Vol 2, No 1
10 January 2000
Č U L Í K ' S C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
Fiasco at Czech Public Service Television
Jan ČulíkAll the criticism published in the Czech-language internet daily Britské listy relating to the low quality and lack both of hard hitting, informed questioning and of any kind of investigative ethos in Czech public service television news and current affairs programmes seemed to be justified when the current, thirty-year old Chief Executive of Czech TV, Jakub Puchalský, suddenly resigned on 15th December 1999 after only twenty months in office. It is, however, very difficult to ascertain exactly what the reasons for Puchalský's departure were. He has turned down an offer from Britské listy to explain in an interview what led to his sudden resignation. Apart from the usual speculations in the Czech media there has been no serious discussion of the whole affair.
True, the situation in Czech Television has been difficult for some time. Andrew Stroehlein, for instance, argues that all attempts at reform at Czech TV failed shortly after Puchalský's arrival there, at the end of May 1998, when Ivan Kytka, the new, reforming head of news and current affairs, was forced out after a mere seven weeks. (Stroehlein worked in Czech television under Kytka as co-editor of the daily current affairs programme "Twenty-One Hours", won a commendation from the Council for Czech TV for his election broadcasts, and was then sacked for not being a Czech by the the man who assumed the post of head of news and current affairs after Ivan Kytka, Zdeněk Šámal, ).
Šámal is not professionally of a very high calibre, and news and current affairs programs soon began to reflect his personality: there were superficial improvements in a new studio lay-out and new title sequences, but otherwise Czech Television news and current affairs programming moved slightly further towards the tabloid coverage of crimes and catastrophes popularised by the more downmarket Nova TV. But Puchalský could not possibly sack two chiefs of news and current affairs in a row, so the situation in the news department remained frozen. It would appear that Puchalský met similar resistance to change in all other departments of Czech television, and critical voices have argued that this youngster could not have possibly had the proper experience and wisdom to manage the byzantine organisation that is Czech TV and its several thousand employees.
Towards the end of 1999 some three hundred malcontents, particularly from the entertainment programmes departments (i.e. some 10% of the total workforce in Czech TV) signed a petition demanding the resignation of Puchalský and the whole of his senior management. It is very difficult to determine whether their complaints are justified. A public debate on the role of Czech TV and its internal situation is simply not taking place, and the Czech Parliament Media Commission has refused to deal with the matter. As one Czech MP said a few weeks ago: "We have a real crisis situation on our hands, thousands of people work for firms who refuse to pay them their salaries. We must deal with that as a matter of priority. The problem of Czech Television is irrelevant in this respect." Czech politicians are obviously unaware of the role that an efficient media plays in a democracy. Maybe had the above-mentioned MP and his colleages devoted their attention more systematically to the cultivation of news and current affairs programmes on Czech TV, they would not now have to deal with people whose salaries are being denied.
On 1st January 2000, Puchalský was planning to start a major restructuring program in Czech TV. A rebellion has obviously been staged against him: many people, working for Czech TV (often not very efficiently) were afraid they might lose their jobs. Puchalský's restructuring plans have been attacked by the employees of Czech TV as haphazard. It is impossible to judge this in the absence of any independent analysis, but the plans have not been made public. It seems possible that Puchalský was ousted from Czech TV because a number of interest groups joined together against him. He has undoubtedly angered the organisation of independent Czech film and television programme producers, apparently because regular income from Czech TV to some of these producers was no longer guaranteed.
In November 1999, former 1989 revolutionary student leaders used the tenth anniversary of the fall of Communism in order to launch a petition criticising the current Czech political establishment. The petition demanded that most of the current, democratically elected politicians should leave the political scene. The petition was given a large amoung of uncritical airtime, especially on Czech TV. This has angered Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and a number of social democratic (ČSSD) politicians and they have undoubtedly applied pressure on the Council for Czech Television (which appoints and recalls Czech TV's Chief Executive) to get rid of Puchalský. Shortly before Puchalský's resignation, a majority of the Council members voted for his removal, although the neccessary quorum for his official removal was not reached. At that point Puchalský was not ready to go, but something happened behind the scenes and within a few days Puchalský announced his resignation.
The whole development does not bode well for the future of public service broadcasting in the Czech Republic. Both the television councils, the Council for Czech Television and the Council for (commercial) Radio and TV Broadcasting are fully beholden to parliament, and so rapidly wilt under any political pressure. The Councils can be dissolved by parliament if the ruling parliamentary majority is not happy with their work, as expressed in their annual reports. To put it simply, this means that the Councils amount to little more than direct vehicles of the Czech ruling political parties.
Voices have been raised in the Czech Republic, especially by Britské listy (recently quoted by Lidové noviny, [see LN, 22 December 1999]) that the power of the ruling political parties over the television councils, and thus over Czech television, should be removed by creating new structures: members of the television councils should be named by universities, by the trade unions, by the churches, by public associations and by parliament so that the power of vested political influence can be diluted. Regrettably, this is not the way which in which the Czech Republic plans to proceed. The Czech parliament currently plans to strengthen its hegemony over the councils for radio and television.
The Council for Czech TV has announced that a new Czech TV Chief Executive will be appointed before the end of January 2000. Cynics say that he will have to be properly malleable in order to be acceptable to the political powers in the country. If this proves to be the case, it will be harmful to the development of democracy in the Czech Republic and will possibly further alienate the frustrated Czech voters.
Jan Čulík, 29 December 1999
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.
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