“Radioactive clouds do not stop at the Iron Curtain”

European newspaper clippings with the first information about Chernobyl


The Chernobyl tragedy happened on 26 April 1986 but much time passed before the European countries got any information about it. The main reason for that fact was that the Soviet government didn’t have any idea how to handle such a catastrophe. Only several days later step by step the information was circulated by radio and newspapers.

Here is how it was covered:

The newspaper coverage in the Eastern bloc can be characterized by two words: silence and censorship. While the inhabitants of the “socialist paradise” were exposed to the radiation, the official authorities were busy preventing the information on the accident to enter the public.
First article on Chernobyl appeared on 29th of April. It was the report of the official Soviet press agency TASS and was monotonously repeated.
“From the USSR Council of Ministers: There was a breakdown in the Chernobyl NPP. One of the reactors is damaged. Measures are taken to eradicate the consequences of the accident. The injured are being helped. Government commission was formed.”
That was all. The short unargued message was hidden in the “International news” section, from second to last page.
Even the further information the newspapers provided was usually stereotypical, their authors were pretending, nothing important has really happened. It was even stated that “similar accidents already occurred many a time in the world.” According to the TASS, the Chernobyl accident is “the first accident of this kind in the Soviet Union.”
Manipulative and reassuring messages about the “appropriate Chernobyl” followed. Desperate attempts were made to avoid the accusations for concealing the facts about the background radiation. Titles as „No need to worry” or „Harvest continues in the Chernobyl area” were symptomatic for this attitude.
However, that doesn’t mean, that there were absolutely no differences in the newspapers whatsoever. The amount and quality of information depended on many factors, including the relations of the government of the respective state to the central Soviet authorities, including their stance to the more open policy of „Glasnost“. On one side, there were countries, where the information was especially limited – Romania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, where it was later referred to as “the information eclipse about Chernobyl.”
On the other side, in the former Yugoslavia, the journalists were allowed to write more freely than in the rest of the countries under communist rule. The coverage even differed between newspapers – something quite unbelievable in the other countries.
In the socialist countries, the Labor Day took place soon after the accident – May 1st, and it was covered stronger than the accident itself. More information was released only after the Labor Day parades ended. However, there was already panic amongst the people who were eager to get information from other forbidden sources like “Radio Free Europe” and “Voice of America”.

Western Europe was also informed about the accident with a time lag – the first articles appeared on 29th April, 1986. However, the newspapers from these countries were not influenced by the censorship, so the journalists expressed not only simple facts from the TASS report (even it was usually the basis of the articles), but also their personal opinion and political statements.
The most illustrative difference between the Eastern and the Western newspapers is the position of the news. Capitalistic countries printed the articles about the accident in Chernobyl on the cover page with dramatic headings: “Nuclear disaster in USSR”, “Heavy nuclear accident in the Soviet Union”, “Moscow Radioactive Catastrophe”
Many journalists form that part of Europe admitted to have limited information on the real situation and were not satisfied with the poor report from TASS agency. In order to find out more, they combined the sources, made their own speculations, and asked for advice some foreign experts e.g. the German newspaper “Hamburger Abendblatt” quoted Danish and American scientists.
Another interesting aspect is the criticism of the silence of the Soviet regime. The Italian journalists stressed the lack of information from the Soviet government “which still continued to have a vague and unclear position”. In Switzerland the journalists noticed that “the Soviet media reported very rarely on natural or human-caused disasters” and gave no precise information about the time of the accident. According to these articles, the TASS report was written with a specific aim – to calm the people down.
In the second part of the articles the Western media usually commented political statements, most of which reflected strongly negative attitude to the reaction of the Soviet authorities: “Why were the Danish authorities not warned?” – Danish minister of environment; “This is highly unsatisfactory.” – the Swedish ministry similarly used media to express their discontent and demanded a detailed report on the accident from the Soviet authorities. Germans were yet sharper: “Here in Germany a catastrophe like this one could never happen, our reactors are absolutely safe. Our safety standards are not comparable to the ones in the Soviet Union. I think after this catastrophe the
International Atomic Energy Agency must check the safety standards in all Soviet Union power stations.” German attitude was different when they commented the act of admitting the accident, which was highly unusual for the Soviet Union, and understood it as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s more moderate policy. While in the Eastern bloc was stated that the Chernobyl accident is “the first accident of this kind in the Soviet Union,” Finland writes: “This is the first time when the Soviet Union tells about NPP accident” and “The Soviet Union rarely releases information about accidents immediately after they have happened.”
Chernobyl caused a common feeling of insecurity and doubtfulness in almost all European countries. The Western part was more opened to news which means that people were even more sensitive to the information. The comment of a Danish physicist professor clearly expressed people’s emotions in that time: “It is unfair that there have been no warning. Radioactive clouds do not stop at the Iron Curtain.”

By Helena Ursic, Vojtech Pojar and Vanya Tsvetkova

One response to ““Radioactive clouds do not stop at the Iron Curtain”

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