MILEK KROUPICKA used to be a typical communist journalist. His reports for the youth program of the National Radio never strayed too far from the party line. But when tens of thousands of Czechoslovaks took to the streets demonstrating for democracy three weeks ago, he and his fellow reporters also revolted. They began broadcasting the protests live.
``It was a gradual process,'' recalls Mr. Kroupika. ``First, we began reporting differing opinions. Our editors didn't stop us. Then we reported a little more. When the editors tried to stop us, we didn't listen. We just told the truth.''
Vladimir Lenin once said that the press packed more power than guns. The rebellion by journalists like Kroupika proves him correct.
Throughout Eastern Europe, not only in Czechoslovakia, a press rebellion is playing an important role in overthrowing the communist system. At a crucial moment, subservient journalists switched sides and joined the wave of popular protest. Without their truthful reporting, opposition activists agree that it would have been impossible to mobilize the entire population and dislodge their totalitarian regimes.
``Information was key,'' recalls Anna Polakova of Czechoslovakia's opposition group, Civic Forum. ``Once the masses knew the what had happened, they supported us.''
For years, East Europeans received objective news reports via Western shortwave radio - Voice of America, the BBC, or Radio Free Europe. These broadcasts were indispensible. But they never could replace the impact of the local news media, especially on the less educated or on working or farming classes. Seeing one's own television or hearing one's own radio carrying previously banned material has a tremendous impact.
These days, people crowd pubs in Prague watching television news and stand in streets listening to the radio reports. Newspapers in East Berlin are sold out by 5:30 a.m. - even the official communist daily Neues Deutschland.
``I get up at 4 a.m. just to buy a newspaper,'' reports Romy Kocher, an activist in East Germany's New Forum opposition group. ``We just have to know what's going on.''
``I used to just read books,'' adds Karin Dieckelmann, an East Berlin book shop manager. ``Now I try to read six to seven newspapers each day.''
Contrary to popular perception, the East European press never endured overt censorship. It instead was shackled by a subtle combination of self-restraint and editorial control. All senior editors, along with most journalists, were required to be members of the Communist Party.
``There was no censor, there didn't have to be,'' explains Kroupicka. ``You either just didn't dare broadcast what you thought, or if you did, the editor would reprimand you the next day.''
When the crisis struck, this system of control crumbled. Many journalists never were committed communists. They joined the party out of opportunism.
``I joined when I was 22,'' the 26-year-old Kroupicka admits, shrugging his shoulders. ``It was the only way to make a career.''
Mikhail Gorbachev's experiment in glasnost (openness) emboldened journalists to take chances. On Mikroforum, Kroupicka's radio show, reporters began tackling sensitive subjects concerning young people - subjects like drugs, alcoholism, and AIDS.
``We never took on the real difficult taboos,'' he says. ``We were 70 percent objective and we tried to stretch the limits.''
Some criticized this strategy as ``easy glasnost.'' Others, including the leading opposition spokesman Vaclav Havel, saw it as drobna prace or small work: honest and responsible work in widely different areas of life which would stimulate national creativity and national self-confidence.
In this view, such work represents a practical way of confronting a heavily armed totalitarian system, biding time for the propitious moment to take a more dramatic, defiant stand for political reform.
``This is no black and white, no absolute right and wrong,'' Havel says. ``Anybody that presses against the edge of old taboos and increases pluralism is good.''
As street protests mounted in Prague, the moment to take more dramatic action arrived. Kroupika and his fellow journalists stopped spouting the official line, and the loyal party director tried to stop them. The journalists responded with a threat to close down operations.
``The director just couldn't control us,'' Kroupicka recalls. ``We ignored him.''
Within hours, the radio journalists had banded together and launched a petition drive to force the director's resignation. He refused. The journalists again threatened to strike. The director resigned.
Similar scenes have been taking place throughout the East European press.
In Poland, the new Solidarity government appointed Andrzej Drawicz head of the crucial Committee for Radio and Television Affairs, long the key propoganda tool of the Communists. The new chairman's first act was to fire the three national news anchors, who were identified with the Communists.
In East Germany, the BerlinerZeitung editor resigned for health reasons. The newspaper has since been leading the crusade to uncover corruption among former high party officials.
``We're 100 percent free,'' says diplomatic correspondent Klaus Wyczynski. ``We just write what we want.''
This new freedom presents some problems. Long-stifled journalists must learn new responsibilities. Mr. Wyczynski explains how in one case an inexperienced reporter wrote a false, libelous article accusing a government official of corruption. The frightened official appeared the next morning at the newspaper's headquarters.
``Before we journalists didn't have to think for ourselves,'' Wyczynski says. ``We must learn to not abuse our powers.''
Back in Czechoslovakia, the new noncommunist government hopes to institutionalize freedom of the press. Long-banned newspapers such as Lidovie Noviny suddenly are legal, and the independent Civic Forum movement hopes to put out its own daily.
These moves may not be as important as Milek Kroupicka's rebellion.
``I never will be scared again,'' he says. ``Nobody can control me.''