The editor of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy explains how, to his pride and shame, his periodical may have contributed to the current crisis.
The power of the Internet has produced a Švejkian cockup that will probably result in an early election and in the election victory of a small right-of-centre political party that has no programme.
Britské listy, a Czech language political and cultural daily newspaper, which I have been publishing on the Internet since the summer of 1996, has always tried to present ideas which do not normally reach the somewhat isolated and conventional Czech political discourse.
It has been successful on the Czech scene in its way, but due to limited Internet access and a failure of ideas to filter down from the media elites to the mass media, Britské listy is now in an embarrasing position. It has contributed to the development of a vast knowledge gap, which has opened the door to political manipulation of public sentiment and fuelled the current crisis in the country.
The problem goes to the very core philosophy of Britské listy.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the activists of the so-called "Czech National Revival," under the influence of Romanticism and nationalism, "resurrected" the Czech language which by that time had been spoken only by the uneducated in the countryside and made it again, instead of German, the instrument of educated, intellectual discourse in the country.
It was felt that the Czech mentality was quite different from the German mentality, and it would have been wrong for the Czech nation to be subsumed in the "large German sea," as was likely to happen around 1800, had it not been for the efforts of the "Revivalists."
Buoyant Czech national culture emerged throughout the 19th century; nevertheless, it was a culture which always suffered from a certain amount of parochialism. There are only ten million Czechs, and if you do not speak any other language than your native tongue (like most Czechs) this is a distinct handicap.
Thus, 20th century totalitarian regimes found it easier to manipulate the population of a country isolated from the outside world by a language barrier.
The same language barrier has been a handicap in the past ten years, since the fall of Communism. Czech intellectual and political discourse is, on the whole, disconnected from the international intellectual discourse. Since it is not exposed to the harsh pressures of international competition, often conventional and stale ideas circulate uncontested in the Czech environment for a long time.
Getting around tradition
Britské listy has always tried to subvert this situation and strengthen communication between the Czech Republic and the outside world.
Britské listy features independent analysis and, as far as its meager (ie none) financial resources allow, it has gone in for investigative journalism. Britské listy is entirely staffed by unpaid volunteers. This has disadvantages, but also many advantages: Britské listy is not beholden to anyone in the Czech Republic, where the political and the media scene is on the whole dominated by manipulation and the competition of various vested interests.
People in Prague have been stressing what a unique position this is. Apparently, in their view, no one in the Czech Republic can afford to publish a truly independent newspaper.
Media on media
Britské listy has been analysing Czech television, both public service and commercial stations, for years. It is not a particularly original idea to realise that, in this day and age, television is a vital instrument of communication for modern society. Good television news greatly helps the development of democracy.
However, the Czech Republic has had serious problems in the sphere of television broadcasting. Even in the 1990s, after the fall of Communism, Czech public service Television profiled itself primarily as a provider of middle-brow entertainment for the masses, continuing its tradition from the Communist times when its main role was–apart from presenting government propaganda–to give people escapist entertainment. News and current affairs in Czech public service TV throughout the 1990s has been of a rather low quality.
Since 1993, an aggressive, downmarket commercial broadcaster, Nova TV, has been also operating in the Czech Republic. The soap opera history of this highly successful station and the story of how its flamboyant chief executive, Vladimír Železný, took the station away from the original American investors, Central European Media Enterprises, has been dealt with elsewhere in Central Europe Review.
Basically, it can be said that television broadcasting in the Czech Republic suffers from poor enforcement of government regulation: the regulatory authorities are weak and influencable by vested interests. As a result, mayhem usually ensues.
For the past three years or so, Britské listy has been following developments in Czech public service Television rather closely. It analysed in great detail the abortive spring 1998 attempt by Ivan Kytka, the shortlived head of news at Czech TV, to professionalise Czech TV's news and current affairs.
Britské listy has also provided a meticulous, frame-by-frame analysis of individual news and current affairs programmes, pointing out where the programmes fell short of internationally recognised professional standards of journalism. The feedback seemed to be desired: Britské listy has always had a large readership within Czech Television (recording some 300 to 400 accesses from Czech TV per day).
From 1999 onwards, however, we noticed, that Britské listy also started influencing Czech politics. Politicians would pinch individual items of criticism from Britské listy and would use them as a stick to beat Czech TV in order to achieve their own particular party political purpose.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Britské listy contributed to the early demise of Ivan Kytka in 1998 (although BL was on his side, it pointed out deficiencies of his news prgramming output; the analysis was circulated in Czech Parliament and was used as evidence against Kytka by his enemies), to the resignation of Czech TV's Chief Executive Jakub Puchalský in December 1999 and to the departure of Czech TV's Chief Executive Dušan Chmelíček in December 2000. The early departure of both Puchalský and Chmelíček was fully justified: they were weak and incapable directors, and it was wrong to appoint them to the position of chief executive of such a vital national institution as public service Czech TV in the first place.
It often happens in journalism that an influential periodical makes a strong impact on decisionmakers in politics and in the media, and the media specialists then disseminate its information further on, to the wider society, to the popular market.
However, in the Czech Republic this cascade of information dissemination does not work, primarily because the mass media is generally afraid to publish anything novel or controversial.
An unusual situation has thus developed: many politicians and all the mainstream media have taken to reading Britské listy regularly, but the ideas and the debate within the periodical have not been passed on to the wider Czech society.
A dichotomy arose: in the Czech Republic, there has come to exist a small circle of several thousand individuals who became fully informed about the ongoing media debate in the pages of Britské listy—about the deficiences of Czech TV news and current affairs, for example. In Czech TV's printed materials for the conference "Česká televize – věc veřejná" (Czech TV – Res publica), which took place in Prague in November 2000, Britské listy was by far the most frequently quoted source of information.
Still, the general Czech public knew nothing about this ongoing debate. Without a foreign language and without access to foreign television or the Internet, the vast majority of the public had no means of comparison, and so it regarded the second rate news and current affairs programmes on Czech TV as programmes of an acceptable quality.
After the weak Council for Czech Television, headed by Jan Jirák, appointed Dušan Chmelíček new chief executive of Czech TV in January 2000, the Council was dissolved and a new Council was appointed in March 2000.
Controversially, by law, the members of the Council for Czech TV are party political nominees. They are appointed by the ruling parliamentary parties. This seriously undermines their authority because anyone can protest that they are not impartial.
Britské listy pointed out the deficiencies of the law early in 2000, arguing that the law should be changed according to the German model, so that members of the Council for Czech TV be appointed not just by political parties, but also by churches, trade unions, universities and various associations, before the new Council is selected. The suggestion received broad coverage in the Czech media, but it was ignored by politicians at the time.
The parliamentary political parties did their utmost to choose the least authoritative and the most malleable persons possible for the new Council. Nevertheless, quite surprisingly, considering the circumstances, they failed in bringing the new Council under their control.
An influential fan
One of the appointees by Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party was Jana Dědečková, a boarding house owner in the Giant Mountains region. Dědečková and her family were quite seriously persecuted by the Communist regime. After the fall of Communism, Dědečková was inspired by the free market ideas of Václav Klaus, and braving the incredible tide of Czech civil service bureaucracy, she managed to establish a successful small business of her own. This gave her a great advantage: she became absolutely independent of the Prague media and political mafia.
Early on in 2000, it became apparent that Jana Dědečková had become an avid reader of Britské listy and thoroughly agreed with the criticism, systematically levelled by Britské listy at biased and second-rate news programming broadcast by Czech Television.
In the region where she lives, Dědečková saw considerable poverty around her. She was persuaded by the Britské listy argument that a good public service TV station should be a spokesman for ordinary people, highlighting their problems and bringing them onto the national agenda. She was frustrated by the fact that Czech public service TV, although paid for by the citizens of the Czech Republic, had become the property of the Prague media mafia, who used it as an instrument for their manipulative power games.
On the appointment of the new Council for Czech Television, Britské listy decided to follow the workings of the Council closely, exactly because its members were generally weak and controversial. Throughout the spring of 2000, Britské listy published a number of interviews with members of the Council, which mostly showed that the Council memebers were indeed uninformed amateurs.
But Jana Dědečková showed a considerable amount of critical independence. Unlike some other members of the Council, she was capable of listening and of changing her views and admitting her mistakes if it was proven to her that she had not been right.
Tomáš Pecina, the main correspondent of Britské listy, began to debate the issues of Czech Television with Jana Dědečková in quite some detail. Dědečková presented quite authoritative analyses about the shortcomings of Czech Television to the sessions of the Council. The other members of the Council usually came uninformed and unprepared, and since they could not come up with counterarguments against Dědečková, her criticism of Czech TV was often accepted as an official Council resolution.
Gradually, most of the Council members came to Dědečková's side.
Explaining the boot
Rather belatedly, now, Jana Dědečková has published her analysis, submitted to the Council, on the basis of which Chief Executive Dušan Chmelíček was recalled in mid-December 2000.
Dědečková wanted Chmelíček to open up Czech TV's finances to the public. There are rather untransparent financial flows in the corporation. Czech TV still makes a large number of entertainment programmes and provides livelihoods for a vast array of independent film and programme producers, but these financial flows are absolutely opaque.
Nobody even knows how contracts are awarded.
Dědečková was told informally that up to fifty per cent of the budget of a proposed TV programme must be given as a bribe to the person who approves the programme proposal. Dušan Chmelíček refused to cooperate with the Council for Czech TV in making Czech TV's finances transparent.
Dědečková also wanted Chmelíček to professionalise the news and current affairs department. Since Ivan Kytka's abortive attempt to reform Czech Television news in 1998, the news department had become a no go area for Czech TV executives. Journalists in that department had turned Czech TV's news broadcasts into their own personal property, pursing their own political and economic interests.
News and current affairs programmes sided openly with the Freedom Union party, a small right-of-centre political party which has had little political influence since it refused to enter government with the Social Democrats after the 1998 general elections (leading to the "Opposition Agreement" of the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats and moves towards a two-party system).
After Kytka was forced to resign, Czech TV Chief Executive Jakub Puchalský did not dare to touch the news and current affairs department.
When Dušan Chmelíček was appointed as the new chief executive as of 1 February 2000, the News and Current Affairs Department staged a rebellion against him, and so he, too, shied away. In the spring of 2000, Chmelíček appointed a former BBC man, Jiří Hodač, as head of news. Staff conflicts ensued, and Hodač was forced to leave Czech TV a few weeks later.
Czech TV journalists accused him of being "unprofessional and uncommunicative". This may well be true, but since they used the same arguments against Ivan Kytka in 1998, after he had spent six years in London as a political correspondent, the accusation rings somewhat hollow. After Hodač's departure, Chmelíček no longer touched the News and Current Affairs Department, leaving its members to do what they wanted.
A bad bet
Dušan Chmelíček was appointed Chief Executive of Czech TV on the basis of a reform project that set out clear deadlines for when particular changes would be implemented. After he had been appointed, he abandoned the project.
In the spring of 2000, the Ostrava studio of Czech TV made a half-hour investigative programme, showing how an oligarchic economic empire, the large betting company Sazka, wielded and enormous, corrupting influence over Czech society.
Sazka is a huge advertiser at Czech TV, however, and Dušan Chmelíček was repeatedly in touch with Chief Executive of Sazka Aleš Husák, showed him the programme before transmission and unsuccessfully tried to ban it. Due to a considerable outcry as a result of the original transmission date being cancelled, the programme was eventually broadcast at a later date.
The whole episode thoroughly discredited Chmelíček.
On the basis of these and other reasons, it was fully justified that the Council decided to recall Chmelíček in mid-December 2000.
The problem was that none of the members of the Council for Czech TV was able to explain these reasons to the Czech public. Unlike Britské listy, the Czech media had not been following developments in Czech TV, and so the vast majority of the Czech public was thoroughly uninformed about the issue and was taken by surprise when Chmelíček was recalled. Criticism appeared that the Council for Czech TV was acting wantonly and unprofessionally, destroying Czech TV in the process.
Members of Czech TV staff were unhappy that Chmelíček had been recalled; over the past few months, he had given all the power to the informal internal power structures that had always run Czech TV.
President Václav Havel was also unpleasantly surprised by Chmelíček's demise. Havel had exercised considerable influence on Czech TV until March 1998, when the term of office of his protégé, Chief Executive Ivo Mathé, had ended. But in the second half of 2000, Havel's influence asserted itself again at Czech TV because Mathé's colleagues in Czech TV had gained the upper hand once more.
Britské listy fully supported the Council in its decision to recall Chmelíček. However, it pointed out that the problem of appointing a new chief executive was going to be a difficult one. It was likely that the informal ruling structures within Czech TV would rebel against any new boss, because it was probable that he would curtail their power.
Thus, Britské listy argued that the Council should ignore the protests that the removal of Chmelíček would cause, that the Council appoint an interim director to prevent Chmelíček from further plotting against the Council and that it should run an absolutely transparant, three-tier selection process from January 2001 onwards. The Council should have demanded that applicants for the post of chief executive submit their own projects for changes at Czech TV and that they defend these projects in a debate, open to the public. A chief executive selected by such a process would have had full authority and would have easily defeated any protests from Czech TV staff.
Unfortunately, at this point, the Council for Czech Television did not follow Britské listy's advice. Instead, it decided to appoint the new Chief Executive practically overnight. The reason was that the Council found itself under incredible political pressure. It genuinely feared that if it organised a protracted selection process, it would have been hijacked by vested political interests. They were deciding under considerable pressure: their offices were surrounded by a crowd of some three hundred television employees who were yelling at them through the windows: "Watch how you decide – we are the paying public!"
A prime candidate for the post of Chief Executive was Kateřina Fričová, a good professional who had proved her worth at commercial Prima Television. Klaus's Civic Democratic Party wanted Zdeněk Drahoš, the shady chief of the Brno studio. One member of the Council, who works on behalf of an aspiring young Social Democratic politician, Petra Buzková, blocked the appointment of Kateřina Fričová. Buzková likely feared that if this impartial professional were appointed, she would no longer be able to use Czech TV for her political purposes.
A compromise, not a stooge
Thus, the Council agreed on Jiří Hodač, a compromise solution.
Britské listy was absolutely shocked by his decision because it had had previous knowledge that in spite of having worked for the Czech Service of the BBC for 11 years, Hodač probably was not a very efficient manager.
But the Council for Czech Television was swayed by Hodač's British charm.
"This man knows how a mature democratic society works," Jana Dědečková told me. "No other candidate had such knowledge, no other candidate behaved in such a civilised manner." When I objected that Hodač possibly was not one of the best managers in the world, Dědečková replied that it did not matter.
"Hodač's post will be primarily a ceremonial role," sh said. "We will see to it that highly professional people, like Kateřina Fričová, Petr Sládeček and Jana Bobošíková will work under him." Unfortunately, Dědečková failed to explain this to the general public.
When the Czech TV News and Current Affairs Department learnt about Hodač's appointment, they immediately rebelled. In their rebellion, they were joined by some entertainers and film and television producers and directors, who have in the past worked for Czech TV and directly benefited from the untransparent financial flows.
The nation reacted by giving the rebels full support. Quite unashamedly, the TV rebels presented their labour dispute as an issue of free speech. Ingeniously, they used the vast disenchantment of the Czech public with the government of the Opposition Agreement to imply that Klaus's Civic Democrats were attempting to carry out a putsch in an effort to gain full party political control over Czech Television.
The Czech public knew nothing of the developments leading up to these events, nothing of the three-year history of failed reform attempts at Czech Television.
Klaus's Civic Democratic Party has a reputation of an arrogant, corrupt, power-hungry organisation, so it was an easy leap of faith for the general public to make: few needed convincing that Klaus could be so bold.
The rebel journalists hijacked the news programmes and started broadcasting their own propaganda. Newly appointed Chief Executive Jiří Hodač tried to counter this first by switching off the transmissions of Czech TV and asking the Council for Radio and TV broadcasting (the so called "greater council") to decide which programming was legal.
The Council naturally confirmed that Hodač's broadcasts were legal, but the police and the courts refused to help him. Hodač put out captions, trying to block the rebel news broadcasts, but paradoxically, the Czech public interpreted this as censorship. After all, popular TV actors, siding with the rebels, had told them that Hodač was in the wrong.
In September 2000, during the IMF/World Bank meeting in Prague, Czech television fully sided with the Czech police and suppressed all information about police brutality against demonstrators. As a result, the cynic might say that Interior Minister Stanislav Gross repaid the favour to the rebelling Czech TV journalists in December by refusing to support Hodač, even though he was legally obliged to do so.
Political support, personal threats
The rebelling journalists joined hands with politicians from the Freedom Union and its larger coalition (the 4Coalition). These politicians joined the rebelling journalists' demonstrations at the Television Centre building and used the crisis as a welcome opportunity to accuse Klaus's Civic Democratic Party of a television coup.
The public impression that Klaus and Civic Democratic Party had indeed attempted a clampdown over Czech TV was strenghtened by clumsy attempts by Jana Bobošíková, a highly qualified and professional journalist, to broadcast counterpropaganda. Bobošíková, however, has been working under incredible pressure, receiving death threats, threats that her children would be kidnapped, etc.
Most of the Czech television industry has been bullied by the rebels into not cooperating with Hodač and Bobošíková: TV technical staff, and other broadcast professionals have been told that if they work with Hodač and Bobošíková, they would never work in the country again. The Bobošíková counterpropaganda broadcasts fuelled the public discontent, contributing to the impression that a Civic Democratic Party coup had taken place at Czech Television.
Due to exhaustion (he had not slept for about ten days) Jiří Hodač ended in hospital.
The 4Coalition has been able to turn the crisis into a nationwide political protest. On Wednesday 3 January, its politicians, working in tandem with the TV journalists, brought out 100,000 people into Wenceslas Square. The event was carefully orchestrated.
On Friday, 5 January, a special session of Czech Parliament called on Jiří Hodač to resign.
However, Czech Parliament has no power over the decision-making of the Council for Czech TV, and so its resolution does not have the force of law.
The next act in the drama is the meeting of the Council for Czech TV on Monday 8 January. So far, the Council's three Civic Democratic Party members have been refusing to recall Hodač. The Social Democratic Party has buckled before the popular protests, but the three Social Democratic councillors cannot recall Hodač because as a result of one Council member's earlier resignation, there is an impasse.
If a compromise is not reached soon, it is quite likely that the Freedom Union party and the 4Coalition will manage to get half a million people to protest into the streets of Prague. People are thoroughly disorientated and genuinely believe that this is a crisis of fundamental human rights.
As Tomáš Pecina says: "If I had not started studying the situation at Czech TV closely some three years ago, I would have also gone out to demonstrate against Hodač in the streets."
To the polls?
The result of all this will probably be an early election, which will be won by the 4Coalition, a grouping of four small political parties without a definite political programme. Already in November, as a result of general frustration of the Czech public with Czech politics, the 4Coalition won an election victory in the Senate, the Upper House of the Czech Parliament (though the turn out at the election was only some twenty per cent). In spite of that, the 4Coalition members have been unable to present a united front in the Senate.
Czech society has rebelled because someone has attempted to improve its public service television. Most of the rebelling people are absolutely unaware what has actually been going on.
It is a vicious circle: the Czech media have not informed them that a reform was being attempted, so reform is impossible, as any future attempt at reform will probably be similarly hijacked for political purposes.
More questions than answers
Even if Hodač is recalled over the next few days, he will have to remain in post until a new chief executive is found. This cannot happen until after the current Council for Czech TV is recalled and a new one appointed. The Czech government is rushing a new Law on Czech TV through Parliament. A new Council for Czech TV should henceforth be made up of non-party individuals.
But after the mayhem of the past few days, who will want to serve on such a Council?
And who will want to become chief executive of Czech TV, since it is obvious that if he or she does not fulfill the wishes of the employees, he or she will be destroyed by another rebellion.
Will the journalists turned propagandists in their own cause be hailed as heroes of freedom of speech although they have disgracefully abandoned the remnants of any impartiality they may have had during this embarrassing episode?
Questions for those who would question
And Britské listy must also consider its role in developments. Should we adopt the same line as we have in the past, supporting wide-ranging media criticism, and risk that unequal access will lead to a seriously damaging knowledge gap between media/political elites and the vast majority of the population who cannot read an Internet daily?
While I am proud that Britské listy has made a difference in the Czech Republic, I am horrified to see what that difference has actually been. Our few yet influential readers certainly benefitted from the open forum of ideas that Britské listy has brought to the field of Czech media.
But if these debates remain among the elite only and if the mass media fails to keep up, the other 99 per cent of the country remain ignorant and highly prone to manipulation by their politicians.
Quite simply: public debate needs to be more public.
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:
- Jan Čulík's article reviewing the current Czech Television crisis
- Andrew Stroehlein's overview and analysis of the crisis
- James Partridge's look at the protest and other issues surrounding events
- 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