At this time last year, I wrote an article on the disappearance of pohádky (fairy tales) from Czech TV screens following the dispute between the Czech TV Nova and its partner ČNTS. The pohádky were back this year, but rather more worryingly, all television news on the main public TV channel, ČT1, disappeared instead.
This, of course, won't come as any surprise to CER readers; the dispute in Czech Television has been news all over the world, but the great furore over this supposed attack on freedom of speech has obscured a number of important details. Incidentally, I should say at the outset that it is not my intention in this article to rehearse yet again the sequence of events that has catapulted Czech TV onto the world stage as these have been discussed at great length elsewhere.
Instead, I shall look at the main event...
On 3 January, I attended the huge demonstration that took place in Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square). Estimates as to the size of the demonstration vary, but all seem to agree that there were at least 100,000 people present, and some have said that as many as 200,000 people were present at some point during the evening.
In any case, it is clear that even the most conservative estimates show that the "rebellion" by the news staff at Czech Television has gained massive popular support—far more than one might expect from what originally looked like an internal power struggle.
The demonstration was well-organised considering the speed with which it must have been planned. At the northern end of Václavské náměstí stood a stage, backed by a large screen so that people further down the Square could see, albeit rather distantly, whoever was speaking.
The organisers on stage controlled the crowd well, making sure that even the less popular speakers (the few politicians who were brave enough to show their faces) could say their bit without being interrupted.
I was impressed, for instance, that during Deputy Premier Vladimír Špidla's speech, at the point when it began to be drowned out by hisses and boos, one of the organisers stepped forward to say words to the effect that: "we're all democrats here, you must let him speak." The crowd immediately fell silent and the rest of Špidla's speech passed without further incident.
The effect was only spoiled by the fact that not enough loudspeakers had been provided for people further down the Square so if, like me, you fell between two sets of loudspeakers (and many thousands of people were in this situation), it was often extremely difficult to understand what some of the participants were saying as their words echoed back and forth off the buildings along the Square.
People around me often looked at each other in bafflement, asking "what did he/she say?" But then there were always a few clues as to the correct response: any mention of Jiří Hodač, Jana Bobošíková, the Council for Czech Television, politicians in general and Václav Klaus and his Civic Democratic party in particular was greeted with loud whistles or shouts of "hanba!" (shame).
Big names under the big top
Many Czech journalists and cultural figures, as well as several foreign journalists, took the stage to express their solidarity with the striking TV staff. Most names will not mean anything to people who do not know the Czech Republic well, but amongst others the novelists Ludvík Vaculík and Michal Viewegh gave witty and forthright speeches, and numerous actors, singers and other well-known personalities came to say their piece. Some foreign journalists have even shown their support by standing behind a rebel Czech journalist broadcasting from Brussels, and others spoke at the big rally in support of the striking journalists on 3 January.
A particularly loud cheer went up when a telegram from the English musician Peter Gabriel was read out, and one Slovak speaker got a round of applause when he pointed out that "if John Lennon were still alive he would certainly have supported us too."
All in all, the crowd was serious, but in a good mood.
For a demonstration of this kind, though, there was remarkably little hyperbole. The only time I found myself really cringing was when one speaker said something along the lines that Czech Television was without question one of the finest in Europe and famed for its objectivity and fairness.
While even some Czechs may question this, the comment was interesting because it touches on a fundamental aspect of the whole debate over Czech TV: its objectivity, and how this would be affected by the appointment of Jiří Hodač, a man who is known to be close to the leadership of Klaus's Civic Democratic Party, as its new director general.
A neat picture
My Czech father-in-law gave me an excellent summary of the public perception of the situation regarding Czech Television: Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) did very badly in the recent elections to the Senate. They lost a lot of seats, by their standards, as did the Social Democrats (ČSSD), their governmental partner in the so-called "Opposition Agreement".
Václav Klaus realised that unless they took some drastic action to change the minds of the voters, they would suffer equal, or probably worse, losses in the next parliamentary elections. So he decided to put one of his own men in charge of Czech TV, thus gaining control of the "state" media and providing him with the means to brainwash the Czech voter by broadcasting news and current affairs programs that were biased in favour of ODS and against the other parties, particularly the 4-way coalition of minor parties (the 4Coalition), which see themselves as the real opposition to the government.
The speakers at Wednesday's demonstration, and the crowd's responses to what they had to say, proved to me that this is precisely how the Czech public view current events surrounding Czech TV.
All the pieces fit together so neatly: the new director-general is Jiří Hodač, a man who previously worked for many years at the BBC in England but who, as I have said, has strong ties with ODS. Hodač then appointed Jana Bobošíková as his director of news broadcasting.
Bobošíková had originally worked for Czech Television as a presenter of an important current affairs program ("21") but had left to work, albeit for a short time, with ODS. Faced with a rebellion in the newsroom, one of Bobošíková's first acts in her new job was to fire a large number of staff and begin the process of replacing them with her own people.
How else should we interpret this except as a Communist-style putsch, a crass attempt to take over the media, and what's more, one carried out just before Christmas when most peoples minds are on pohádky and presents, not on news and current affairs?
So, the news staff went on strike at this clear attempt to stifle true freedom of expression, and the next thing we know, whenever a scheduled news bulletin begins on ČT1, the broadcast is cut off, and an ominous message appears on screen saying (and I paraphrase) that Director General of Czech Television Jiří Hodač requests all official organs of the state to intervene to stop the illegal strike by Czech TV journalists and allow normal broadcasting to continue.
What more vivid a reminder of the bad old days under the Communists (or perhaps not all that bad, actually, as the Communists do very well in elections and polls these days) could there be than this?
To make matters worse, the news teams barricade themselves into the TV studio while outside Jana Bobošíková, surrounded by a scrum of bodyguards, attempts to get in to take control of the situation. Anyone who leaves the studio is not allowed to return.
So, well wishers bring food, chemical toilets and other supplies that the striking TV personnel haul up through the windows of their studio so they don't have to leave. Messages of support begin to arrive from foreign journalists and news agencies, confusion reigns in Parliament as to what to do next, the situation spirals out of control and so here I am on Václavské náměstí along with 150,000 other people.
But was this ever really a freedom-of-speech issue?
The foreign news organisations clearly think it is, although I wonder how many of them know the personalities involved and the real background to these events.
For that we have to look back nearly two years to an earlier disturbance in the newsroom at Czech TV. This was the appointment of Ivan Kytka, another Czech journalist who had worked for many years in England, as head of news broadcasting.
Ivan Kytka, Jana Bobošíková and the small team around them, began to work to "reform" broadcasting practice in Czech TV news in spring 1998.
Why reform? Because Czech TV news at that time was about as flabby and servile as any politician could possibly hope the major public network could be.
My CER colleague Jan Čulík has documented countless examples, both in CER and the Czech Internet daily Britské listy, of the kind of practices that held sway in the newsroom at that time, so I'll just mention a few: allowing politicians to see or even prepare their own questions before interviews, one-sided reporting of issues, spineless interviewing techniques, allowing politicians to make long, unchallenged political statements, etc.
Ironically, it was on Jana Bobošíková's "21" program that the signs of a change in direction began to show themselves. Suddenly, the questions began to get a lot tougher, and Ms Bobošíková, a highly intelligent and well-informed journalist, showed a talent for making politicians squirm that wouldn't be out of place on any serious news channel.
For a couple of months, there were signs that the reforms were really bearing fruit. This culminated in a celebrated edition of "21" in which both Václav Klaus and Jan Ruml (then leader of the Freedom Union party) were due to appear together with the journalist Robert Dengler from the daily Právo.
Klaus refused to be seen with Dengler and walked out of the make-up room in a huff; Ruml refused to be seen with Klaus but then stayed to be interviewed on his own. Dengler sat with an empty chair as he and Bobošíková discussed what had happened with Klaus in the make-up room.
This caused Klaus considerable embarrassment, of course, and much merriment to those of us who were watching.
Bobošíková, the woman who is currently public enemy number 2 after Jiří Hodač, is the only Czech journalist to my knowledge to have ever publicly humiliated Klaus in such a manner, and this despite her evident involvement with Klaus's ODS party.
She understood then, and I expect she does now, that political affiliation and journalistic objectivity do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Repelled once before
Naturally, retribution was swift, and the more reactionary elements within Czech TV, ie, those who valued their comfortable arrangements with the politicians over any concerns about journalistic integrity, began to fight back. They were aided in this by the politicians themselves who were ever more alarmed by this new lack of respect for their high office.
Within a remarkably short time, Kytka was removed from his post, Bobošíková left, and the old ways gradually came back into force. Once again, we saw the likes of Bohumil Klepetko (known as "to klepetko" or "the little claw"), the very embodiment of flaccid journalism, reading the news and being chummy with the politicians.
That there has been a lack of leadership at Czech TV ever since this time is well known, and the News and Current Affairs staff have been given free reign to carry on as they like.
But now their positions are under threat again. Bobošíková is back, this time with a mandate to hire and fire as she wishes, and with the full backing of the new director general himself.
What better way to preserve the status quo (and your job) than to twist the whole sorry situation into a struggle for freedom of expression and journalistic independence.
You are guaranteed a ready and willing audience amongst your own people, particularly because they are so fed up and disgusted with the politics and politicians of their country. The fact that the new leadership at Czech TV seems to have an ODS background makes it all the easier, because Klaus really is hated by the populace, and any attack on him is greeted uncritically.
What makes it even better is that Hodač has spent so many years working abroad. Ivan Kytka's long involvement with England and English journalistic practice was used against him before he was ousted from Czech TV. At best he was "out of touch with day to day life in the Czech Republic," or it was pointed out that "what worked in England won't work here."
Perhaps more alarming than this is the way that the historical turning points for the Czechs in the twentieth century are being wheeled out again now. The refrain we heard most often during the demonstration was the magic Czech triumvirate of dates: 1948, 1968 and 1989.
This crisis in Czech TV, we are told, is another such turning point, and one completely in the spirit of those earlier dates. This attempt to take over the television is a putsch, just like the Communist putsch of 1948. The reaction of the people evokes the spirit of 1968 and, we hope, that of 1989.
One speaker put his cards on the table, saying: "this is just such a critical turning point in our history."
The crowd, of course, loved it.
He seems to have missed the irony of being followed almost immediately after having evoked 1968 by a Russian journalist (the Prague correspondent of Nezavisimaya gazeta if I'm not mistaken) telling us that: "we independent Russian journalists stand side by side in solidarity with the striking journalists of Czech TV," but perhaps it wasn't the right place for irony.
All the wrong moves
Sadly, Hodač and his team have played directly into the hands of the rebels, and this ultimately has to lead to his failure.
Hodač may or may not be a good journalist, but he is not a good manager. He seems to have attempted to carry out sweeping changes without first having consolidated his position and power base. By effectively censoring all news broadcasts of the rebel journalists, he has exposed himself completely to the charges of lack of objectivity that were aimed at him in the first place and raised the spectre of the censorship of news that Czechs so fear and despise.
At the demonstration, one of the organisers generated a great roar of anger by telling us that the demonstration had not been reported at all on that evening's six o'clock news bulletin, an omission that strikes me as unbelievably foolish.
Hodač's defence has been that the rebel journalists are breaking the law by their actions, and this may indeed be the case, but amongst the Czech public that point of view meets with almost no sympathy. In a country were the politicians and businessmen are perceived to have little or no respect for the law, why should we criticise some journalists who are clearly working for a good cause anyway.
I discussed these events with someone more well-placed to see behind the scenes than I am (but whose identity I cannot reveal). She agreed with my feeling me that this was primarily a struggle between reaction and reform and had almost nothing to do with freedom of speech.
She was able to quote a well-respected and very experienced foreign correspondent for Czech TV who had complained bitterly of the way that his reports were recut and edited by the current news staff until the original sense was all but lost. The correspondent also pointed out that there was a complete lack of experienced older journalists who felt the necessary sense of responsibility for their work.
With the average age of staff in the TV news studios in the mid 20s, and everyone with careers to build, questions inevitably follow as to which is more likely to come out on top: ambition or integrity.
More complex still
I have not even begun to touch on the political manoeuvring that may also lie behind these events.
Havel, naturally, has expressed support for the "rebel" journalists. Klaus, on the other hand, insists on the lawlessness of their actions.
One speaker at the demonstration did mention the idea that the appointment of Hodač was another step for Klaus on his way to fulfilling his ambition to become the next President, although if I was in his shoes the reaction of the crowd to this would make me stop and reconsider.
Personally, I find it hard to understand why a crafty politician like Klaus, for all his arrogance, would seriously think he could do anything but immeasurable harm to himself and his party by trying to take over Czech Television in this way. This is actually the worst thing that could have happened to ODS and will surely end up losing them far more votes than it could ever have won, even if it had all been a cunning plan.
I walked away from Wednesday's demonstration with the feeling that it was much more an anti-ODS demonstration than it was pro-Czech TV. The support for the striking news staff is genuine enough, but the hostility towards Klaus seemed far more tangible to me.
The Czechs are back where they were last year during the "Děkujeme, odejděte" (Thank you, now leave) demonstrations, expressing their disgust with the whole political scene here, but this time it is events at Czech TV that have catalysed this new wave of popular discontent.
One final thought. The deepest irony in this discussion and vigorous defence of journalistic integrity is the complete lack, in the Czech media, of any dissenting voice in the analysis of these events, or even of any serious discussion. Only one article in Mladá Fronta Dnes, from 30 December 2000, presented a totally different view (not dissimilar to my own, in fact), but that was written by Jan Čulík.
Unfortunately, this leaves us both open to charges of failing to understand anything because of being "outsiders."
Now where have I heard that before?
James Partridge, 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
- 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
- James Partridge's article on Czech TV fairy tales
- CER articles on the "Děkujeme, odejděte" (Thank you, now leave) demonstrations: as they happened and in retrospective
- Archived articles about the Czech media in CER