A VOA Snapshot - Part of VOA's 60th Anniversary Year Coverage.
VOA was the most popular radio station in communist Czechoslovakia. Popularity means impact, and that's why VOA is very careful to confirm information before we broadcast it. But even that does not guarantee perfection.
On November 17, 1989 the VOA Czechoslovak service reported on a student rally in the streets of Prague. The rally turned violent, and the police attacked the students. But few people in Czechoslovakia knew what was happening until VOA went on the air that night.
"There was a blackout on information within Czechoslovakia," recalls VOA producer Eva Nenicka. They didn't get the news until we came on the air. We came on the air at 9:00. At 9:15 one of the northern Bohemian cities rose up."
Eva Nenicka remembers that the service was flooded with calls from reporters, dissidents, and witnesses. "Ivan Havel, the brother of present day president Vaclav Havel," she says. "He was on the phone. He was looking down at the demonstration and telling us what was happening into the phone."
The next morning, VOA reported a story from such a witness that was confirmed by a major news agency. The police had allegedly beaten a student to death. The news provided another jolt to a country already churning with revolution. Miro Dobrovotsky, then chief of the Czechoslovak service, says that broadcast mobilized the whole country. "Obviously our broadcast was very influential," he says. "Washington Post later wrote about it that because of the Voice of America 200,000 people went to the center of Prague."
There was just one problem. The story turned out to be false. The student was beaten, but did not die. The mistake was an embarrassment, and it was corrected on the air, but the impact could not be taken back. The incident provided a reminder for all VOA broadcasters of why we are as careful as we are about the news we broadcast.
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