The Czech TV journalists who rebelled before Christmas against the appointment of a new chief executive, a BBC man for 11 years, by hijacking the news and current affairs broadcasts in order to disseminate emotional propaganda in the interest of their cause, have now won. But it seems to be a Pyrrhic victory.
On Thursday afternoon, 11 January 2001, Jiří Hodač (53), the irrationally hated Czech Television chief resigned after a mere 22 days in his post and without ever being able to show what kind of chief executive he might become. Immediately upon Hodač's appointment, the staff of the News and Current Affairs Department of Czech TV rebelled and started broadcasting emotional propaganda against him, pretending that as a "stooge" from Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party, he was a threat to Czech TV's independence. (In fact, Klaus's Civic Democrats preferred a different candidate for the post; Hodač was a compromise solution.)
The rebelling Czech TV journalists aligned themselves openly with the polititicians of a small opposition party, the Freedom Union, whom they have supported in their broadcasts for years, and together they turned an internal labour dispute into a nationwide political crisis by spinning it as a freedom-of-speech issue.
Twice, on Wednesday 3 January and on Thursday 11 Januray, the television rebels managed to persuade large numbers of Prague citizens with emotional appeals, incessantly transmitted by the TV station they had appropriated (even, for instance, during weather foreceasts), to demonstrate en masse on Prague's Wenceslas Square. Thus, they created the false impression (to which many foreign journalists succumbed) that this was a replay of the November 1989 anti-Communist revolution.
Many people in the Czech Republic are frustrated with the current government; the so-called "Opposition Agreement" of the ruling Social Democrats (ČSSD) and right-wing Civic Democrats (ODS), and they came out in large numbers to vent their frustration. Without being given proper information by the Czech media about what had been going on in Czech TV (where several previous attempts at professionalising the News and Current Affairs Department had been successfully foiled by the Department's staff), they temporarily came to believe that freedom of expression was indeed at stake.
Jiří Hodač never had a chance. On 20 December, he had been appointed hastily by the Council for Czech TV, which, paradoxically, had choosen a new chief quickly to avoid political pressure. (The members of the Council for Czech TV are somewhat controversially, appointed by parliamentary parties and hence are open to accusations of being politically biased; these charges, however, as CER can testify on the basis of substantial year-long investigation, were unfounded in this particular case.) Hodač tried to put together his own news and current affairs team to counter the rebels, but this attempt was rather unsuccesful.
His newly appointed head of news, Jana Bobošíková, found only six or seven colleagues (one of them, as it later turned out, was a rebel spy who filmed Bobošíková with a hidden camera) and tried to broadcast her own news, which controversially, tried to counter the propaganda of the rebels by its own counterpropaganda. Most providers of television facilities refused to work with Hodač and Bobošíková because of blackmail by the rebels and because of threats that they would never get contracts in the Czech Republic again.
Hodač, Bobošíková and their team became subject to quite unprecedented threats; some members of Parliament in Klaus's ODS also said that they were receiving seriously intimidating messages from some members of the public.
Hodač tried to block the rebels "news" broadcasts with a caption, saying that these programmes had been made by unauthorised persons, and at one point, he even switched off the broadcasting of Czech TV altogether, asking the authorities to say clearly whose broadcasts were actually legal, but these attempts of his to gain control over the station he was supposed to be running were interpreted by the Czech population as attempts at censorship. Vicious, emotional and sometimes even vulgar attacks on Jiří Hodač, broadcast by Czech TV rebels and disseminated by other Czech media, along with the stress, generated by the situation (Hodač hardly slept for about ten days) made him end up in hospital.
In fact, Václav Klaus launched his Website at the Invex computer trade fair in Brno last October. Bobošíková acted as the moderator of a large conference on modern technology at this trade fair. Klaus happened to launch his site as part of this conference, so it was obvious that as a chairperson of the conference, Bobošíková had to be present.
The widely publicised picture has nothing to do with Bobošíková's political links to Klaus.
Czech Television has, among other things, broadcast a programme about university sociologist Miroslav Mareš, the head of the Council for Czech Television. The programme portrayed him as a sympathiser of neo-Nazi groups.
Czech TV rebels have been repeatedly using lyrical, edited highlights from their newsroom sit-in, featuring archetypal romantic images, broadcast in slow motion and enhanced by emotional music tracks.
Czech TV has also been repeatedly broadcasting a pop-song from a popular movie, entitled Táhněte do háje ("Go to hell") with a picture of Jiří Hodač appearing against the line saying "This dross must be removed."
In the middle of the second week in January, Jana Bobošíková found it increasingly difficult to broadcast her news and she gave up. Hodač himself resigned on 11 January in the afternoon on health reasons. He published this statement:
A week ago, I was taken to the intensive care unit of the Motol hospital in Prague. I had developed acute health problems. This was after many days when, on having been appointed Czech TV's chief executive, I had worked for twenty hours a day without being able to sleep and rest, and after I had become the subject of a disinformation witch-hunt, which in its intensity and in the extent to which it distorted facts has been probably unprecedented in the modern history of this country. On the basis of discussions with my doctor and after assessing the conditions on which my convalescence depends, I have been unfortunately forced to accept the conclusion that I can no longer fulfil the function for which I have been legally appointed. This is why I have decided to resign for health reasons...
I had accepted the post of Czech TV's chief executive, wishing to work according to the best of my ability, even at the cost of utmost personal sacrifice, including the possible cost to my own health. I think I have done this fully.
I was born in this country, and although I have spent most of my life elsewhere–in countries with mature systems of parliamentary democracy–I have always regarded this country as my home. It had never occurred to me that I would eventually become the subject of the most unimaginable and despicable forms of personal attack, disseminated by the media. I admit that, three weeks ago, I would not have believed that something so base was possible in a country that, in the first half of the 20th century, still belonged to the most advanced regions of the world as far as the culture of inter-human relations and the quality of journalism was concerned. Journalism is not just a routine, it is not only a profession: journalism is primarily about humility before truth and about responsibility to others...
I believe in sensible people. My decision is difficult, but I have to accept it after discussing my case with my doctor. I would like to thank all those who have helped me in my work with extraordinary personal sacrifice and I hope that their abilities and moral qualities which they showed in the difficult situation will be eventually appreciated. I would also like to thank all those who gave me strength by their telephone calls, telegrams, letters, e-mails and personal conversations to struggle for something that is worth while. And this indeed was something that was worth while to attempt.
On Friday 12 January, the Lower House of Czech Parliament recalled the current Council for Czech Television (or rather, the remaining six of the originally nine members of the council who had not yet resigned), and temporarily assumed the Council's powers.
Back to square one
The TV rebels had refused to recognise Jiří Hodač as their boss, because they said they did not like the valid Czech TV Law and refused to recognise it. The Law stipulated that the members of the Council for Czech TV are appointed by Parliament according the current balance of political power within the Lower House. This, argued the rebels, showed clearly that the Council was under party political influence.
Of course, nobody in the Czech TV newsroom much minded this until the end of 2000 when the Council decided to appoint a new TV head, paradoxically a non-party person.
But the new man, Hodač, was not connected with the 4Coalition political grouping, the rebels' favoured party and political protector. This is when the TV rebels began shouting about party political influence in the Council and said that they would not henceforth respect the Council, the appointment of the new chief executive and the Law.
Under the pressure of the rebel propaganda broadcasts and public demonstrations, Czech Parliament hastily approved a new version of the Czech TV Law in the small hours of Saturday 13 January.
It had been proposed that the new Law should stipulate that members of the Council for Czech TV should not be appointed only by parliamentary parties, but also by members of the Upper House of Czech Parliament and by various non-political organisations (universities, churches, trade unions) in order to dilute the party political influence on Czech TV. This is, of course, a rather controversial matter, because if the mix of organisations entitled to appoint members of the Council is not carefully balanced, the Council could easily become the victim of various vested interest groups.
The Freedom Union party, a member of the 4Coalition that has openly sided with the rebelling TV journalists for its own vested political reasons from the start, failed on Saturday to persuade Parliament to give some of the powers to appoint members of the TV Council to the Upper House of Czech Parliament.
The new version of the Czech TV Law does include some theoretical powers, given to outside organisations to nominate the Czech TV Council members, but in effect, everything has returned to square one: the Lower House of Czech Parliament has retained power over the appointments to the Council. The Opposition Agreement of the ruling Social Democrats and the supporting Civic democrats thus has retained full control over the appointment of the Czech Television chief executive, in spite of the 4Coalition demonstrations that unsuccessfully demanded a share of decision-making powers in this respect.
Czech Parliament also passed a resolution stating that freedom of speech was never threatened during the whole of this crisis.
So, in effect, the victory of the television rebels has been rather Pyrrhic. Their rebellion has failed in its objective to give their allies, the 4Coalition (Freedom Union) politicians, formal controlling powers over Czech TV, making official the influence which this political grouping has had over Czech TV informally for several years now.
Jiří Hodač has resigned, but he did not recall the people whom he had appointed to Czech TV's top management. So, Jana Bobošíková remains head of news, although she is totally isolated, and nobody will even let her have a single video cassette she might request.
Complete rebel occupation
Czech Television has always been a huge colossus pervaded by the ethos of the Communist past, and major decisions have always been made by informal groups of friends within Czech TV.
This was not clearly visible to people who were not properly acquainted with the state of affairs within Czech Television because there were always individuals in the top positions who survived either because they closely collaborated with the informal decision-making strucures (eg, Ivo Mathé, the chief executive until March 1998), or the top management were puppets who had relinquished their power to the informal decision-makers (eg, Dušan Chmelíček in the final months of his term of office, in the second half of 2000).
Now, Czech Television is without top management, and the hidden internal, decision-making structures which have been running the station for years, have come to the surface.
Increasingly, voices are now being heard from the public that the rebel TV broadcasts do not represent public service broadcasting and that they lack professional, critical detachment from the issues that they cover.
Since the 1970s neo-Stalinist backlash against the liberal reforms of the late 1960s, Czech politics, as manifested in the media, has often moved forward by means of emotional, if not hysterical, campaigns. I remember well the intense hatred of the Czech Communist media, directed against the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, or another similarly emotional, total campaign in support of American Communist Angela Davis. In the late 1970s and in the early 1980s, there were similar hysterical media campaigns against the Polish trade union Solidarity, against President Reagan's neutron bomb, against the Star Wars programme and against Czech dissidents.
It would appear that the Czech media are reverting to the techniques of these hysterical Communist propaganda campaigns.
Most Czech politics is now perceived in terms of such campaigns. The majority of the Czech media who have never sided with the (slightly clumsy) Social Democratic government seems to interpret Czech politics in terms of scandals. The Czech media does not seem to be interested in substantial issues of Czech politics, nor are they capable of singling out from a complex issue what is really important.
Hysterical emotional campaigns are for the Czech media a convenient superficial substitute for independent analytical thinking and professional journalistic work. Why bother finding real information and analysing it, when superficial, emotional coverage of "scandals," seen in black and white terms, sells much better?
Remember the over-the-top campaign of the Czech media against the "primitive, hostile, foreign marauders" (ie antiglobalisation demonstrators) who "invaded" and "destroyed" Prague during the IMF/World Bank meeting in September 2000. Similarly, since mid-December 2000, an absolutely innocent outsider, Jiří Hodač, was turned into the devil incarnate by the Czech media.
It is deplorable that many Western media, including the BBC, unquestioningly adopted this interpretation.
It is a matter of serious concern that many members of the Czech public do not seem capable of seeing through this manipulation. While their frustration with current Czech politics is understandable, it is necessary to point out that the Czech public is frustrated exactly because nobody seems to have been able rationally and analytically to pinpoint the causes of the present Czech malaise.
Expressing your frustration emotionally at public rallies without knowing what causes it is no way out. People can shout at Jiří Hodač as much as they want; their frustration will not subside if they do not analyse properly the causes of their problems.
It is a vicious circle: the Czech media are, on the whole, incapable of such analysis, so no solutions are offered for public debate, and the frustration of the public mounts. It is feared that, as that frustration becomes ever more intense, the Czech public will be manipulated ever more easily by similar substitute causes. There are seeds of fascism in this dead-end situation.
Trotskyism and Leninism in Czech politics
"I would not have ever believed that the Czech public had such disrespect for the law and that there are such strong anarchic undercurrents in Czech society," said Prague commentator and political analyst Václav Žák to me in a conversation recently.
What is even more interesting is that anarchic, Trotskyite and Leninist tendencies have appeared in the Freedom Union, which has, to date, always pretended to be a right-of-centre political party, using right-wing rhetoric. The TV crisis has shown convincingly that where the perfunctory rhetoric of this party was no longer sufficient, the party revealed its Trotskyite and Leninist roots: by openly flaunting the law and supporting the TV journalists, many members of the party openly embraced Trotsky's ideas of "permanent revolution" as well as the Leninist idea of contempt for the state and law and order.
The Czech Social Democrats suffered a serious defeat in the autumn 2000 elections to the Upper House of Czech Parliament, the Senate. The 4Coalition (including the Freedom Union) were highly successful in this election, although the turnout was a mere twenty per cent. The Social Democrats seem to have taken fright as a result of these election results, and during the TV crisis, until the final voting for the new Czech TV Law on Saturday morning, they seemed to be retreating before the pressure of the street mob, manipulated by the Freedom Union party.
There is a deep split within the ruling Social Democrats: as the TV crisis has shown again, there are a number of leading, mostly younger, members of the Social Democratic Party who are in disagreement with its more traditional wing, as represented by Prime Minister Miloš Zeman and the Foreign Minister Jan Kavan. These younger members of the ČSSD (Petra Buzková, Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, and others) are ideologically quite close to the Freedom Union, and it is to be expected that some form of collaboration might arise between this wing of the Social Democratic Party and the Freedom Union. (see CER's new ebook on the Czech Social Democrats)
Of course, there are forces within and around the Freedom Union who are against closer co-operation of these two parties (Senator and former party leader Jan Ruml, and the "independent" President Václav Havel), because they still see the Social Democrats as Communists. But other voices in the Freedom Union would welcome such a Social Democratic defection.
Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party has temporarily suffered a considerable setback as a result of this TV crisis, especially since its politicians came out unrepentantly in defence of the law, Jiří Hodač and the legally elected TV council. Thus, however, they opened themselves to justified complaints that Klaus and his cronies rarely respected the law in the past, as long as such behaviour was politically beneficial to them
A model report
"I will believe that Czech TV journalists are impartial and trustworthy once they find courage within themselves to report on truly substantial matters of interests, such as Václav Havel's questionable financial deals," says Jaroslav Plesl, a reporter for the Prague economic weekly Euro, writing in Britské listy.
Czech TV has always been pro-Havel, and so this "public service" station has never reported for instance on this issue.
The "fighters for freedom of expression" in Czech Television have never, for instance, informed the Czech public that, when Václav Havel sold his half of the Prague entertainment complex "Lucerna" in 1997 to the oligarchic Chemapol company, he received 200 million Czech crowns (some four million British pounds) for it. It was an odd price, because, after Chemapol went bankrupt, the receiver sold the prospering Lucerna complex for a mere 145 million crowns.
Why did Havel receive an above-market price for Lucerna from Chemapol? Was this, as some have suggested, a Chemapol bribe for Havel so that Havel would speak favourably about the company?
In June 2000, Jaroslav Plesl asked Václav Havel's office to explain the discrepancy in the prices, but received a reply saying that the Czech President "does not feel inspired by these kind of questions to answering them."
Plesl wrote about it in Euro last year (no 25/2000), but the "freedom fighters" in Czech TV never reported on the issue or investigated it, ignoring it just as they have ignored so many other important issues of the day.
Jan Čulík, 14 January 2001
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