The Czech TV crisis erupted over the holidays, and while CER was on official break, Jan Čulík, our Czech correspondent, kept up a furious pace, updating the Internet daily Britské listy, where he is editor, three or more times every day. Now, having followed the ins and outs of this complicated struggle, he takes a look back at the whole affair and tries to put it all in perspective.
29 December 2000
"The Czech Republic is becoming ever poorer, that's why I am protesting against Hodač"
This irrational view, expressed by one Czech entrepreneur in the Internet daily Britské listy, shows how ingeniously the journalists from Czech public service TV have managed to use the overall dissatisfaction of Czech citizens and to transform an internal labour dispute into a nationwide political crisis.
An internal conflict within the TV station has been turned into a political dispute between the 4Coalition political grouping and the political parties of the so-called "Opposition Agreement" (the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats). A labour dispute is being successfully spun as an emotional "struggle for freedom of speech." The rebel journalists have managed to create the impression of a replay of the democratic revolution of November 1989.
But let us ignore the statements made on Czech TV by "famous personalities" who mostly do not have detailed information about developments within Czech Television over the past few years and let us analyse facts.
It is a paradox that the citizens, demonstrating in support of the television rebels, attack Jiří Hodač, the new chief executive of Czech TV, out of their own frustration, which is the result of the recent negative political and economic developments within the Czech Republic. But the current deplorable state of the Czech political and economic arena is partially a direct responsibility of the current "defenders of freedom of speech," Czech public service TV journalists such as the news kingpin Bohumil Klepetko and presenter Daniela Drtinová, who for years were not capable of independent critical analysis of the actions of politicians, were unable to anticipate the negative political developments and, when interviewing top politicians such as Václav Klaus, behaved sycophantically towards them in the studio.
The rebelling Czech TV journalists are calling, hypocritically, for freedom of speech. Yet there are numerous cases when Czech TV news has failed to provide the Czech public with professional and impartially presented information, with a critical detachment.
For instance, in September 2000, Czech TV news completely suppressed information about the brutality of Czech police against demonstrators and incidental passers-by during the IMF/World Bank summit in Prague. BBC TV broadcast a shot in which a Czech riot policeman was kicking a demonstrator lying helpless on the ground. While Czech TV news had this footage at their disposal, they did not broadcast it.
They also suppressed pictures of a humanitarian worker, Englishman Tim Edwards, filmed by Czech TV after Czech police had beaten him. Edwards works at a clinic for disabled children in Bhopal, India, and hence he was invited to take part in Czech TV's Sunday programme for children. After Czech police beat him, he was no longer interesting for Czech TV.
What ownership's all about
As economist Lubomír Mlčoch has pointed out, in the last decade of the Communist regime, managers of state enterprises in Czechoslovakia ran these firms as though they were in their personal ownership.
The Czech TV journalists are now doing the same with Czech TV news. They have become accustomed to use Czech TV as an instrument for expressing their own personal views and for pushing through their own personal aims.
The striking journalists have not understood and have never implemented the principle of journalistic impartiality and professional objectivity, nor have they used the principle of critical detachment from the news they were presenting to the public. They have repeatedly rebelled against all attempts to limit their informal and illegal personal influence on television broadcasting.
The reform roundabout
In April and May 1998, Ivan Kytka, until then the London correspondent for Czech TV, attempted to reform the News and Current Affairs Department at Czech TV.
Maybe he did this somewhat insensitively. The community of "friends" within Czech TV news accused him of "being unprofessional" (after he had spent six years as a correspondent in London) and of "being biased in favour of the Social Democratic Party."
But whatever the reason, Kytka, head of Czech TV news as of 1 April 1998, was forced to resign within seven weeks of his appointment. Social Democratic MP Pavel Dostál helped to liquidate
After Kytka's forced resignation, then Chief Executive of Czech TV Jakub Puchalský did not dare interfere with the News and Current Affairs Department. His successor, Dušan Chmelíček, also shied away from Czech TV news. When he attempted to appoint Jiří Hodač to the newly created post of Head of News in the spring of 2000, staff quickly rejected the appointment, and Hodač was also forced to leave in August 2000.
The repeated changes of Czech TV's chief executive—we're now on our fourth chief executive in three years—irritated other departments of Czech public service TV because they destabilised the production of entertainment programmes, and the destabilisation threatened the incomes of a large number of freelance collaborators for Czech TV as well as of many private programme production firms.
Guarding the guards
After Dušan Chmelíček was appointed new Chief Executive of Czech TV in February 2000, a new Council for Czech TV (board of governors) was created, as usual on the basis of a controversial law: Council members were nominated by parliamentary political parties.
In spite of these party political appointments, some members of the Council for Czech TV subsequently freed themselves of party political control. Enterpreneur Jana Dědečková, who lives outside of Prague and has little contact with the Prague media and political circles, has refused to be influenced by their games and started playing a very energetic role on the Council. She soon wielded a very strong influence on the Council, because the other members, as political appointees, were deliberately chosen because of their weak personalities.
Particularly under the influence of Dědečková the Council for Czech TV began to demand information from Czech TV's Chief Executive Chmelíček about the opaque financial flows within Czech TV. The Council also demanded that Chmelíček implement the project on the basis of which he had been appointed and wanted him to professionalise the newsroom.
Chmelíček refused to co-operate and so, on 12 December 2000, the Council for Czech TV recalled him. Jana Dědečková, now the main force on the Council, acted on the basis of her own right-wing political conviction, not on the basis of orders from party political leaders. In fact, party political leaders were often unpleasantly surprised by her energetic behaviour.
Quick decision, no pressure
The current accusations that Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party is trying to take over Czech public service TV through Hodač's appointment are false. Although I have been a sharp critic of Klaus's party for many years, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Klaus's party has been artificially manoeuvred into the current political crisis by its opponents.
Controversially and hastily, but legally, the Council appointed Jiří Hodač as the new chief executive of Czech TV. They explained their haste by wishing to avoid political pressure.
Just as Kytka was accused of being a Social Democratic stooge in 1998, Hodač is now accused of being a Civic Democratic stooge.
But Hodač's appointment is not a party political appointment; it was the result of a compromise within the ranks of the Council for Czech TV during the appointment debate. Czech party political leaders were surprised by Hodač's appointment, and in fact, Václav Klaus, the head of Civic Democratic Party, was livid at the selection.
The community of informal "friends" within the News and Current Affairs Department of Czech TV immediately rebelled against Hodač, because they had clashed with him sharply just months before, in the summer of 2000. Many members of the News and Current Affairs Department know full well that they are not very good journalists and that it would be difficult for them to get a job elsewhere, in particular in commercial broadcasting. The rebelling journalists asked 4Coalition politicians and popular TV entertainers to support them on screen, thus artificially provoking a political crisis in the country.
The new boss
Jiří Hodač is a weak manager, and he is unable to persuasively present his case to the public. To top it all off, he has been compromised by the propagandistic news broadcasts produced and transmitted by his new Head of News Jana Bobošíková, whose propaganda was even cruder than that of the rebel journalists.
However, Hodač's appointment is legal, and the Council for Radio and TV Broadcasting (the so-called "Greater Council," not the Czech TV Council) must confirm the legality of his appointment--any other decision would have dire consequences in the Czech legal system. What foreign firm would invest in the Czech Republic, if it became obvious that rebelling employees could depose any chief executive?
The old problem: bad laws must be changed, but before they are changed, they must be obeyed.
It is unclear how to solve the newly contrived political crisis. Every chief executive of every firm must surely enjoy at least a minimal support of its employees, but appointments and dismissals of top posts must also be legal.
The other side offers no way forward either. By openly joining hands with 4Coalition politicians, the Czech TV rebels have discredited themselves as profoundly as they have by their propagandistic news bulletins supporting their own cause.
Nor can the nation's brains seem to help in the crisis. The behaviour of many Czech "intellectuals" is a particularly deplorable chapter in this affair: by providing the television rebels with emotional support without rationally analysing the background of the events, they have again showed that they behave like immature children without a modicum of responsibility.
31 December 2000
Tomáš Pecina, chief analyst for Britské listy, says the political coup in the Czech Republic seems to have been successful. By all accounts, the TV rebels have now won, and a new power struggle will immediately begin.
There is still another possible, although unlikely variant: that Prime Minister Miloš Zeman will realise what is going on here, will sack Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, who has refused to move against the TV rebels, and will stop the coup in its tracks by force. Under those circumstances, Gross and his people would leave the Social Democratic Party, and Zeman would return like a fairytale king, suppressing the putsch with the help of the police.
But it would not be very nice to live in a country like that. The rule of the 4Coalition party is much more acceptable.
The current rule of the "Opposition Agreement" between the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats has ended. The current government has been, in effect, brought down by the clumsy, unprofessional action by Jana Dědečková, a member of the Council for Czech TV, who persuaded the Council quickly to appoint Jiří Hodač head of Czech TV news.
Comedy on Czech TV
Jiří Hodač, Chief Executive of Czech TV, has been blocking the news broadcasts by TV rebel journalists with a dead-air caption, which says:
Chief Executive of Czech TV Jiří Hodač urgently requests the state organs of the Czech Republic to use all suitable means in order to help renew the full range of legal broadcasting of Czech TV, thus putting a stop to illegal activity.
The programming, made by the persons who reject the authority of the legally appointed management of Czech TV is against the law. That is why we are not broadcasting it at the moment. We will return to our regular transmission after it is over.
On New Year's Eve, Pavel Anděl's live programme of TV chat parodied Hodač's caption with the following caption, broadcast at the beginning of the show:
We would like to remind viewers that this programme has been delivered by authorised persons. This is why we are currently broadcasting it. We also appeal urgently to our bodily organs to help us today.
The "free broadcasting" by Czech TV included the following two jokes on New Year's Eve shortly before 10 pm.
1. "Oral sex", a sketch parodying an "erotic programme on commercial Nova TV": A fat TV presenter asks a member of the audience:
"How is it with oral sex in your family? Do you indulge?
Member of the audience: "No, my wife does not like doing it."
TV presenter: "Well, you should cover yourself with Nutella, she would like it."
Member of the audience: "Yes, that works, but the problem is that our children are usually faster than my wife."
2. "The Gypsy job applicant."
A Romani man is applying for a job at a labour exchange. He says he is hard-working.
The labour exchange clerk is playing with his computer, then he finds a job for the chief executive of the major bank: four days a week free and a monthly salary of 350,000 Czech crowns.
The Romani applicant replies: "You must be joking."
The labour exchange clerk says: "No, you started with the jokes first." (ie it was a joke to imply that he, as a Rom is hard-working.)
I would propose that Western journalists, in looking at the "struggle of the Czech TV journalists for freedom," analyse a little more closely what political games are being played by this protest and, also, the quality of the broadcasting by the rebel journalists that are defending.
3 January 2000
A letter to the BBC
As a Czech media specialist at Glasgow University who has been following developments in Czech public service TV for a number of years, I am writing to point out that as with many other Western media, your coverage of the Czech TV crisis is flawed: this is not a heroic struggle of independent journalists for freedom; it is a political party battle.
Your report on BBC1's ten o'clock news on 3 January 2000 was biased in favour of the TV rebels. It did not mention that Jiří Hodač, the "controversial" new chief executive of Czech TV, worked for 11 years at the BBC (Czech Service). Your reporter accepted the view of the Czech TV rebels that Hodač is a stooge of Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party.
The issue is complex, but in a nutshell, it is like this:
This is a party political struggle for power, waged by undemocratic, manipulative means by both sides.
The conflict started as an internal Czech TV labour dispute which the rebelling journalists skilfully managed to turn into a nationwide political crisis by acquiring help from an opposition party political grouping (the 4Coalition), using huge public disaffection with the current government to their advantage.
It may be difficult to find impartial independent experts in Prague, because many members of the Prague intelligentsia, although quite uninformed about the roots of the crisis, have joined the TV rebels, simply due to their dissatisfaction with Klaus. Nonetheless, there are thoughtful individuals who have not lost their heads in the prevailing emotional atmosphere who could be contacted by your reporters.
Jan Čulík, 6 January 2001
All photos courtesy of Štěpán Kotrba, commentator and political analyst for the Czech Internet daily Britské listy
Also on the Czech TV crisis in this issue of CER:
- Andrew Stroehlein's overview and analysis of the crisis
- James Partridge's look at the protest and other issues surrounding events
- The role of the Internet in the crisis
- The crisis escalates: Prime Minister Zeman calls on President Havel to leave politics
- Jana Dědečková, member of the Council for Czech Television, rejects Parliament's demand
- Archived articles about the Czech media in CER
- Archive of Jan Čulík's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Return to CER front page