Vol 2, No 6
14 February 2000
Č U L Í K ' S C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
Czech Parliament turns on the heat
on the Council for Czech Television
On Friday 11 February 2000, the Media Commission of the Czech Parliament sharply criticised the Council for Czech Television for, "failing to control Czech television efficiently, thus causing Czech TV to fail in its duty as a public service provider."
According to the law, the Council for Czech Television is entitled to appoint and dismiss the Chief Executive of Czech TV, the Council is not supposed to interfere with the day to day running of Czech TV. Recently, however, there has been constant pressure from Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and from certain sections of the ruling Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) to bring Czech television firmly under the control of politicians.
The Parliamentary Media Commission is currently trying to force mass resignations from the Council. Under this extreme pressure, Jan Jirák, the head of the Council, and a member of the commission has already resigned. The rest of the Council for Czech Television is, so far, resisting.
Last Friday's meeting was particularly emotional. Basically, the whole affair rapidly deteriorated into an undignified slanging match. MPs from the Parliamentary Media Commission yelled at members of the Council for Czech Television and the members of the TV Council tried, unsuccessfully, to defend their record.
In fact the Parliamentary Media Commission is not using particularly sophisticated lines of enquiry. They just seem to be repeating the mantra that the Council for Czech Television is no good and must go. Certain MP's arguments, ODS member Kateřina Dostálová is a particularly good example here, are utterly reductionististic: the Council for Czech Television is no good because it is no good and therefore should resign. Dostálová was also unhappy with the appointment, by the Council, of Jakub Puchalský as Chief Executive of Czech Television two years ago, in unclear circumstances.
Puchalský resigned his post prematurely in December 1999 - it is still not clear why he did so. Dostálová was also unhappy at the hasty appointment of his successor, Dušan Chmelíček - apparently, the appointment process has not been sufficiently transparent and the selection criteria were far too primitive for her liking. The Parliamentary Media Commission can dismiss the Council for Czech Television if it decides twice within six month that Czech TV has failed to fulfil its public service role (whatever that means). It appears that the Commission is now getting ready to do so, "even if it were to approve such a resolution twice within the same afternoon".
Biased programmes on Radio Prague
But the Czech media does not produce professional, unbiased work and the Parliamentary Commission would be fully justified in criticising them on that basis. However, the fact that most the outrageous programmes are broadcast without comment by either the politicians or the public seems to imply that Czech society is simply not ready to cultivate, in an open and rational public debate, the standards of Czech journalism. Politicians seem only to raise their voices when they see a chance to interfere in the murky waters of broadcasting for their benefit.
A little personal experience may elicidate this observation. Towards the end of last week, I was asked by a young journalist on Radio Prague, Radiožurnal, for a brief interview on whether or not I felt that Václav Klaus's ODS was fulfilling its role as an opposition party in Czech politics. In the pre-recorded interview, which lasted about a minute, I replied that of course the ODS was not acting as a credible opposition party. I added that I could not understand why people had not yet realised that the ODS and had basically created a coalition government after the last Czech general election in June 1998.
Other parties must now attempt to play the role of opposition, such as the Čtyřkoalice grouping (In which the right wing Freedom Union, a splinter group from Klaus's party, plays the largest role), but they would have to do some proper work and refrain from merely chanting ideological slogans. After all, why are people surprised that in a proportional political system, political parties fail to fulfil their election programmes? It should be obvious that they cannot do so, since the resulting governments are almost always coalitions and their work is based on compromise.
I had a bad feeling about the interview. I remembered a recent article about the low standards in Czech journalism by Štěpan Kotrba in Britské listy, in which he argued that Czech journalists do not ask independent observers or "experts" for an opinion or to learn something new but rather to use a soundbite, made by them, in order to give authority to the ideological point of view that they were trying to put across. I felt that I had been used in exactly the same way. I listened to the broadcast with grave misgivings.
It was with some relief, therefore, that I discovered that my comments have not been included. Fortunately, they simply did not fit the tenor of the programme as they criticised Čtyřkoalice, on whose behalf the programme was really being broadcast, or so it would seem.
But the brief programme, Ozvěny plus, broadcast after the 15 minute main evening news on Radiozurnal on Saturday 12 February at 6:15pm., shocked me by how vicious and unfounded it was. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, the hardline Czechoslovak Communists started publishing a fierce ideological weekly Tribuna. The central purpose of which was to besmirch the Prague Spring reformers who had no way of answering back.
I was fascinated that certain features of this type of journalism still survive in the Czech Republic, most clearly in the work of the youngest journalists on public service radio. How come that the same principles have survived for so long and now appear in the work of people who had nothing to do with the practices of the Communist regime which fell more than ten years ago?
The programme was a variation on the theme of, "We do not like the Social Democratic Government because it is left wing and it is outrageous that Klaus's ODS has betrayed its right wing credentials by supporting the Social Democrats." It was also practically a party political broadcast by Unie Svobody (the Freedom Union, a smaller member of the Čtyřkoalice grouping).
The programme featured some allegations made by Ivan Pilip, from Unie svobody, they went unchallenged. Pilip talked about the alleged existence of secret additions to the recently published agreements made by the ČSSD and the ODS. In his view, Klaus's ODS demanded that their people sit on privatisation commissions which recently made decisions regarding the fate of Czech Telecom and of an important Czech bank, Česká spořitelna. In return for this Klaus's ODS have apparently decided not to criticise individual members of the Social Democratic Government.
The problem with a programme featuring this sort of material is that the information given was totally unsubstantiated. Of course, it would have been perfectly justifiable to make a programme about the secret additions to the current ODS-ČSSD agreement, but the programme should have been in possession of these additions. Without concrete evidence, the programme was just unsubstantiated loose talk.
When asked to provide evidence for his assertions, Pilip said that Czech politicians routinely speak about these secret agreements in private.
On the basis of these flimsy alligations, the programme proceeded to attack a member of the Social Democratic Government, Miroslav Slouf, "former Czech Comsomol official and Communist party cadre," as Radio Prague put it. The programme continued:
The programme went on attacking Miroslav Slouf and asking why the ODS never raised any objections against this man. It implied that the real reason was the secret agreements between the ODS and ČSSD.
Whilst the issue of Slouf and Czech businessmen visiting Iraq is also a legitimate topic, it should have been investigated in a separate programme, it was worrying how unbalanced and how unsubstantiated this edition of Ozveny plus was. I could not believe that Czech Radio had decided to attack a politician but not to confront him with the allegations that had been made against him.
Slouf was not interviewed in the programme, nor was any other member of the Social Democratic government or even the ČSSD. Surely, if nothing else, the authors of the programme should have realised that if they do not confront the person whom they criticise on air, and, if they do not give their viewers the chance to judge how he defends himself before the allegations that the programme will lack credibility.
In Britain, there exist rather strict libel laws, which some say that they are detrimental to investigative journalism. No doubt a programme like this edition of Ozveny plus would immediately become the subject of legal action in the United Kingdom because it was so unsubstantiated.
The level of public debate about the media
But maybe the standards of Czech journalism cannot rise because the level of the public debate on the media remains extremely low, as was demonstrated by a recent report by Milan Šmid, published in Britské listy.
Šmid reported on the proceedings of a media seminar Nezávislost médii v demokratickém státě (The independence of the media in a democratic country), which took place in Prague on 7 February 2000. Unfortunately, apart from inviting Jan Jirák, the hapless, head of the Council for Czech Television, who has recently resigned, the organisers also invited owners or editors-in-chief of the most powerful elements in the Czech media, who unashamedly pushed their business interests at the conference. The other comments made were, to put it mildly, simply uninformed. More remarkable still were the comments of some influencial figures in Czech politics, especially the views expressed by Ladislav Jakl, adviser to Václav Klaus.
Vladimír Železný, the chief of the commercial station Nova Television, which he has recently taken away from the original American investors, raged against the proposed Act on radio and television broadcasting which will "absolutely enslave" Czech commercial broadcasters.
Železný did not attack Czech politicians (Not least because he now needs their support), but unnamed "state bureaucrats" who have drafted this bad law, and he also spoke against the dictates of Brussels. In his view, the Czech government has not learnt how to tame foreign bureaucrats and is unnecessarily afraid of Brussels.
In Železný's words, the newly proposed law on radio and television broadcasting is utterly unacceptable because it includes sanctions which are unprecedented in Europe. It even gives the regulatory authority the right to take away the broadcaster's licence and gives the authority the unprecedented right to inspect the broadcasters accounts and make inspections within the broadcasting institutions. Unacceptably, the regulatory authority is being given the right to punish transgressions against ethical norms (broadcasting violence and racism, programmes unsuitable for children).
Petr Sabata, the editor in chief of the widely read middle-brow daily, Mlada fronta Dnes, attacked those provisions of the media law which limit cross-ownership. Such provisions are dated, in Sabata's view.(Železný added that cross-ownership is normally allowed in the West: in Germany, RTL owns 32 radio stations and nobody minds. [As is usual with Železný, this information is wrong.])
Sabata also bitterly protested against the duty imposed on newspapers, to provide free compulsory copies for a selection of libraries. Such a provision would be incredibly expensive for the paper, he worried.
Ladislav Jakl, advisor to Václav Klaus, chairman of the Czech parliament, said:
The media are a pipe which is narrow at one end and wide at the other. The pipe has people at both ends and so "it is first and foremost about people". Commentators make out that the people near the narrow end of the pipe are bastards who wish to manipulate and control the poor creatures on the other side of the pipe or that the people at the narrow end of the pipe are the disseminators of good and it is necessary to tie the people at the other end of the pipe with a chain to force them to receive this good. Both these ideas are wrong. Simplification, to the level of banality, would greatly contribute to the debate about the media.
Jakl also argued that it was wrong to equate power with influence (over the media). "Political power and influence over the media are two absolutely different matters." Then he tried to define power: power is the result of collective decision-making in a representative system. Power which is imposed on people by violence is always bad. It is wrong to use such violence where it is not necessary. An example of unnecessarily using violence over people is the collection of television licence fees.
In Jakl's view, the media do not have any power, but some people are trying to persuade the public that they do have power. This is because the media are trying to be recognised as power-wielders when they are not. As a result demands are made that these power-wielders should be accountable.
The regulators are using tricks: when they want to regulate something, they call it a public asset. The whole press and media law is based on trickery: the wider end of that pipe is designated a public asset. Without this trick, there would be absolutely no need for a media law. Jakl then concluded his speech by stating:
In the discussion which followed a young debater Vavřinec Kryžánek said:
I regard expressions such as 'an independent public service broadcaster' and "regulated free enterprise" as contradictio in adjecto. The regulation of the media is as evil as are anti-monopoly laws.
Then a debater from an organisation called Ceska pravice(The Czech Right wing) gave his speech:
In the concluding remarks to the discussion, Jakl demanded that, "people on the narrow side of the pipe," should be fully independent. No journalists working in public service radio or television are independent. But the freedom of people working in the commercial media must be absolute. "If the bell tolls for the independence of the private media, the bell tolls for all of us."
Jan Čulík, 5 February 2000
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.
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