Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

Jan Culik Č U L Í K ' S   C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
The Final Assault:
The new Council for Czech Television looks likely to be under the control of party political propagandists.

Jan Čulík


It is incredibly nasty what Czech Television dares to broadcast these days. On all those programmes like Intolerance, Katovna, Sněží - this will not be permitted. They directly undermine parliamentary democracy. By criticising the huge investments made by the state into the construction of the new Czech Parliament building [in the recent Intolerance programme] Czech Television has undermined the authority of the freely elected representatives of the people.

Kateřina Dostálová, MP of the Czech Parliament for the Civic Democratic Party, as quoted by the radio programme Ozvěny plus, Radio Prague, Radiožurnál, Saturday 1 April 2000, 6.15 pm.

The weaknesses of Czech democracy are clearly apparent. It seems that many people in the Czech Republic have still not grapsed the role of a free media in a democracy. It still seems to be incomprehensible to many that the government and members of parliament, the elected representatives of the people, must be held accountable to the voters by a free, aggressive and critical media. Some politicians have been making a fuss recently, saying that, they are the elected representatives of the people and have a political mandate, gained at the elections, and that is why they should not be criticised by journalists who hold no such mandate.

These politicians ignore the fact that if a hard hitting public discussion is not taking place in the media, democratic elections degenerate into a shambles. Because how can the voters make an informed opinion if they do not have independent and critical information available about the behaviour of their politicians?

Struggle for control

The most influential medium is of course television: which is now the centre of attention for Czech politicians, who seem to be doing their utmost to bring it under their control.

The most important television broadcasters in the Czech Republic are the commercial Nova Television, run by Vladimír Železný (who has recently taken away this station from its American owners) and the public service Czech Television. Neither station is a fully independent broadcaster, free from political control. Nova Television is used by its owner, Vladimír Železný, to futher his own private business interests. Železný 's station will support or criticise politicians depending on how their attitudes relates to Železný and his business empire.

Public service Czech Television has for years been trying to steer an insecure course amongst various vested political interests in the country. Ivo Mathé, the chief executive of Czech Television until March 1998, and his supporters have always argued that under Mathé's leadership, the political independence of Czech Television was better protected than it has been since. While it is true that Mathé quarrelled with the Council for Czech Television, Czech TV's supervisory body, appointed by Parliament, and probably did not allow politicians to dictate to him the political lines of his news and current affairs broadcasts.

However, when measured by Western, especially British standards, Czech TV's news and current affairs, even in the Mathé era, were not without political bias. Broadcasters presented their own personal political prejudices on the screen. There were innumerable informal ties between individual journalists and politicians. Politicians dictated with whom they could appear on screen, and, sometimes they were even allowed to help with the formulation of the questions they were due to be asked.

During its circuitous journey from a being mouthpiece of Communist propaganda in the 1980s into (hopefully) a independent and authoritative public service television station, Czech TV has inevitably made mistakes. It seems that these mistakes are now being used by the ruling Czech politicians in order to emasculate Czech Television and turn it into a propaganda tool for the main parliamentary political parties. People in the Czech Republic are now becoming increasingly aware that the political establishment has common interests and will attempt to assert them at all costs.

A fresh start?

In the spring 1998, when a new Chief Executive of Czech TV, the 28-year old Jakub Puchalský was appointed, an abortive attempt was made by Ivan Kytka, a Czech television journalist with extensive experience from working in the West, to firm up Czech Television's news and current affairs broadcasting, to make it more authoritative and independent. This attempt failed - Kytka was ousted in seven weeks. (He now works for the Czech Service of the BBC.)

The development of Czech TV's news and current affairs department - politically the most sensitive part of Czech Television was basically frozen. Czech Television has continued with its semi-professional, vacuous and not very authoritative news and current affairs broadcasting. Then, on 15 December 1999 Jakub Puchalský suddenly resigned from his post as Chief Executive. He had made himself generally unpopular and had possibly also offended certain vested interests. Allegedly, some political pressure had also been applied.

But under Puchalský, Czech Television had continued to make mistakes. It kept shooting itself in the foot. These mistakes were gleefully used by Czech politicians for their own ends, many of whom can be quite Machiavellian when they want to be.

Between November and December 1999, a group of former 1989 student revolutionaries published a manifesto criticising, what is in fact a government coalition between the ruling Social Democrats and Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party. The manifesto, entitled Thank You, Leave Now! called on the main politicians from these two parties to leave the political scene.

Czech Television gave wide ranging and uncritical coverage to the manifesto and its protagonists. Czech TV probably did not intend to act as a propaganda tool for the new movement - it promoted because of a lack of professionalism on the part of its broadcasters, which meant that Czech TV failed to probe the views of the new grouping sufficiently critically. Be that as it may, the two ruling Czech political parties, the social democrats and the civic democrats, were absolutely shocked by what they saw as television advertising a new, anti-government movement and decided to take firm measures to prevent this type of broadcasting in the future.

A confidential analysis, produced for the social democratic government in December 1999, said that the,

public service media are a problem: they are biased, they support narrow vested interest groups and attack the democratically elected party leaders, political parties and the legal goverenment in a way, which is unprecedented not only in Europe, but in all advanced democratic countries. The state must re-institute order by taking decisive measures.

Note how similar the tenor of this argumentation is to the above mentioned quote by Katerina Dostalova: the argumentation seems to be "we are elected representatives, so nobody must criticise us".

A missed opportunity

After Puchalský's resignation, the Council for Czech Television hastily organised the selection of a new Chief Executive for Czech Television. The ruling political parties tried hard to have their own candidate appointed. He was one Kamil Čermák (29) the marketing director of the Czech Telecom, a position which he had been given in this semi-state company as a reward for working as a spokesperson for the former Trade and Industry Secretary Vladimír Dlouhý, in Václav Klaus's government.

It was well known that Čermák would be amenable to politicians' wishes: in fact, he was so sure of being appointed Chief Executive of Czech TV that he went round the politicians of the Czech ruling parties,
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consulting them about their wishes even before the decision regarding the appointment was made by the Council for Czech TV on 26 January 2000. When this became known, the Council for Czech Television appointed a different candidate with a more independent track record, the head of Czech TV's legal department Dušan Chmeliček.

Politicians were furious. They acted with a vengeance against the Council for Czech TV, eventually disbanding it on 10 March 2000.

Although the Council seems to have acted courageously by appointing a relatively independent candidate to the post of Chief Executive of Czech Television, apparently in the face of enormous political pressure, it has to be said that during its time in office it had made many mistakes and it had often behaved quite unprofessionally. These mistakes were of course used by politicians when they justified disbanding it. But, politicians disbanded the Council not to seek impartial professionalism, but in order to further their own party political interests.

The Council - under its Chairperson Jan Jirák - never explained properly why it had appointed Jakub Puchalský as head of Czech TV in the first place. If the Council had wished to improve Czech TV's news and current affairs output, it never explained why it supported the reforming project by Puchalsky and Kytka in February - April 1998 and then failed to react when the reform was aborted in May 1998. Puchalský's reforming project was kept secret from the public by the Council for Czech Television until November 1999, shortly before Puchalsky was forced to resign.

The Media Commission of the Czech Parliament was "seriously dissatisfied" with the alleged "lack of transparency" during the appointment of Dusan Chmeliček in January 2000, although this criticism can probably be discounted as biased. When disbanding the Council for Czech Television on 10 March, the Parliamentary Media Commission quoted criticism from various sources, aimed at the Council for Czech Television over the past months, including that voiced repeatedly by Britské listy.

Vicious circle

If we accept the view that elected politicians in a democracy need to be monitored by independent and aggresive media, it becomes obvious that if the media is to be critical of parliament and politicians, it cannot be controlled by politicians at the same time.

Various groups in Czech public life have proposed that the new Council for Czech Television should be a non-partisan body; it should be made up of some individuals directly appointed by political parties, but also by representatives of universities, churches, trade unions and other non-party political organisations.

Unfortunately, the current media law stipulates that members of the Council for Czech TV are to be directly nominated by the political parties represented in Czech parliament. Such an arrangement might work in some more mature democratic countries where politicians know, more or less, that it is in their own long term interest to preserve the political independence of public service broadcasters. On the whole Czech politicians do not seem to adhere to such a non-partisan political view. Instead they seem to be bent on mastering the public service media for their own political ends.

The present situation does not look good. Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS)seems to be hell-bent on nominating their own party propagandists for the new Council for Czech Television.

It is proposed that the Council should have nine members and will be appointed for a period of five years. The new members of the Council for Czech TV are due to be chosen on Tuesday 4 April 2000. It is now obvious that the appointments will be strictly party political. Probably as many as four members of the Council will be appointed by Klaus's Civic Democratic Party, three members by the Social Democrats, one by the Freedom Union Party and one member by the People's Party.

The Civic Democratic Party plans to nominate Lukáš Herold, who until now has been the official spokesperson for this political party and only resigned his post on Friday 31 March 2000, in order to free himself for the nomination to the Council for Czech Television. Most of the other proposed candidates do not inspire confidence either. They are clearly not knowledgeable about public service broadcasting, nor are they sufficiently familiar with the ground rules of an open and democratic media discourse.

Jan Čulík, 2 April 2000

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.

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