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Vol 2, No 17
2 May 2000
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Culik's Czech RepublicSomething Positive?
Jan Čulík

As we have reported (see earlier columns), a new chief executive of Czech public service television, Dušan Chmelíček, was appointed at the end of January 2000, after Jakub Puchalský, his predecessor, suddenly resigned in mid-December 1999 under unclear circumstances, not quite completing two years of his six-year term.

Dušan Chmelíček, until then the head of Czech TV's legal department and a Puchalský man, was appointed to the post in spite of the fact that a different candidate, Kamil Čermák, known by his pliability and his complaisance towards politicians, was, until the last minute seen as the favourite candidate. It was later confirmed that the ruling Czech political parties, the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats, would have liked Kamil Čermák in the post of Chief Executive of Czech Television.

After Chmelíček was appointed, they took revenge on the Council of Czech Television, which appointed him, by dissolving it and creating a new one, strictly according to party political allegiances (this applied especially to the Civic Democratic Party nominees).

Internal rivalry

Zdeněk Šámal, the current head of news and current affairs at Czech Television, may have had something to do with helping the candidature of Chmelíček at the last minute. Without wanting to delve too much into the somewhat byzantine structure of personal relations at Czech Television (personal relations amongst employees of any large organisation are always soap opera material), suffice it to say that there has been rather strong rivalry between Zdeněk Šámal and Bohumil Klepetko, a prominent member of the news and current affairs team.

Rumours circulated a few days before the new chief executive of Czech TV was due to be appointed that Klepetko aligned himself fully with the most likely candidate for the post of Chief Executive, Kamil Čermák, and that if Čermák were appointed, Klepetko would replace Šámal as head of news and current affairs: a strong incentive indeed for Šámal to support a different candidate from Čermák.

Kamil Čermák seemed to have been quite sure that he was going to be appointed; however, he made a fatal mistake: shortly before the appointment, he went round the secretariats of the main Czech political parties. Thus he sent out strong signals that he would be particularly attentive to Czech politicians wishes, with regard to Czech television.

According to reports, some members of the news and current affairs department of Czech Radio were quite favourably inclined towards Zdeněk Šámal. This may or may not be connected with the fact that Czech Radio's reporters picked up on the Čermák tour around party political secretariats and duly reported it in their broadcasts, one day before the appointment of the new Chief Executive of Czech Television was due to be made.

This, perhaps along with a recording of a 1995 radio programme, published in Britské listy (here in Real Audio), about how in 1994-1995, Čermák, who was then a spokesperson for the Czech Trade and Industry Secretary, worked hard for three months, using evasions and lies to deny an interview with the Trade Secretary which was to elucidate some questions relating to the privatisation of the Škoda car factory, meant that Čermák eventually failed to be appointed.

Thus, in a way, it could perhaps be said that Dušan Chmelíček has become Chief Executive of Czech Television partially due to Zdeněk Šámal's support. And, seemingly, Chmelíček has reciprocated. Shortly after being appointed, he made a public statement, giving full support to Šámal, saying that as Head of News and Current Affairs he is the right man for the job.

This seemed to be somewhat disappointing because the news and current affairs output under Šámal has been lacklustre. Šámal took over from Ivan Kytka in May 1998, after Kytka had been ousted from the post, trying to reform news and current affairs in Czech TV according to principles of professional Western broadcasting. It seemed that movement forward in news and current affairs in Czech Television was still impossible. (for more background, click here)

A new boss afterall

Yet, over the past few weeks there has been an interesting development. Chmelíček has, diplomatically, created a new post and appointed a new person to whom Šámal is now accountable. Jiří Hodač (53), until now a member of the Czech Service of the BBC, has just been made Director of News at Czech television.

In Monday's edition of Britské listy, we publish an interview with Jiří Hodač from which it seems to follow that he will attempt, although carefully and diplomatically, to drag Czech TV's news and current affairs broadcasting into the era of professionalism.

Before quoting from the Hodač interview, let us return, for the sake of comparison, to a series of questions which Tomáš Pecina attempted to ask Zdeněk Šámal on behalf of Britské listy shortly after his appointment to the post of News and Current Affairs, on 13 July 1998. (The interview is available in Britské listy in Czech here)

Thirteen questions and one answer:
An interview with Zdeněk Šámal, head of News and Current Affairs at Czech TV

Dear Sir,

Britské listy systematically monitors the Czech media, trying to evaluate the developments of the Czech media scene. Recently, Britské listy has concentrated on events within Czech Television. I would therefore like to ask you a few questions:

  1. You have taken over the post of Head of News and Current Affairs after Ivan Kytka. It has been said that Kytka has failed as a manager. I therefore expect that the management of Czech Television has not made the same mistake twice and has now appointed a person with extensive managerial experience. Could you please let us have your brief CV and tell us in what positions you have worked as a manager and which projects you have successfully managed until now?
  2. The election campaign before the June 1998 general election was a major news and current affairs opportunity for Czech TV. Most commentators say that Czech TV's pre-election output was much weaker than Nova TV's. How do you explain that Nova TV, whose news and current affairs budget is much smaller than Czech TV's budget, managed to produce better quality pre-election broadasting than Czech TV? Will this lead to any changes in Czech TV's news and current affairs department?
  3. How do you assess the extended pre-election Jednadvacítka programmes? What value were in your view these debates over the election programmes of the individual parties?
  4. The role of the presenter of the news and current affairs programme Jednadvacítka is prestigious. As is shown by the examples of presenters Barbora Tachecí and Jana Bobošíková, it takes journalists a long time, sometimes even several years, to learn how to behave professionally on the screen. Why are four different presenters now taking turns in Jednadvacítka? It is obvious that two of these presenters (Mr Vondráček and Mr Klepetko) are not professionally equipped to present the Jednadvacítka programme. Do you agree and will you make any changes to rectify the situation?
  5. Do you think it creates a professional impression if presenters use the familiar form of address ("ty", second person singular) on the screen?
  6. It has been said that Czech Television's news and current affairs is only an illustrated version of the Czech News Agency output: that Czech TV does not devote itself sufficiently to investigative journalism. Could you estimate how many of your news items are taken over from the Czech News Agency and how many are produced by members of your own staff?
  7. How are you satisfied with the viewing figures for the (Sunday lunchtime debating programme) V pravé poledne? Why does Czech Television invite several debaters to this programme when the format of Nova TV's Sedmička shows that a debate between a presenter and two participants is much more attractive and still can remain serious? Can you follow easily the chaotic exchange of views which are often heard on the V pravé poledne programme?
  8. How happy are you with the way Mr Dittrich, the presenter of V pravé poledne, expresses himself while presenting the programme?
  9. Why has Czech Television started avoiding controversial themes after the departure of Ivan Kytka? An example: on the day when the prosecutions of the participants in the Global Street Party demonstrations were stopped because all accusations turned out to be without evidence, the Jednadvacítka programme devoted a large amount of time to the preparation of the Jablonec minting plant for the making of the euro coinage. This issue will hardly become topical for the Czech Republic before 2005-2008. Why was not the Home Secretary or a senior police representative invited on the programme to explain why the authorities tried to prosecute people without evidence?
  10. Why don't your presenters, with the exception of Jana Bobošíková, demand that interviewed politicians should answer clearly and to the point? Especially Mr Klepetko's attitude towards politicians can be characterised as "soft and cuddly."
  11. In Jednadvacítka, which was broadcast on 26 May, Václav Klaus, head of the Civic Democratic Party, refused to sit in the studio with Mr Robert Dengler, a journalist from the Právo daily. When Jednadvacítka rejected Mr Klaus's editorial demands, Mr Klaus left the studio. Since you have assumed the post of head of news and current affairs, your team has not broadcast any interviews where a politician would be forced to answer questions from an "unpleasant" interviewer. Why?
  12. The memoirs of Ota Černý, the former presenter of the Sunday lunchtime political debates on Czech TV, say that in the past, highly placed Czech politicians could determine the topics of the television debates and even could dictate who was going to be invited to the studio. What measures have you taken that this kind of corruptive behaviour could be no longer repeated?
  13. The Arena programme is not produced by your Department, but we would like to know your view regarding the fact that Arena uses telephone polling by viewers for political issues. Do you think this is acceptable and is not manipulative?

Zdeněk Šámal's reply:

Dear Mr Pecina,

I am sorry to say that the energy that you have put into the formulation of your questions will be wasted. Your questions have again convinced me that Britské listy is not going to change its prejudiced, unusually unprofessional and often highly offensive and hostile attitude towards Czech TV's News and Current Affairs. I know that you are not the main instigator of this, often rather Goebbelsian approach by Britské listy. I cannot force myself to communicate with the perpetrators of this type of journalism, since I know that whatever I say will be used to confirm the preconceived views of the Britské listy publisher. Britské listy should have contacted us first before it started publishing half-truths, distorted information and insults about Czech TV's news and current affairs.

I will not react to any further of your attempts to communicate with me.

Zdeněk Šámal

Jiří Hodač:
It is necessary to broadcast a debate even if a politician refuses to take part in it

(Selections from Tomáš Pecina's interview with the newly appointed Head of News at Czech Television, Britské listy, 2 May 2000)

TP: When I was preparing our interview, I looked again at the questions which we sent to Mr Zdeněk Šámal, the Head of News and Current Affairs, two years ago. I was surprised how topical these questions still remain. It would appear that the News and Current Affairs of Czech Television has been frozen in one particular form and has lost its dynamism. Its fundamental problems remain the same as two years ago. What is your view?

JH: I do not want to deal with the past. Analysing the work of the News and Current Affairs Department is an internal Czech Television matter. If you asked me this question three weeks ago, I would have been in a different position, but now I am part of Czech TV and cannot speak publicly about this.

TP: Czech Television is not a commercial company and its matters cannot be seen as fully private...

JH: Czech TV's news output has made great strides forward over the past ten years. It is true that many people did not have the appropriate experience, they learnt "as they went along..."

TP: Czech TV's budget is several billion crowns annually, so lack of experience can be hardly condoned. Czech TV is a place for professionals.

JH: I fully agree.

TP: In my view, there should exist a standard promotion procedure. Don't you think that personnel appointments have been made rather chaotically so far?

JH: I cannot very well be a judge of this. If we compare the Czech situation to the British one, in Britain several qualified applicants always compete for each post. In Czech Television, simply, often, no good applicants turn up. I see it as one of my main tasks to change this situation.

TP: In the past, professionals like Pavel Zuna (now head of News at Nova TV) and Jana Bobošíková left Czech TV. Often they were very frustrated by not being able to work truly professionally, they were disenchanted by the working atmosphere in the News and Current Affairs Department...

JH: It is normal for people to come and go. Look at David Frost: he has left the BBC several times and came back again.

TP: So you do not agree that the best journalists have been leaving Czech TV's news and current affairs department?

JH: It is a question of opinion: they may have had different kinds of motivation. Maybe they have left for better pay. I expect that people who work for Czech TV will be proud of their work in a prestigious organisation, and this will compensate them for the fact that elsewhere they might be paid better.

TP: But take the case of Stanislav Brunclík. He presented Jednadvacítka on Czech TV and did so rather poorly. He went over to Nova TV and has become one of its best journalists. I cannot explain this in any other way except by the impact of the environment.

JH: I cannot judge this. I know Mr Brunclík only from the screen and have no view on his case.

TP: What will you do to make Czech TV attractive for professionals, how will you make sure that the present employees of Czech TV might become professional?

JH: Even now Czech television is a prestigious employer. People with whom I have talked, for instance presenters, are proud to work here. One of my main tasks is to create a system of education and further professional growth for the journalists. That is a priority for me.

TP: How do you want to make sure that your journalists are not pressurised by politicians?

JH: This is a key question. I am now preparing a kind of "set of instructions" for journalists how to behave in certain situations. These instructions will clearly set out the principles of achieving a quality product and also will contain advice on procedures how to avoid political pressures. We must not allow any pressures whatsoever. The journalists' decision-making must be absolutely independent. I will do my best to prevent all political pressure.

TP: Are you supported in this by the management of Czech TV?

JH: Yes, the Chief Executive and I fully agree on this. Public service television cannot survive if its news and current affairs and all its other departments are not fully independent.

TP: Nevertheless, in the past two years, when you look at Czech TV from the outside, its coverage was quite unbalanced. It clearly supported certain political forces, the Freedom Union Party, President Havel...

JH: I have discussed this with some of my colleagues. We looked for ways of achieving proper political balance in our broadcasts. I do not think that bias crept into the broadcasts on purpose.

TP: But for the viewer and society it is the outcomes that matter.

JH: It may happen that a politician refuses to participate in a political debate. You invite four political parties and one of them will not come because the politician will refuse to sit with Mr X from another political party at the same table. What will you do then?

TP: I would publish this information and show an empty chair on the screen.

JH: Exactly. If somebody refuses to come, this does not mean that the programme cannot be made. But the presenter must become the devil's advocate and constantly bring up the views of the absent person. But if you start compiling statistics, you will find out that party X did not get as much time on the air as party Y, but this may be because party Y refused to take part in certain television programmes.

Rough times ahead?

In spite of these mildly positive developments at Czech TV, there are possibly rough times ahead. The main Czech political parties, especially Václav Klaus's unreconstructed Civic Democratic Party (ODS), wants to interfere with the media, especially Czech Television.

This can be seen from the fact that in the newly appointed Council for Czech Television, of its nine members, seven are to be direct nominees of the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats, the two parties which rule the Czech Republic in tandem through a so-called "opposition agreement."

As Tomáš Pecina points out in Britské listy, the ODS nominees are either former ODS apparatchiks (Jana Dědečková) or are closely connected with the party's ideology. Thus, the Council has openly become an instrument of the Czech political parties. This will undoubtedly result in strong pressure on Czech Television, and this pressure has already started.

In a recent interview with Britské listy, Jana Dědečková singled out Roman Prorok, the presenter of the Sunday lunchtime political debating programme V pravé poledne, for unusually sharp criticism, thus, paradoxically turning Prorok into a symbol of independence of Czech Television.

There are no generally agreed structures in the Czech Republic for increasing Czech Television's licence fee in line with inflation. It is highly likely that Czech political parties will approve increases in the licence fee only in return for political concessions by Czech TV. If Czech TV refuses to make these concessions, its budget may be decreased as a result of inflation and Parliament's inactivity.

Signs are that Klaus's Civic Democratic Party has decided aggressively to defend itself before the media (as readers may remember, Václav Klaus, in an interview with an American journalists, called journalists "the enemies of mankind").

As the daily Mladá fronta dnes reported on 29 April, the ODS leaders are deeply unhappy that the former ODS deputy chief Libor Novák is currently being tried for allegedly commiting tax fraud (see here).

Václav Klaus has attacked the media for devoting "too much space" to this trial:

As far as political responsibility is concerned, we are convinced that the Civic Democratic Party has already paid dearly for the mess in its financing: it [had to] leave the government, it suffered a split, and it temporarily lost the support of the public. Now, we are witnessing a new attempt to make our party to pay for the same thing again,

said Klaus on Friday 28 April and continued:

There is a newspaper which has devoted the full first three pages of its edition to this single cause. We feel that with the exception of a state of war, it is out of the question that a newspaper should devote three full pages to a case like this. It is absolutely inadequate, inappropriate.

Klaus also expressed fears that the trial of Libor Novák might be turned into a "political process."

Needless to say, Western newspapers often devote many more than just the first three pages to a particular single cause, if the editors decide that a theme is sufficiently newsworthy. Klaus's statements are a warning sign that he and his party have apparently made a resolution to counter what they see as inappropriate political pressure from the media. Klaus holds the view that the media should not play the role of political partners to politicians but should passively report what the politicias are doing.

Jan Čulík, 30 April 2000

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.

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