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A journalist behind the Iron Curtain

How Iva Drapalova reported for the AP in Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring and 1989.

Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in front of the Czechoslovak Radio station building in central Prague during the first day of Soviet-led invasion to then Czechoslovakia on Aug. 21, 1968. Banner reads: "Entry forbidden to unauthorized personnel." (Libor Hajsky/Reuters)

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.