The Voice of America in late February ceased broadcasting in ten East European languages: Bulgarian, Estonian, Czech, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Rumanian, Slovenian and Slovak. Today on New American Voices, Miro Dobrovodsky, a journalist who spent 15 years directing VOA’s broadcasts to former Czechoslovakia and later to Slovakia, looks back on the work of his service, and on his own journey from Slovakia to America.
Miro Dobrovodsky, a big, burly man whose square face is framed by curly red hair and a greying red beard, says he has no doubt that VOA’s broadcasts contributed to the Velvet Revolution which brought down communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.
“Oh, definitely. Definitely. Everybody says so. We even got awards from Slovakia. I personally got the Silver Medal of Freedom from the Slovak President because of what the Voice of America did. We kept people aware that not only something different is possible, but there are people already working for it.”
In its broadcasts in Slovak to what until the so-called “Velvet Divorce” of 1993 was Czechoslovakia, Miro Dobrovodsky says VOA’s greatest contribution was providing news – news not only about what was happening in the world, but in the country itself. Under communist rule, the press was in the service of the state, and barred from reporting information about dissenting views or the activities of dissidents. So it fell to international broadcasters like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and others to provide the other side of the picture: the protests, the charters, the petitions in support of human rights and freedom.
“There were signatories for freedom. At that time, that was the kind of journalism… Under normal circumstances, it is not news if you are reading 25 names. But behind the Iron Curtain, if you read twenty-five names of people who had signed something against the regime, it was hot stuff, and a major story.”
To illustrate the importance of VOA’s news to the Slovak and Czech audiences, Mr. Dobrovodsky quotes a friend who returned from a visit to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, when it was still under the communist regime. His friend recalled that as he walked through the city night, a familiar tune – VOA’s old “Yankee Doodle” station I.D. – caught his ear:
“He said that he was walking in a new quarter of town, high-rises, you know, and at 9 PM he heard Yankee Doodle in stereo. And I said to him that we aren't broadcasting in stereo. And he says, ‘No, no, no, but it’s August, every window is open, and when you hear it from a thousand windows, even quietly, it sounds like Yankee Doodle in stereo.’”
Sound of Yankee Doodle as heard on VOA
Journalism has been Miro Dobrovodsky’s life-long passion. He started writing at 13, and in his teens became the movie reviewer for a local weekly in northern Slovakia. His plans to study journalism were thwarted initially because his father was not a communist party member. Eventually he did graduate from Bratislava University’s Faculty of Journalism, and found a job in one of Slovakia’s foremost news magazines, Zivot. After some professional ups and downs, brought on by his own refusal to join the communist party, Mr. Dobrovodsky found himself again reporting for Zivot during what became known as the Prague Spring of 1968 – the short period of liberalization under Communist Party boss Alexander Dubcek.
“So we started very aggressively writing about subjects which over here, in the western world, are normal – to be critical even of the party, to be critical of local government. Until then it was taboo, this kind of subject.”
The Prague Spring ended on August 21, 1968, when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and brought liberalization to a bloody end. For two weeks, Mr. Dobrovodsky edited an underground newspaper, publishing news, pictures, and statements about what was happening in the country. He believed it was just a matter of time before the state police arrested him, so when the border to Austria opened, he fled to the West with his wife and three small children. Mr. Dobrodovsky spent several years as a refugee in Canada, where he found work as a photographer, in an oil refinery, on a car assembly line, and finally in the Slovak service of Radio Canada International. Eventually he was hired by the Voice of America and moved to Washington.
At VOA, Miro Dobrovodsky says, he found satisfying work in all aspects of journalism. He reported on news events, interviewed newsmakers, emceed programs, maintained contact with colleagues in Slovakia and other countries, participated in training a new generation of Slovak journalists, developed a network of affiliated FM stations in Slovakia that rebroadcast the VOA Slovak programs. And though he notes that the media situation in Slovakia and other East European countries has much improved, he still regrets VOA’s decision to end its broadcasts to this part of the world.
“When one is following their newspapers, their journalism, they… as we all know, each story may have different pegs, or different ideas, I mean one story can illustrate many different points. And it’s still true. Nobody’s lying, not even them. For example, now when we’re talking about Iraq and Afghanistan and Al Qaeda and all that stuff, most of the stories over there they are going after casualties, and to put some, I feel, negative light on the United States. And not necessarily to pick up what is important from our point of view. In other words, we can write two lines, or seven lines, and completely differently – and this is what VOA was doing: adding to their story, our story. And it is not opinion, it is not propaganda, it’s just a different point of view, and a different mirror.”
Voice of America broadcaster Miro Dobrovodsky, who headed VOA’s Czechoslovak and later Slovak services during almost two decades of tumultuous and historic change in his native country.
English Feature # Broadcast April 12, 2004