Throughout the year 2000, Czech government officials at the Ministry of Culture had been slowly working away at a draft amendment to the current law on public media, specifically, Czech Television (ČT) and Czech Radio. This draft was intended to help improve the situation in public media generally, but in light of the situation that developed at Czech Television in the last days of December 2000 [see CER's analysis in issues one and two], it has now become the key instrument in resolving a specific crisis. Although the current situation at Czech Television has sped up discussion of this proposal in Parliament, there has long been a need for amended legislation in this area.
So what provisions does the new government proposal contain? First, it is necessary to say that although only the law concerning Czech Television is being heatedly discussed at the moment, the draft intends to change the laws on all public media. The law on Czech Radio will undergo the same or similar changes as the law on Czech Television.
The main proposed changes concern:
- redefining the responsibilities of ČT
- modifying the method of establishing the Council of ČT, setting the number of councillors and determining the reasons for dismissing the Council
- opening Council meetings to the public
- establishing a supervisory commission for the financing of ČT
- changing the procedure for appointing and recalling the director of ČT
Czech Television—purveyor of public service
The government proposal defines ČT's responsibilities as a provider of a public service. These include providing objective, well-sourced and well-balanced information, as well as producing and broadcasting programs that reflect a variety of opinions. In addition, it is to aid in developing the cultural identity of the country's inhabitants, including national and ethnic minorities. ČT must offer and produce a balanced selection of programs for all regions of the Czech Republic.
The proposal contains an outline of how ČT should carry out these responsibilities, although the activities mentioned are more or less those that ČT already performs without explicitly being told to do so by law. However, the important provision of this section is that ČT is to provide a public broadcasting service on two nation-wide channels, covering at least 70 per cent of the population. This provision is important, because it makes more difficult the possibility of privatizing any ČT channel, as some politicians have threatened in the past. Privatizing either channel would require a changing of the law, which is not impossible but sufficiently messy.
The draft law increases the number of Council members from the current nine to 15. The most awaited and necessary change concerns the process of electing these members. However, the government proposal contains only minimal reform in this regard. Under the new law, members will still be elected by the lower house of Parliament but will have to be chosen from a pool of candidates nominated by a range of civic organizations, excluding political parties.
While this is certainly a step forward, who will judge which organizations may suggest candidates? Will the organization that intends to nominate a candidate have to be registered under the law on associations? Does the fact that political parties are excluded mean that the nominating organizations are exempt from their influence? And is the impact of political parties really as negative as it has been presented? Isn't it true that political parties, or rather their members, are elected to Parliament by all Czechs so that they may decide on important social matters?
The 4Coalition and the striking ČT staff have demanded the selection process of the Council be amended to include three bodies: the lower house of Parliament, the Senate and the President. This proposal is unacceptable to both the governing Social Democrats (ČSSD) and their opposition partner, the Civic Democrats (ODS). In reality, such a division of the selection process among the aforementioned bodies would not purge political influence from the Council but only expand the number of the political parties which wield it. The 4Coalition currently has a majority in the Senate, and it is no secret that President Václav Havel tends to favor the 4Coalition.
So which of these solutions is the better alternative? Both have their weak and strong points. It is true that if there is to be political influence on the Council, then it should include the whole political spectrum, as citizens elected both chambers of Parliament and not only the lower house. On the other hand, it is true that the question of the Council's responsibility would have been made more difficult if more than one state body had elected it.
The proposal sets only very general criteria for the members of the ČT Council (such as residency in the Czech Republic, a clean criminal record etc) and excludes any further personal or professional specifications. The authors of the proposal are probably relying on the honesty of candidates and their own self-criticism as well as that of those who will vote them in as councillors. This is perhaps not the best method, as there is little evidence to show that it has worked well so far.
Is it right that somebody who has none or very little professional experience and hardly any with the media is the head of the Council of ČT? Or that one Council member declares she has never owned a television set (which is not to say that everybody who has a television is a media professional, but it does seem a basic prerequisite).
The proposal prohibits councillors from holding other public posts or obtaining any financial advantages except for the remuneration associated with their position on the Council.
The reasons for recalling members of the Council are expanded under the new law. The proposal allows for the recall of individual councillors when they act in a way that calls their independence into question or seriously compromises the dignity of their post. But what exactly does "the dignity of their post" mean, and who will be the judge of it? Members of the lower house of Parliament? Interesting.
The draft law also heeds calls for increased transparency in the work of the Council. Only the members of the last Council opposed granting access to their meetings to the media and the public. Ongoing attention by the media will most likely lead to an improvement in the quality of the Council's work and will perhaps also result in the election of well-qualified people to the Council.
If the draft is accepted, the Council will also be able to name a supervisory commission for the financing of ČT. This body will be responsible to and financially dependent on the Council, and the Council will, in turn, answer for its work in Parliament (since it speaks for ČT as a whole). This means the commission will be under less political pressure and might fulfil at least one in a range of conditions necessary for the improvement of ČT's ability to properly carry out its duties.
Directing the director
Provisions governing the appointment of the station's director are also set to change. The draft law modifies the process of appointing and recalling the director by increasing the number of votes (seats on the Council) from nine to 15. The director is to be appointed on the basis of an application process, but the draft does not specify any conditions of the competition.
In light of the current situation, the proposal contains a new provision about the appointment of a temporary director in the event the director is recalled or other exceptional circumstances. This provision will protect the Council and ČT from having to hurriedly appointment a new director and ending up with another Hodač fiasco on their hands.
Jana Altman, 22 January 2001
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