Obituary: Karel Kyncl

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Karel Kyncl was one of the most brilliant of that constellation of Czech journalists who helped to make possible the "Prague Spring" of 1968.

His name will always be associated with the old Czechoslovak Radio. As New York correspondent, in the years leading up to the climax and tragedy of 1968, his voice was known to millions and his coverage of the Kennedy assassination was a legend. Afterwards, as an exile in London, he spoke regularly again to his people through the Czech service of the BBC, and when the 20 years of darkness ended with the peaceful revolution of 1989 he returned once more to Czechoslovak and then Czech Radio as the station's principal correspondent in Britain.

He was a wise, witty man, sparkling with central European irony and erudition. It was a matter of pride but also of rueful amusement to him that he was one of the very few commentators to predict what was about to happen in 1989. Early that year, in an article in a British magazine, Kyncl noted that the playwright Vaclav Havel had been sent to prison once again and remarked that Havel's political ability was growing as the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia decayed; it would not surprise him, he said, if Havel would one day be President of the Republic - and sooner than anyone expected.

Kyncl was born in 1927, into a working-class family in a small town near Prague. It was in the family's political tradition that he joined the Communist Party after the Second World War, and his disillusion with the system and the Soviet Union followed gradually as early ideals were suffocated by the experience of Stalinist terror and the show trials.

As a foreign correspondent, he was not directly involved in the transformation which made Czechoslovak Radio the driving force for liberalisation in early 1968, but he fully supported the reforms. He and his wife, Jirina, were on holiday in Western Europe when they heard the news of the Warsaw Pact invasion, and rushed back to Prague.

There Kyncl put his energies into the heroic rearguard action to protect the liberties of 1968, and later into clandestine opposition. He lost his job at the radio and was banned from journalism; he was reduced to work as a hospital clerk and then an ice-cream vendor. But his fluent English and his courage made him a natural contact for Western visitors trying to reach the Czech opposition. This was to cost him two spells in prison, and many years under close surveillance and virtual house arrest.

As he said to one British journalist, leading him out of doors to evade the wall microphones, "I am in a prison within a prison (Czechoslovakia) within a prison (the Soviet empire)."

In 1983, international protests supported by Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria and by the novelist Graham Greene induced the regime to let him out of gaol and expel him. Kyncl settled in London, where he was followed by his wife and eventually by his son, Ivan, who had become almost the official photographer for the "Charter 77" opposition.

In London, Kyncl was welcomed at Charing Cross by another Czech exile, George Theiner, editor of the magazine Index on Censorship. This led to a job which he often said was more enjoyable than anything he had done in the rest of his life. From 1983 to 1991, Kyncl worked for Index as editor for Central and Eastern Europe, publishing smuggled-out texts from Vaclav Havel, Ivan Klima and many others.

The collapse of the Communist regime in November 1989 faced Kyncl with a dilemma. Back in Prague, he was welcomed and offered high promotion. But in the end he decided to remain in London, accepting the post of correspondent for Czech Radio. This was partly because he felt somehow a little out of place in his own country, sensing - with his usual acuteness - that the new mood was moving away from his own intellectual generation of ex-Communist idealists.

But it was also because he felt immensely proud that he had constructed a successful life for himself in Britain, starting as a penniless exile, and he was reluctant to put that achievement behind him. He and Jirina, with Ivan's help, had somehow moved her massive pieces of family furniture into a small council flat on a concrete housing estate in Peckham and there, in touch with a wide circle of friends, he intended to stay.

Karel Kyncl, with his lean frame, high cheekbones and broad smile, was always the centre of any party he went to. He had all the melancholy wit and sense of the absurd which have helped the Czechs to survive this century. But he was a romantic too. Asked once if he would rather be invaded by the Soviet Union or the United States, he replied: "If there's a choice, I would prefer the fist with a glove on. But I am enough of an idealist to believe there can be a third way."

Neal Ascherson

Karel Kyncl, journalist and broadcaster: born 6 January 1927; married (one son, one daughter); died Prague 1 April 1997.