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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.

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.”