Letter: Jan Kavan: the questions that remain unanswered

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IT IS sad that a writer for the Sunday Review, (Alex Kershaw 'The trial of Jan K', 20 September) should join the ranks of those misled by Jan Kavan over the now infamous Czech van episode of 1981. Why Mr Kershaw chose to base his account on the word of someone who, by his own admission, misled the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and has now changed his story beyond recognition only he can explain. What is surprising is that Mr Kershaw failed to check his story against the ample documentation now available and did not ask either Thames Television or myself to comment.

The facts, which can now be proven, are these. In April 1981 Jan Kavan sent a van which contained banned literature to Czechoslovakia. Some of this was in packets marked with code names; there was also a long typed list of names and addresses of people who were to receive copies of a banned magazine published by one of Kavan's financial sponsors in the West, and a number of other handwritten names and addresses on packets, envelopes and cards. Following the seizure of the van on 27 April 1981 the Czech secret police arrested several dissidents whose names they found as well as others whom they suspected, for various reasons, of being involved in the smuggling network.

On 25 June 1981 Thames Television transmitted my TV Eye programme which briefly reconstructed the van seizure and then explained the plight of the dissidents and the current political situation in Czechoslovakia. I fear that anyone tuning in for a 'spicy thriller', in Kershaw's phrase, would have been sadly disappointed. In the programme I reported, correctly, that the van had carried the names and addresses of 'contacts for Jan Kavan's secret organisation', ie people who were to receive some of the van's banned contents.

Following transmission Jan Kavan complained first to us and then to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. He insisted that no names and addresses had been in the van: 'It was both unnecessary and dangerous to take in the names and addresses of anyone. For the last five years no one has had to take in any names and addresses, everything was prearranged precisely to avoid such a need.' (Letter from Jan Kavan to Thames Television, 27 June 1981). Later Kavan swore an affidavit to this effect.

Kavan repeatedly claimed that our mention of names and addresses had been a reckless invention which endangered dissidents in Czechoslovakia. When Kavan made those damaging accusations he knew them to be entirely false, as he had himself placed the names and addresses in the van.

The BCC found in Kavan's favour in 1985, a judgement which stood until last year when we were able to obtain documentary proof that our programme had been correct from hitherto secret files in Prague and asked the commission to reopen the case.

At this point, through lawyers, Kavan admitted that the van had indeed contained hundreds of names and addresses but claimed, as he seems to have done to Mr Kershaw, that they were unimportant. This should be contrasted with his earlier written claims that our mention of the names and addresses constituted a vital piece of prosecution evidence in the Communist government's case against the dissidents.

The BCC rejected Jan Kavan's new explanation and, for the first time in its history, overturned its original judgement. Specifically the commission refused to accept Kavan's claim that he had been justified in lying to them by the need to protect people in Czechoslovakia and stated formally that Kavan had misled them.

Julian Manyon

Thames Television,

London NW1

On 5 March 1992, the BCC held that Mr Kavan misled the commission and annulled its earlier finding. It is now accepted that the Thames TV programme was accurate and fair.