Primary Sources

Prague Embassy cable, Czechoslovak Press Coverage of Demonstration and List Agenda of Demands

Description

In communist state, a newspaper article sometimes told the reader more than just what happened yesterday. Because the party maintained strict control over what could be printed or broadcast, the way the news was reported could signal political changes as well. One such instance appears in this November 20 cable from the American Embassy in Prague, which compared local coverage of the November 17 demonstration across three newspapers: Rude pravo, the Communist Party's central mouthpiece; Svobodne slovo, run by the Czechoslovak Social Democrats (an officially-sanctioned non-communist party); and Mlada fronta, the organ of the Union of Socialist Youth. Two very different interpretations emerged. Rude pravo followed the official line and portrayed the police intervention as justified and appropriate. But Svobodne slovo and Mlada fronta broke ranks and critically reported the police assault on demonstrators. These conflicting accounts represented much more than a disagreement about the facts. People immediately understood this was a major breach in the party's monopoly on information. These conflicting reports in Svobodne slovo and Mlada fronta marked journalists' first moves towards a 'free' press. They also indicated dissension in the ruling camp, as the Social Democrats and the Union of Socialist Youth distanced themselves from the Communist party's conservative leadership.

Source

Prague Embassy to U.S. Secretary of State, "Czechoslovak Press Coverage of Demonstration Aftermath Shows Contradictory Lines," 20 November 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

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2. THE NOVEMBER 20 EDITION OF "RUDE PRAVO" TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ALLEGEDLY INACCURATE REPORTS OF THE DEATHS OF ONE OR MORE STUDENTS IN THE NOVEMBER 17 DEMONSTRATION TO LAUNCH AN OFFENSIVE CHARGING THAT "SELF-APPOINTED LEADERS” HAD SUBVERTED THE LEGITIMATE ANNUAL COMMEMORATION FOR ANTI-NAZI FIGHTER OPLETAL. ACCORDING TO THE PAPER, POLICE FORCES HAD TAKEN NO ACTION AGAINST THE MARCHERS, EVEN WHEN THEY BEGAN SHOUTING ANTI-GOVERNMENT AND ANTI-PARTY SLOGANS, UNTIL THE CROWD TRIED TO MOVE TO UNAPPROVED ROUTES, WHERE THEY WOULD HAVE "ENDANGERED" THE PUBLIC.

3. IT WAS AT THAT POINT, ACCORDING TO THE PAPER, THAT THE LEADERS OF THE DEMONSTRATION DECIDED TO SPREAD A "FALSE" CLAIM THAT A STUDENT NAMED MARTIN SMID HAD BEEN KILLED, A CLAIM PICKED UP BY THE FOREIGN PRESS.... THE GOVERNMENT ON SUNDAY SHOT DOWN THE RUMOR ABOUT SMID BY PRODUCING HIM FOR A TELEVISION INTERVIEW. A STATEMENT BY THE INTERIOR MINISTRY DESCRIBED THE DEATH RUMORS AS A DELIBERATE MANIPULATION OF PEOPLE'S MINDS AND AN EFFORT TO AROUSE HOSTILE EMOTIONS. (THIS HAS NOT STOPPED SPECULATION THAT SOME DEMONSTRATOR(S) WAS KILLED.)

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5. IN CONTRAST TO "RUDE PRAVO'S" LINE, THE CZECHOSLOVAK SOCIALIST PARTY PAPER "SVOBODNE SLOVO" PRINTED A STATEMENT BY THE PARTY PRESIDIUM VERY CRITICAL OF SECURITY FORCES. NOTING ITS PAST CALLS FOR AN INCREASED DIALOGUE, THE PRESIDIUM EXPRESSED ITS "FUNDAMENTAL DISAPPROVAL'' OF POLICE ACTIONS AGAINST "DEFENSELESS DEMONSTRATORS" WHICH COULD ONLY "EXACERBATE TENSIONS IN SOCIETY" AND AROUSE NATURAL RESISTANCE. IT DEMANDED THAT SUCH EVENTS NEVER BE RESOLVED IN THIS MANNER AGAIN.

6. THE YOUTH PAPER "MLADA FRONTA”, ALSO TAKING A CRITICAL VIEW, QUOTED A STATEMENT BY TWO STUDENT GROUPS ATTACKING THE "INADEQUATE AND POLITICALLY ILL-ADVISED'' ACTIONS BY SECURITY FORCES. THE GROUPS WERE "CONCERNED AND OUTRAGED" AT THE INFORMATION ABOUT INJURED PARTICIPANTS IN THE DEMONSTRATION. AS "SVOBODNE SLOVO," "MLADA FRONTA" DID NOT MENTION THE DEATH REPORTS AND CALLED FOR INVESTIGATIONS OF THE ACTIONS OF THE SECURITY FORCES.

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How to Cite this Source

Prague Embassy, "Prague Embassy cable, Czechoslovak Press Coverage of Demonstration and List Agenda of Demands," Making the History of 1989, Item #496, http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/496 (accessed November 28 2014, 3:32 am).