PRAGUE — IT proved the crucial moment of Czechoslovakia's peaceful revolution. Street demonstrations were gaining momentum. Students had declared a strike and artists had shut down theaters. Then the staff of Svobodne Slovo, a Socialist Party daily, became the first newspaper to announce that it no longer would toe the official line and would become an independent voice.
The next day, dissident Vaclav Havel was addressing the throngs gathered below - from the balcony of the newspaper offices right on Wenceslas Square.
``We saw what was going on below us,'' recalls Jana Smidova, ``and we couldn't ignore it any longer.''
Svobodne Slovo's defection not only gave the budding opposition a platform - it showed how the Communists' once-firm control over satellite parties had crumbled. Before World War II, Svobodne Slovo was a respected organ of the independent Czechoslovak Socialist Party. After the Communist takeover, the Socialists subordinated themselves to the larger ruling party and Ms. Smidova admits that she and her editors looked for direction from the Central Committee.
``We tried to do the best we could, within the confines,'' Smidova recalls. ``We colored things a little bit differently, to show some nuances, but stepping out of the general line took real courage. Most of us didn't have it.''
Once the paper broke ranks, the demonstrators below began shouting ``Svobodne Slovo writes the truth.'' The paper sells 250,000 copies daily - it cannot print more because of paper rationing - and is sold out by the wee morning hours.
Along with its newspaper, the Socialist Party is striking a more independent line. But winning a solid share of the vote in next year's free elections still may be difficult. Journalist Smidova doesn't plan to support her paper's party.
``I will vote for the Greens,'' she says. ``Now that I've tasted freedom, I want to be completely independent.''