When I was accepted as a fellow in this German/American Journalist Exchange, there are three parts of my itinerary I most looked forward to – Visiting The Berlin Wall, Visiting NATO and Visiting Radio Free Europe, based in the Czech Republic!
We packed up our things early Tuesday morning, preparing for the bus trip to Prague! I heard a lot about Prague before arriving, like how nearly 25 years ago more than 4,000 East German refugees camped on the grounds of the German Embassy in Prague, demanding entry into West Germany. And I also heard a lot about the crystal! Too bad this is not that kind of trip!
Our bus was nice and BIG, but too big for the quaint, cobbled streets of downtown Prague. So it was out of the bus, grab your suitcase and begin walking! Oh, and we were told many times to watch your wallets! After getting settled in K+K Hotel Central, we had a few minutes to ourselves before heading to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A nearby market was welcoming, several people making food and clothes by hand, and raw silk scarves! Then this burger caught my eye! The vendor called it the “Farmer Burger,” with a beer on the side. I had to taste it – well seasoned beef, bacon, eggs, cheese, everything! I shared it with two other people, of course!
When we arrived at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty offices, my jaw dropped. It was a beautiful complex, modern, not as grungy as I expected! And security was tight. If you didn’t have a Passport and if it did not match the name already on their list, you would not get in. In fact, there were two levels of security and metal detectors. We would soon find out this is in fact a new Radio Free Europe (RFE) building.
RFE is overseen by a Broadcasting Board of Governors, which includes Secretary of State John Kerry. It’s an independent, private, nonprofit corporation that receives federal funding from the US Congress – just like VOA (Voice of America). (The CIA also helped fund RFE back in the day.) RFE was founded around 1950, the beginning of the Cold War, to provide “uncensored news and information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain,” or places where the government would not allow free-flowing information. RFE and Radio Liberty (RL) are given a lot of credit for helping to end communism and spread democracy over much of Eastern Europe. So, after the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks and what followed, newer, more secure offices were built for RFE. About 500 people work in this building. The approximately 250 journalists all speak English, Russian and Czech.
Just like in the VW Phaeton plant, we were not allowed to take many pictures. But at RFE, releasing a photo of a journalist or other staffer could result in a life or death situation. And RFE journalists have been killed in the line of duty. Today, RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 countries in 28 languages. Its audience is 17.9 million/week. We sat down and met with Irina Lagunina, Director of the RFE Russian Service. She says everyday brings a combination of events that make it difficult to broadcast in Ukraine and Russia. She says RFE had 36 affiliate stations in Russia when Vladimir Putin took office. Lagunina says now they have one, for 2.5 hours a day. “They got squeezed out.”
Our time in Prague was short – too short. But I must say, it was memorable. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was amazing, with historic photographs of President John F. Kennedy on the hallway wall, and a photograph of Hillary Rodham Clinton during her early years in politics. Our hotel, “K+K Hotel Central” – beautiful, with perfect, non-stop, free WiFi and classy breakfast. And thank God for the convenience store next door – I was able to pile up on toiletries I’ve needed for days. Good Bye, Prague!