European branch moved from Munich to Prague in early 1995 and was located in the former Czechoslovak Federal Government building near Wenceslas Square and now part of the National Museum.

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the street in front of the building was closed and guarded by an armoured vehicle. In 2009, RFE moved to a new building in a more secure location in Prague’s Hagibor district on Vinohradska Street near Želevskeho metro station.

There is a specially designed sculpture in front of the building. It consists of letters that read as ‘liberty’ when approaching it from one side, and ‘svoboda’, Czech for freedom, when approached from the other side.

Next article: Prague Metro: crash course in history
Previous article: Covered arcades: shortcuts and alternative routes

photo Marianne Crone

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This