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Vaclav Havel addresses the multitudes in Wenceslas Square from the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house, November 1989 (©LUBOMIR KOTEK/AFP/Getty Images)


Twenty-seven years ago, I stood in Wenceslas Square as Vaclav Havel, speaking from the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house and surrounded by a sea of 300,000 demonstrators, announced to the world the creation of “a free, democratic and prosperous Czechoslovakia”. He declared that the newly-formed Civic Forum had spontaneously become “the real representative of the will of the people” and would immediately commence a dialogue with the Communist leadership to bring about “real paths toward change in the political and economic conditions in our country”. What struck me as a journalist at the time was that Havel, a writer whose sole authority depended on the written and spoken word, had in effect made himself the leader of the Czech people. If anybody else had done this, the regime might have crushed him. But he had seized the day by invoking the most precious of all liberties, the freedom to speak truth to power; so when he promised that the country would never return to totalitarianism, everybody believed him. It was a dramatic demonstration of the power of the free press.

I had arrived a couple of days after the violent suppression of student protests on November 17, 1989. By this time Alexander Dubcek had also appeared on the balcony in Wenceslas Square, leading many to expect that the hero of the Prague Spring would now make a comeback. I knew better, having followed Havel’s emergence as a focus of the underground university in Prague, but my superiors at the Daily Telegraph were incredulous at the notion of a playwright as president. Of course, the idea of Dubcek as a transitional president was not a bad one, and would have been unthinkable even a few days before; but in a revolution, events follow thick and fast as time seems to accelerate. Days, hours, minutes, even seconds acquire overwhelming importance.

Soon after I arrived in Prague, the crowd was chanting “Havel to the Castle”. Within a day or two, we journalists were introduced by Havel to the Civic Forum’s economic adviser, a formidable economist from the Institute for Prognostics who would soon become first finance minister, later prime minister and finally Havel’s successor as president — Vaclav Klaus. So the whole history of the Czech Republic was somehow telescoped into those few days of the Velvet Revolution. Not all the journalists covering these tumultuous events managed to keep up. Even as power was visibly ebbing away from the Communist party, a correspondent at The Times, who shall remain nameless, wrote an op-ed proclaiming that the ideal man to unify a divided Czechoslovakia was the arch-villain of the Prague Spring — Gustav Husak.

In the days of the Holy Roman Empire, it was said that Stadtluft macht frei: “City air makes you free.” I am a Londoner, and no city on earth has done more in the cause of freedom, especially the freedom of the press. In the great city of Prague, sometime imperial capital, freedom has also been in the air for many centuries. In the reign of Charles IV, who first established Prague as the intellectual heart of central Europe, humanists converged from across the Continent to admire Charles University, the first one east of Italy. Even Petrarch corresponded with Charles, begging the Emperor to rescue Italy from chaos. A century later, it was a rector of Charles University, Jan Hus, who — inspired by an Englishman, John Wycliffe — defied the authorities in the name of liberty by appealing above the Pope to Jesus Christ himself as his judge. Both Wycliffe and Hus believed that the Bible should be accessible in the vernacular: a free press is of no value to those who cannot read learned languages.

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