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Barricading Radio Free Europe

The US radio service's new headquarters will have tight security.

A woman pushes a pram in front of the heavily guarded headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in central Prague on Sept. 28, 2001. The U.S.-funded broadcaster is moving to a new building. (Petr Josek/Reuters)

PRAGUE — A U.S.-funded radio network long seen as vulnerable to a terrorist attack has begun moving into a new high-security compound.

Earlier this month Radio Free Europe began broadcasting its Radio Free Iraq service from inside the new facility. Ironically it was Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator, who first threatened attacks on the RFE headquarters here shortly after the station launched its Iraq service in 1998.

The station began the transition with the Iraq service purely for logistical reasons, according to RFE spokesman Julian Knapp. Over the next three months more than 28 language services, broadcasting into 20 countries, will move to the new location, four metro stops from the city center:

"This building was built for us," said Knapp. "It was designed in cooperation with us.

"The open space office will be more of a newsroom atmosphere," he said.

Perhaps. But security was a priority in the move because RFE is different than most media organizations, where threats generally range from modest to non-existent.

"The building is built to very high security specifications," said Knapp. He refused to elaborate further, saying only, "We do not disclose details of our security measures."

But some are obvious.

Visitors are vetted at an entrance point away from the office building and the perimeter is surrounded by concrete walls. The building is set significantly back from the roads on all sides.

Such a layout can save lives if a would-be suicide bomber cannot breach the perimeter and decides to detonate a truck bomb from the road, says Barbara A.  Nadel, a New York City-based architect who specializes in building security.

"You want to avoid a (bomb-laden) truck ramming into the building," she said. "Every foot or meter from an explosion lessens the damage.

And, she added, "It allows for more control and surveillance."

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty began broadcasting into the former communist-bloc countries in the early 1950s. Their aim was to provide a counterpoint to the government-controlled media via an independent-style of news reporting. It was initially run by the CIA, with funding from Congress, but CIA involvement ended in 1971, according to the RFE website.

Periodic rumors of CIA involvement notwithstanding, RFE/RL is officially a non-governmental organization, but is funded by Congress. Knapp could only "roughly estimate" the annual operating costs at $75 million and side-stepped the question of the financial terms of the 15-year lease. He would only say the contract called for two additional 15-year lease options.

Knapp deferred comment on the costs to the Paris-based Orco Property Group, which developed the site and is now leasing it to RFE.

Orco, predictably, would not divulge the contract details of one of its clients. "I'm not allowed to talk about the costs — it's a confidential part of the contract," wrote Petra Zdenkova, Orco's PR director, in an email.

Knapp did confirm that that station's rent will be going up in the new building — in the old building was a symbolic $1 a year. In the early 1990s the Republican-dominated Congress was looking for programs and projects to cut. And the fall of communism in 1989 had made RFE/RL a tempting target.

But then-president Vaclav Havel invited RFE to give up its headquarters in Munich, Germany, and move to Prague. Havel, a former dissident, lauded the RFE broadcasts for providing dissidents and others with valuable information about events in their own country during the communist era. And given the bumpy transition to democracy, especially in those days, pulling the plug on RFE/RL was seen as foolhardy by some.

So in 1995 RFE/RL began broadcasting from a cantilevered glass building in the center of Prague, which was home to the federal parliament during the communist era.

Three years later, when the Iraq service was launched along with a Farsi service aimed at Iran, security became an issue and tensions with the city began to build. Over time concrete barriers were erected around the perimeter and built ever-higher.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States security concerns spiked again. A key access road linking two main highway arteries was cut-off because it ran past the RFE headquarters, increasing traffic congestion in a part of the city prone to jams.

Tensions with the city escalated, and talk of relocating RFE soon followed.

City officials refused to comment for this story but Knapp, the RFE spokesman says all is well.

"We're invested in Prague," he said. "We like Prague. We plan to be around for a while."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/czech-republic/090216/barricading-radio-free-europe