The Czech Parliament has now appointed seven, out of nine, members for the new Council for Czech Television, along strictly partisan lines.
It would appear that these days, Czech politics predominantly revolves around a struggle to control the public service media. The ruling Social Democratic Party is presently in an informal coalition with the somewhat rigid, right wing Civic Democratic Party of Václav Klaus. These two parties are attempting to change the constitution in order to move Czech politics away from proportional representation toward a two party political system. Smaller parties, currently in opposition, deeply resent this development. The most important of these is Unie svobody (Freedom Union, US), a right wing offshoot of Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS).
The main difference between ODS and US now seems to be that ODS has (indirect) access to political power in the country (it supports the ruling Social Democrats), whilst the US is in the political wilderness. Unsurprisingly, the US deeply resents this informal coalition agreement. Otherwise, US politicians are younger, and, generally much more media-friendly than Civic or Social Democrats ones.
Since the structure of the Czech political arena is now fairly rigid, the opposition parties cannot do very much about the cooperation beween the Civic and Social Democrats in Parliament and the political struggle now seems to have transformed itself into a struggle over control of the public service media.
User friendly politicians
One Prague observer recently remarked that some eighty per cent of Czech journalists were supporters of Unie svobody. A different observer has noted that this is quite understandable, because the main political parties, the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats, are clumsy in their handling of the media. Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, the leaders of the two parties, are arrogant. Klaus has called journalists "the enemies of mankind", while Zeman has attacked them as "dross, scum, shit".
On the other hand, the yuppies from US are immediately available for interviews and they are easily reachable on their mobile telephones. >From the journalist's point of view, they are "user friendly". Various public initiatives, launched in the Czech Republic over the past few months, such as Impuls 99 or Děkujeme, odejděte (Thank you, now leave) were also closely linked to the US. And the media gave these initiatives wide coverage, much to the chagrin of the ruling Socal and Civic Democrats.
The Civic and Social Democrats have decided to solve this problem by putting the Czech public service media under their direct control. After the sudden resignation, in December 1999, of Jakub Puchalský, the Chief Executive of Public Service Czech television, at the end of January 2000, the Council for Czech Television defied their political masters by not appointing Kamil Čermák. A malleable candidate, preferred by both the Civic and Social Democrats. Civic and Social Democratic politicians wrought their revenge by sacking the entire Council for Czech Television.
Now, ignoring all the warnings that a new council should not be set up along party political lines, the Czech parliament appointed seven new members to the Council last week. Each parliamentary political party (with the exception of the Communists, who are being boycotted by all the other Czech political parties, in spite of their relatively, substantial parliamentary representation) has made direct appointments on its behalf.
Thus, the Civic Democratic Party has appointed three individuals who seem to slavishly support its party line: Miroslav Mareš, František Mikš (the editor of the Proglas journal) and Jana Dědečková (characterised as a "media expert," this interesting lady is in fact an owner of a boarding house in the Czech mountains. Last year, during one of the anti-government Děkujeme, odejděte demonstrations in Prague, Dědečková unfurled a banner in support of the Civic Democrats).
The Social Democrats have appointed two slightly more independent candidates: one former member of the Council for Czech TV, writer Václav Erben, and Brno biologist Petr Hájek. The Catholic People's Party appointed Pavel Kabzan, who works for Christian Radio Proglas, and Unie svobody chose Miloš Rejchrt, also a former member of the Council. It remains to be seen how the new Council for Czech Television will act: the nature of the Civic Democratic appointees, in particular, seems to suggest that there will be more fun and games ahead.
Some observers in Prague seem to think that the main purpose of the new Council for Czech Television is to get rid of Roman Prorok, the presenter of the main Sunday lunchtime discussion programme on Czech public service TV. While Prorok is no Jeremy Paxman [a presenter on the BBC's Newsnight program, renowned for his aggressive interview style, ed], he has recently been trying to assume a more independent attitude toward the politicians he interviews and as a result has become the target for a quite incredible amount of abuse from politicians, often during his programme itself.
Other observers are now wondering whether the new Council will want to replace Dušan Chmelíček, the current Chief Executive of Czech Television, who was appointed by the previous Council at the end of January 2000. Chmelíček has been acting rather diplomatically and sensibly over the past few weeks. For instance, he recently appointed a BBC Czech Service journalist, Jiří Hodač, to a newly created post above the current Head of News and Current Affairs. This may, indirectly, lead to improvements in Czech Television's news and current affairs coverage.
But the battle for control of the Czech public service media goes on. In my last article on this subject, I quoted a critical statement, allegedly made by Kateřina Dostálová, a member of the Civic Democratic Party:
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 in 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.
This statement was later quoted on Czech public service radio, although not from an authentic recording. Since the publication of this piece, a fairly sharp debate has taken place in Britské listy on this issue. Kateřina Dostálová has denied that she has ever made such a controversial statement, while reporters from Czech Radio and Respekt,a weekly newsmagazine, have argued, on the other hand, that she has done so. They also point to the fact that, allegedly, politicians intimidate journalists and that, as a result, critical television programmes will now be much more difficult to make.
Learning lessons from the past
In an attempt to clear the matter up, Britské listy has asked Kateřina Dostálová several questions about the role of the media in a democracy. In the issue on 11 April 2000, Dostálová answered them. She said that she accepted that the media must be an equal and critical partner to politicians, but, that it should not be above politicians. In her view, the media should work with facts and not with speculation. But Dostálová rejected the notion that public service media should be taken away from direct parliamentary control. She said:
Parliament is entrusted with the control of the public service media because it is Parliament which sets the radio and television licence fees and through the Councils for Czech Radio and Czech Television checks whether the money is being used effectively. Should these Councils be elected by civic organisations, independent initiatives or churches, Parliament could not exercise its responsibility over how the licence fee is used.
So far, ten years after the fall of Communism, there are no structures in Czech society which could exercise control over the composition of the Radio and TV Councils, except for Parliament. This does not mean that various civic initiatives and professional organisations canot recommend Radio and TV Council nominees to Parliament. But it is only Parliament that can have the right to appoint them.
But what does it mean "whether the money is used effectively"? Who decides what is effective use? Is political propaganda in favour of the parliamentary political parties "effective use"? Is the Czech Parliament really ready to support the development of free and critical public service media? Who checks the checkers?
One Prague observer has remarked that Ms Dostálová's comments reminded him of the situation in Czechoslovakia under Communism, in the liberal 1960s. During that brief period of reform the Communist Party also encouraged the public to present new ideas, but it reserved the last word on whether or not they could be realised.
Jan Čulík, 16 April 2000
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.