The Czechoslovak media on Chernobyl: censorship and disinformation
A few cases of iodine overdosing and various forms of mental trauma such
as insomnia, concentration disorders, feelings of insecurity and anxiety:
those were some of the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on the
local population, stemming from a lack of information and the
government’s attempts to play down the gravity of the situation.
Fortunately, according to experts, there was no acute risk to people’
health as a result of heightened radiation exposure.
One of the main objectives of the special government commission set up to
deal with emergencies was "to regulate media publicity and to monitor
and evaluate radiation on the territory of Czechoslovakia" The aim of
the regulatory process was to censor Chernobyl-related information.
The Czech Press Agency (ČTK), then controlled by the Central Committee of
the Czechoslovak Communist Party, first issued news of the disaster in the
evening of April 28, at a time when the radioactive cloud had already
crossed the territory of Czechoslovakia. The news item was broadcast in the
night hours by public television and radio and appeared in the press on the
following day, on April 29.
April 29, 1986, Svobodne Slovo
Accident at Chernobyl power plant
Moscow – The government of the Soviet Union announced yesterday, that an
accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, during which one of
the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the
consequences of the accident. Aid is being given to those affected. A
government commission has been set up to deal with
the accident, which is the first of its kind in the Soviet Union. Similar
accidents have occurred in other countries on a number of occasions.
According to data published by the organization 'Critical mass', 2300
accidents, failures, and other defects on nuclear facilities happened in
the US in 1979 alone.
Moscow released news of the accident with a 48-hour delay, at a time when
the Swedish government had already began to investigate the cause of the
high levels of radioactivity measured on its territory.
In a statement published by the ČTK press agency, the Czechoslovak
government proclaimed that the respective authorities were closely
monitoring radiation levels on the territory of Czechoslovakia and that
heightened radiation had not been detected anywhere. Following this brief
statement, there was an information black-out. The next statement was
released on May 5, in which the government admitted to “a slight rise of
radioactivity”. There were even claims that the previously
"non-existing radioactivity" was declining.
The first meeting of the government’s emergency commission took place on
May 1, five days after the accident. The commission approved special
measures to be taken by the ministries of agriculture and nutrition,
foreign trade, the interior, transport and health, and finally in the
media, where the main objective was to prevent mass paranoia. The media, a
well-oiled communist propaganda machine, was ordered to tone-down all
Chernobyl reports, assure the public that there was no cause for concern
and explain that any contradictory claims coming from the West, in
particular Austria and West Germany were anti-Soviet propaganda.
The annual May Day celebrations and the Peace Race in Kiev went ahead –
as further proof that everything was fine and there was no cause for
concern. Soviet nuclear expert Yevgenij Velichov went on Czechoslovak
public television to reassure citizens, claiming that the Chernobyl
accident was only a minor incident. His words were backed by footage from
Ukraine, where the local inhabitants went about their daily business,
working in the fields and consuming contaminated food. Despite these
attempts to cover-up the extent of the disaster, the Czechoslovak public
was alarmed and people complained about the lack of information. Ten days
after the accident (on May 8), the country’s chief hygienist Dana
Zusková went on public radio and admitted that “the levels of
radioactivity were higher than usual”. Contrary to official reports, she
conceded that in the first days following the accident monitoring stations
had reported a rise in radioactive substances. Dr Zusková urged the public
to maintain high hygiene standards, and in particular wash all fruits and
vegetables before consumption. She concluded her speech by asking people to
trust the authorities.
However, people mistrusted the communist government and sought information
where they could – from the Western media, but also from the Polish and
Hungarian press –spreading it by word of mouth.
Meanwhile, the communist leadership maintained the party line – covering
up the extent of the disaster and playing down the health risks involved.
Broadcasts from the West revealing the extent of the tragedy were jammed.
And when leaflets warning of high radiation levels appeared in South
Bohemia - distributed by Austrian environmentalists - the police arrested
the Greenpeace activists involved and confiscated the leaflets.