The story goes that, in the Czech Republic today, the media are undergoing a crisis, and freedom of speech is at risk. Criticised and attacked by politicians for being biased and unprofessional, the media are being hit with new state regulations. A new law on print media was adopted earlier this year, and now the broadcasting laws are about to be amended.
On the surface, it may look like a return to the Communist Stone Age, but scratch a bit deeper and you'll find that the Czech media are at least partially to blame for this "crisis."
The politics of journalism
While most police work in the Czech Republic is regarded as incompetent at best, journalists charged with various crimes always seem to be assigned hard-working policemen. In any case, they certainly receive more diligent investigation than the "stars" of any political scandals.
Last year, Tomáš Smrček, a reporter for commercial television station Nova, disclosed information about a person who was, at that time, a candidate for the director of the Czech state security service (BIS). The candidate, Jiří Růžek, had allegedly tried to pull strings to get his friend out of a drink drive charge. Smrček showed a string-pulling letter written by Růžek on television to support his statement.
At first glance, this may not seem to be much of a story; sadly, it's rather common for a Czech official to abuse his position in this manner. Nevertheless, Jiří Růžek became the director of BIS, a post he still holds today.
The small story turned into a big story when Smrček was charged with revealing state secrets. Unfortunately for him, the letter he showed to the TV camera had been declared "confidential." The original crime committed by the civil servant who released the letter had been conveniently forgotten. A new, more important crime had emerged: one committed by a journalist.
This is hardly an unusual situation in the Czech Republic, and you need to look no further than the BIS to find another example. The previous director of the BIS, Jan Stiess, was revealed by journalists to have used a false lustration certificate to prove he did not co-operate with the hated Communist-era secret police, the StB (such documentary proof is a requirement for many important positions in the Czech Republic).
Rebeka Křižanová, from the daily Mladá fronta Dnes, disclosed Stiess's forged credentials, and, although Stiess did resign from his post as a result of the revelation, all eyes quickly turned to Křižanová. She has been charged with "unauthorised use of personal data."
Oddly, in another instance, the celebrated case of the "Cibulka List"—one man's obsessive effort to reveal all former Communist secret police collaborators—the newly established Office for the Protection of Personal Data recently decided that no law had been broken by the publication of Cibulka's book, despite it being packed with sensitive personal information about thousands of individuals.
It would rather seem that Křižanová is being targeted because she is a journalist working for one of the most widely read newspapers.
A lead balloon: the olovo affair
Another recent scandal is also quite revealing. The olovo (lead) affair surrounds the disclosure of material written to deliberately compromise Petra Buzková, vice-chairman of the Lower House of Parliament, a politician who has enjoyed long-term popularity in the Czech public.
The material included little bits of libel and plans to compromise Buzková with the intention of undercutting her popularity and sidelining her from political life. In fact, the material was strongly reminiscent of efforts by the StB during the Communist era.
What's more, the police confirmed the journalists' revelations: this opus of character assassination was written by none other than an advisor to Prime Minister (and Buzková's fellow Social Democrat) Miloš Zeman.
It's no surprise where the investigations have led. Forget the political skullduggery, the two reporters from Mladá fronta Dnes who broke this story were charged with contempt for refusing to disclose their sources.
On paper, they were within their rights. In protecting their sources, they acted under the rule defined in the Czech Press Law, No 46/2000 Coll. Unfortunately, these paragraphs, belonging to other guaranties of press freedom in the Czech Constitution, immediately follow another provision that the police can use to refuse journalists this right completely.
In the end, the two journalists were granted a presidential pardon, and the case against them has now ceased. (Interestingly, the President's powers to pardon look set to be restricted in the near future; the matter is currently under discussion in the Czech Senate.)
Pardon me? Pardon this.
No presidential pardon could buffer Zeman's vitriol, however. He lashed out at the olovo journalists, calling them, among other things, "subversive elements" (that has a nice Communist-era ring to it) who were only interested in sensation and scandal, not the important matters of the country. He said they were unable to understand problems, because they suffered from a lack of intelligence.
The previous government and the current semi-opposition, the Civic Democrats (ODS), have also strongly criticised the media. The ODS have their own rather peculiar opinion on what the public should know and how they should find out.
For example, a few weeks ago, they complained about the media's reporting of the annual ODS party meeting. However, the ODS do not generally act so rudely (stupidly?), and, more importantly, they generally do not resort to police work and prosecution in the courts, as do the Social Democratic politicians now in power.
Why would this be the case? Has this government got a stronger reason to attack journalists? Have they got something to hide? Perhaps, yes. There are several people in the current government and among its hangers-on who were a bit too close to the old Communist regime, and, although this government has the arrogance to name them to important posts, perhaps they are still a bit wary of people snooping around for fear that something unpleasant from the past might be uncovered.
In any case, conflicts between journalists and politicians have certainly grown more frequent under this government. With regular, excessive criticism of journalists by politicians and with an increasing willingness by politicians to use the police and the courts against journalists, it might seem that a general crackdown on the media is underway.
No public pardon
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it seems that the Czech population generally shares the politicians' disgust for journalists. People think journalists do not understand the matters and problems they write about; it is widely felt that journalists have their own axes to grind and do not really want to grasp problems of national importance. They are not seen as professionals, and, for this reason, their reports are not believed or given any serious attention.
The reason for this mistrust of journalists could have its roots in the Communist past, when the domestic media could not even be trusted to name the days properly. Then, as now, Czechs—at least those fortunate enough to understand foreign languages—look to foreign media when they wish to confirm the truth of events.
Of course, some simply do not want to be bothered with dirty politics; it is easier to criticise all politicians and politics generally. Still, most Czechs are not used to being truly informed about politics, so it is impossible to identify the chicken and the egg here.
Whatever the causes, however, Czech politicians can rely on much of the country to stand right behind them when they criticise or openly attack the national media.
A legislative assault on the media?
Perhaps very well-aware that they are on a winning course in the eyes of the public, politicians have been going beyond public condemnation and on to legislation. Various efforts are now underway which would appear to limit the rights of journalists and press freedom in general. Media legislation is now one of the hot topics of Czech public debate.
The legislative process currently focused on proposals that would amend existing laws covering public broadcasters (Czech Television and Czech Radio) is in its final phase. These laws have been highly contentious, especially in their provisions outlining public duties and the public broadcasters' independence from politicians and political parties.
Most notably, the government proposal contains little change to the process of selecting members of the all-important broadcasting oversight councils. Under the proposal, the Lower House will be able to choose council members from the list made by civic organisations representing a variety of interests, including political parties. Essentially, this represents no change from the current faulty system: political parties will still control the oversight bodies.
Another part of the proposal gives the broadcasting councils the power to create supervisory commissions for overseeing the financing of public broadcasters. Interestingly, these fiscal review bodies would themselves be, in fact, financed from Czech Television or Czech Radio budgets.
On the surface, it seems like a good idea: the oversight councils would keep tabs on the management of Czech Television or Czech Radio and their use of public money (derived through license fees). It would be a good idea if the councils were strong and independent of politicians and political parties. But, of course, they are not, and it is a legitimate fear that politicians could push to cut funding of programmes unfavourable to their party's interests.
Our programme... or else!
Czech politicians expect public media to act more or less as their PR agency. They have also hinted that if this cosy situation were significantly threatened, the whole idea of public broadcasting could be threatened as well.
Chairman of the Media Commission in the Lower house of the Czech Parliament Ivan Langer (ODS), in a recent interview for the weekly Respekt, revealed his "concerns" about public broadcasting. He said that if, at the beginning of this new millennium, public media can still not guarantee objective journalism, it might simply be better to privatise public broadcasting and not bother people with television and radio fees anymore.
Never mind that public television exists in every European state. If public broadcasting fails to live up to Mr Langer's expectations, then Czechs will have to be satisfied with another private station, such as Nova TV, pumping out tabloid news and the cheapest American schlock films and sitcoms.
In all, with public condemnation, attempts to prosecute in the courts, manoeuvres to alter legislation and thinly veiled threats to privatise public media, one might assume that an overall assault on the media is already underway.
Despite significant circumstantial evidence and despite the scare-mongering of some Czech journalists, there is actually very little to worry about. The Czech government cannot hamper the free press in any meaningful sense for a variety of reasons. The only possible danger is in the realm of public broadcasting, where politicians are set to make a system that conforms to their own needs rather than the public's. But in terms of overall media freedom, there is no cause for alarm.
First of all, politicians in a multi-party democracy—even a young one like that of the Czech Republic—need critics. They do not need them to criticise themselves, of course, but to criticise other parties and other bodies in public life to take the pressure off themselves.
Second, even if Parliament were to accept a law that would restrict press freedom, such a law would, with very high probability, be rejected by the Czech Constitutional Court and likely draw the unwanted attention of the EU. With these institutions acting as a check on their moves, the government knows it is seriously limited in its available choices.
With the real surrounding context in mind, Zeman's attacks on journalists seem little more than the weak cries of an arrogant, yet relatively powerless, man.
Not just politicians
The politicians are not the only ones to blame for the current problems of the Czech media. Truth be told, the Czech media are not very strong. Their work, as Jan Čulík and Andrew Stroehlein have pointed out in the pages of Central Europe Review on many occasions, is very unprofessional, and no amount of regulation—or deregulation for that matter—would make much of a difference.
Political or legislative attempts to whip Czech journalism into shape would not be nearly as effective as improving their level of professional education. Czech journalists need to improve their self-confidence and their investigative skills, and they should not succumb to threats and intimidation tactics by the government. Until journalists do that, they will continue to be an easy target for headline-hunting politicians.
Jana Altman, 13 November 2000
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