A journalist behind the Iron Curtain

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — “I never intended to be a journalist and I certainly knew nothing about Associated Press,” said Iva Drapalova. “I was absolutely surprised to hear it was the biggest press agency in the world.”

Thus, a career was born in the aftermath of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. For the next 20 years Drapalova waged a lonely struggle to get news of her country out beyond the Iron Curtain.

A mother in her early 40s at the time, Drapalova was one among the millions swept up by the reform movement known as the Prague Spring. Within days of the Warsaw-pact tanks taking up positions across the country she learned that there was a high demand for interpreters.

“Directly after the invasion, there were a lot of western journalists in Prague, and they all needed interpreters,” she said. “Previously there was a whole group of interpreters who were very keen on working for the western journalists. But after the invasion they got scared. It's understandable. After all none of us knew where it would lead ... whether we would end up going to Siberia.”

After persistent calls from Associated Press, she agreed to help.

“I came to help for a week and I got hooked — and I stayed for the next 20 years,” she said. “It was a time when we still hoped that something of the Prague Spring would be preserved. And I felt that perhaps helping these western journalists might help in preserving it.”

But no remnant of the Prague Spring — whose moniker was socialism with a human face — would survive the Kremlin-led occupation. Instead, over the next 21 years the country labored under one of the more hard-line regimes in the Soviet sphere. Today, Nov. 17, is 20 years to the day, as the case may be, that the former Czechoslovakia marked the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, which ushered the Communists out of power.

Drapalova labored to keep Czechoslovakia — a country of 15 million — from being forgotten.

“You had to make a conscious decision to do this work because you had to accept certain things,” she said. “You had to accept that you would be under surveillance all the time; that your phone calls could be listened to; that your letters could be opened.”

It was precarious situation for a local journalist. “You were suddenly alone. You couldn't belong to either side, and both sides could think that you were working for the other side. You were completely dependent on your integrity.

“There was no way I could prove to the Americans I wasn't working for the Czechs. And there was no way I could prove to the Czechs that I wasn't working for the Americans.” Over time, however, she won over her western colleagues and the diplomatic core.

She admits to a fair dose of self-censorship, and is unapologetic about it. "I wasn't censored but I was very self-censoring," she conceded. "Not because I was scared but because there was no point in getting the bureau shut. Had I been more aggressive that would be the end — and so what, so what.

"I might have been a heroine for a few days but that would be the end of AP. It already happened once in 1952,” she said. An AP correspondent had been jailed and the bureau closed — not to be reopened for the next 15 years, until the Prague Spring.

Typically, Drapalova's news gathering process began by reading the local papers, including far-flung regional papers. But the stories — if they could even be called that — weren't written in any form that resembled western-style journalism. With the state controlling all media, news stories were more like propaganda tablets. Bits of real news tended to be at the end of stories, and often one couldn't simply pick up a phone and call people identified in the state-run media. So, reporting was frequently limited to the information that was in the local papers.

Unlike other foreign correspondents, Drapalova never went to a public pay phone to make a call, choosing to make all her calls from the office phone, which she knew could be listened to at any time by the secret police — known as the StB. And she never locked up any documents in a safe.

“If I locked them up and if the police would come and find them, the police would see they are important,” she said with a laugh.

Her first big scoop came when a Russian airplane crashed at Prague's airport. Her cleaning lady, who also worked for Lufthansa, tipped her off and she was able to cobble together a story hours ahead of the country's main wire service, Czech News Agency, or CTK.

“I think both my colleagues and the diplomats looked down on me because I was Czech,” she said. “But I think my colleagues started respecting me when I scooped them by so many hours.”

One of her favorite stories is about one occasion when the communists' propaganda backfired on them.

At one point a Czech man from northern Moravia, near the Polish and Slovak borders, sought asylum in Switzerland, only to be denied and sent back to then-Czechoslovakia. The communists — always eager to humiliate an aspiring defector — wrote up in the local newspaper that the man had been sent home "in shackles."

Drapalova drew from the local papers for her story, which sparked outrage and embarrassment in Switzerland, with lawmakers demanding to know why the man was denied asylum, and how he could have wound up in shackles. Some years later Drapalova paid a visit to this would-be defector and found that the bit about the shackles had been a lie.

“Thanks to my story, and the uproar in Switzerland, he didn't get into any trouble,” she said. “But the Swiss Embassy started visiting him and bringing him, coffee, whiskey and chocolate, and things like that,” she said, laughing.

This story turned out well because the communists — as they so often did — tried to overplay their hand.

“If the paper hadn't lied about the shackles,” she said, “nobody would have cared about it.”