Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
Weaknesses of the Czech Media

Andrew Stroehlein

The traditional Czech media have been weak, ineffective and unable to perform the role of watchdog in the new Czech democracy. There are five primary areas where the Czech media have shown themselves to be weak, and this page is divided up into those five areas:

A lack of investigative journalism

The traditional news and information providers in the Czech Republic rarely display the kind of dedicated, aggressive journalism that attempts to uncover the truth about politics and government.

Television programmes and print newspaper articles often give the illusion of being aggressive, but such efforts are hardly ever more than tabloid intrusions into the private lives of public figures or wild, unsubstantiated claims which seem to be smear campaigns. Political reporting is generally leak-driven, and what might appear to be an interesting document uncovered by a savvy reporter, usually turns out to be something pushed through the reporter's mail slot in the middle of the night - or simply handed to the reporter by a party press secretary.

Social Democratic leader Miloš Zeman's various claims about other politicians, for example, always get the Czech media excited, but Zeman's "evidence" never seems to follow his accusations. The "briefcase" affair was most notorious. His willingness in spring 1998 to take seriously a set of obviously forged minutes of a comic conspiratorial meeting at the Castle was another. Most recently, there has been the affair surrounding his claims regarding former Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec. In every case, Zeman has made an unsubstantiated claim, and the press reported the claim loudly across the headlines before doing any further work at uncovering the truth behind the accusations.

Some of these incidents surrounding Zeman's accusations may be the most memorable, but Zeman is by no means the only Czech politician who regularly abuses the incompetence of the Czech media to score political points. It's a simple way for any politician to get attention from a lap-dog press, and all politicians use it, because they know that rather than investigating the claims, Czech reporters in such cases only ever ask other politicians for their comments on the allegations. Thus political coverage in the daily papers and nightly news broadcasts is typically a great soup of who said what about whom: reaction to reaction to reaction ad nauseum.

And all politicians like it this way, because it keeps them from having to talk about real problems the country is facing and how to go about solving them.

Politicians and party press secretaries set the agenda for editors, who dutifully play the politicians' game. The editors send out their reporters to every single party press conference no matter the topic to be discussed and no matter how often party organisers arrange the pointless "announcements" which are only rarely more than blatant attempts to get more column inches and air time. By giving importance to meaningless press conferences, reporters and editors play the politicians' game - and thereby have fewer resources for any investigative journalism.

To be sure, this is not a problem unique to the Czech Republic; reporters the world over can succumb to simple laziness and file a report based solely on what party X had to say that day. Actually investigating something takes time and effort, and drinking a coffee while talking to your colleagues for a couple of hours in a cozy party headquarters is certainly a pleasant, quiet life, enjoyed by many hacks all over the globe.

But in other media markets, there are usually at least some daily newspapers or television news programmes which try to dig deeper into the inner workings of the government and business and are prepared to spend the time and effort at real investigative journalism. In the Czech Republic this simply does not exist.

To some degree, this has been due to the absence of a US-style freedom of information law which would entitle journalists to important state documents. But that is only a small part of the reason and something which provides an excuse for laziness, incompetence and downright corruption.

During the Klaus years, the unquestioning approach of journalists was actually a deliberate political philosophy. As Steve Kettle has said:

Many who were journalists during the strictest period of "normalization" after the Prague Spring are still active and used to preparing a pro-regime line without question. Other factors include a belief that being critical of a government that is trying to establish democracy is equivalent to an attack on the democratic process itself, and a pragmatic calculation by both journalists and publishers alike that it is better and more profitable to remain on the side of the party or group that calls the political shots. (Steve Kettle, "The Development of the Czech Media Since the Fall of Communism," Communist Studies and Transitiion Politics, December 1996, vol 12, no 4.)

In more recent years, primarily as the Social Democrats went from opposition into government, this pro-government approach has been less obvious, but newspapers and broadcast media still often lead with the peculiar, "The government met today and decided..." which suggests that the Czech media are still following the official version of events rather too closely.

Not free from political influence

With their dependence on government declarations, party press conferences and personal rivalries, it is rather clear that the Czech media are more than prone to political influence. And political influence goes well beyond spin tricks commonly seen in the the UK or US; it is not subtle spin so much as bribery, crude threat and deliberate political pressure.

Some journalists and commentators are simply corrupt, being little more than hired pens for the politicians who pay them. The revolving door between the media, ministry press offices and larger firms' PR departments also assures compliant reporting of state and business affairs. The small size of the media elite means that many important issues - for example, the very issue of corruption in the media - are never discussed responsibly (see below).

These are strong claims, and it would be difficult to provide concrete evidence for them as my proof comes from personal experience of working in the Czech media. My proof would come from off-the-record conversations with journalists and editors in the Czech Republic, and the use of such necessarily anonymous evidence would be difficult to defend in a serious piece of research.

But it should at least be said that I have had conversations with editors of Czech newspapers, during which I was asked to write for their papers but was told specifically which subjects were off limits (usually due to advertising concerns and fears of disturbing co-operation agreements among media outlets). I should at least mention my discussions with well-known Czech commentators during which they quite openly admitted being on the take from politicians or political parties. I should recall the time when I was personally offered money by a prominent Czech politician (through his people, of course) to write something favourable about him for a major Czech daily.

Proving my allegations would be difficult, however.

In early summer 1999, Prime Minister Miloš Zeman came across the same problem, when he openly accused journalists of corruption. He stated he heard from a company director that the firm had to pay hundreds of thousands to get positive articles written about it in an economic weekly. Zeman also said another journalist was on the take from the energy monopoly to write favourable articles on nuclear power. Then there were his accusations against journalists in relation to former Foreign Minister Jozef Zieleniec. (Tellingly, the Czech media never investigated these claims themselves but felt satisfied to simply cover the accusations and counter-accusations.)

Zeman lacked the clear evidence for straightforward media corruption, just as I lack it here. In fact, any proof which would be satisfactory in a court of law or even for those reviewing this academic study is clearly impossible. Politicians, political parties and private firms do not exactly sign contracts with their hired guns in the media, and no documentary trail of evidence exists which could be posted on this site. For obvious reasons the system does not work so openly.

Thus, we will leave to one side the direct payments of journalists and commentators by politicians, and focus on simple political pressure on the Czech media, cases of which are numerous enough. Several incidents with which this author has had personal experience involve Czech (public) Television. In mid-May 1998, a representative of the Czech Ministry of Defence attempted to dictate the guests that would appear in the studio with the Minister, deliberately trying to block the appearance of a well-known opposition politician in a debate on the nightly news programme, 21. ("Ministerstvo obrany vydírá Českou televizi," Britské listy, 18 May 1998)

This type of pressure on the media was again seen on the same programme just a few days later, when both Václav Klaus, the leader Civic Democratic Party (ODS), and Jan Ruml, leader of the Freedom Union party both attempted to control who would appear with them in the studio on the same night. (Britské listy, 27 May 1998) The politicians' shock upon being denied their demands demonstrated quite clearly that this was what they had been used to for a long time; the practices of earlier commentators were later documented in their memoirs. ("Oťas, neblbni, jinak Klaus nepřijde!", Britské listy, 15 June 1998)

And, worryingly, several commentators at Czech Television expressed to me their apprehension at becoming too agressive in interviews with Czech politicians, because they feared for the physical safety of their families. ("Uvnitř České televize," Britské listy, 13 May 1998)

Political arm-twisting of the media cannot simply be blamed on brutish politicians, however. Journalists and their superiors in the media frequently act incompetently. Often oung and inexperienced, they give in to the tiniest of pressures from politicians. For example, the general director of Czech Television's over-reaction to ill-prepared comments by one or two MPs cost the station's news director his job; simple naivete was behind his failure to put one public statement into perspective, and his rash decision spoiled the newsroom's chances at badly needed reform. ("Česká televize skrznaskrz," Britské listy, 29 July 1998; and "Mohla by prosím poslední osoba, která odejde z redakce zpravodajství Ceské televize, zhasnout svetla?", Britské listy, 9 November 1998)

A limited scope for public debate

Major issues facing the Czech Republic are often ignored or glossed over with only one side being represented. The country's entry into NATO provides a good example.

There was little proper debate surrounding entry into NATO: in line with the quote from Steve Kettle's paper above, the political and media establishment had decided which side was right, and to even question how much entry would cost the country or propose a Hungarian-style public referendum on the issue was considered an assault on democracy itself. In autumn 1997, Jiří Pehe, a leading commentator in the media and, at that time, a close advisor to President Václav Havel, declared that a referendum was not acceptable, because the people might not vote affirmatively in large enough numbers. (reported by ČTK: see Metro, 17 October 1997) Few media commentators opposed his view: the political and media elite seemed to feel the citizens of the Czech Republic could not be trusted to vote correctly and were clearly not providing them with a full debate on the pluses and minuses of entering the Alliance.

Many controversial issues have been side-lined, and even those who work for major news outlets admit that some political parties views are favoured over others. Roman Prorok of Czech Television's V pravé poledne political debate programme published data at the end of 1999 showing the frequency of appearances of various politicians and commentators on the important Sunday lunch-time show and admitted that Freedom Union representatives appeared more frequently than their popularity would recommend. Similarly, Communist Party representatives are considerably under-represented considering they were polling about 20% in the Czech Republic at the time. (Britské listy, 10 December 1999)

Instead of tackling the big issues from a variety of angles, the media generally focus on personal invective between politicians, belittling the importance of politics and making political debate appear as mere school-yard rivalries. Czech politicians prefer to talk about themselves and each other much more than they do about the serious problems facing the country. Certainly this is true in all countries, but in the Czech Republic, this type of obfuscation through overemphasising petty personal rivalries has so much support in the mass-media, that it is often difficult for the interested citizen to ever learn anything beyond "who said what about whom," "who's meeting with whom" and, of course, the ever-popular, "who refuses to meet with whom."

In the first weeks of May 1999, for example, the Czech political world was fascinated by a potential "grand coalition" between the two largest parties in the Czech Parliament. It might seem a bit of a non-story on the face of it: the two parties in question had essentially been in coalition under the terms of their "Opposition Agreement" since the 1998 general election. But this case showed much about what is unhealthy in the relationship between politics and the media in the Czech Republic.

In an interview for one of the national dailies on 5 May, Deputy Chairman of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Miroslav Macek spoke of a possible grand coalition between the ODS and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD). Macek proposed this idea, saying it offered the best option for a stable government. A two-week media frenzy was the result.

Following their typical approach, the Czech media played along with the politicians' game. Rather than analyse the statement and put its rather limited meaning into context in the back pages, the dailies ran it as a shocking revelation on the front page. Again according to normal procedure, the media then did the rounds, asking every politician and would-be politician what they thought of Macek's statement.

Thus, the public learned that ODS Chairman Václav Klaus was quick to distance himself from Macek's comments and stressed that he saw a grand coalition only as an "extreme solution." The news consumer could read that Jan Ruml, leader of the Freedom Union party, and Miroslav Grebeníček, leader of the Communists, rejected the idea out of hand (not much of a surprise considering these parties would be further isolated from power under such a coalition). Bohuslav Sobotka, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Parliamentary Caucus, said the idea had little support among his MPs.

Conspiracy theories appeared. Václav Krasa, an MP for the Freedom Union, saw a grand plot behind the statement: Macek could not have said it "just by chance." Jan Kasal, acting chairman of the Christian Democrats, declared that Macek's word represented one step in a carefully planned political maneuver by the ODS.

No one could believe that Macek's statement was just a bit of thinking out loud or shooting off at the mouth. No one thought that it might simply be a cheap way to get himself some clout because he knew very well that the media would be enthralled and that he would be the centre of attention for weeks. Everyone in politics and the media seemed to slavishly play the game.

Nothing anyone said was new, but each politician's statement was spun off into a mini- media frenzy. First, the media sampled reactions to Macek's remark. Then they sought reactions to the reactions, and reactions to the reactions to the reactions - with all statements filling many more column inches and much more air time than anyone could ever imagine.

Even up to two weeks later, Czech Radio (Český rozhlas) was asking Prime Minister Miloš Zeman about a possible grand coalition (Zeman, too, rejected it). What's more, major daily newspapers, such as Mladá fronta DNES and Lidové noviny as well as Radio Prague (all on 20 May) found this part of Czech Radio's interview with Zeman interesting enough to reprint and repeat.

But even that is giving the Czech media more credit than they deserve, because the decision regarding the story's importance was not made by the editors of the above-mentioned sources. As usual for the Czech media, these three sources had simply pulled the story directly from the Czech News Agency (ČTK), not even bothering to change ČTK's headline: "Zeman zpochybnil reálnost koalice s ODS" (Zeman casts doubt on coalition with the ODS).

Thus, a predictably uninteresting answer to a dull question in one media outlet was picked up by the dominant news agency, presented as news and republished verbatim by other media outlets. Reading through the Czech dailies, one cannot help feeling a bit of deja vu.

An over-reliance on a single news source

The preceding example is not exceptional in any way: verbatim copies of ČTK reports can be seen in every media outlet every day. ČTK dominates the traditional Czech media. Newspapers and broadcast media use it not only to get ideas, supplement stories and create some back page filler: all media outlets use several ČTK reports verbatim - even on their front pages and even for domestic stories which would cost a major newspaper little to cover itself.

The broadcast media behave no differently. I recall working in the Czech Television newsroom where a whiteboard announced the major stories of the day and their source: in well over 90% of the cases, the station was using ČTK as its source for a story. Why was the source so rarely written there "Czech Television"?

Perhaps it is just professional laziness on the part of reporters and editors; perhaps these young and inexperienced journalists simply find it easier to get a story off the wire rather than go out and find one. Whatever the reasons, however, the resulting condition of the mass media is dire indeed, because the entire news industry generally accepts ČTK's determination of what is news and ČTK's interpretation of that news.

An example from February 1998 illustrates this nicely. A new poll had just been released by the Czech polling agency IVVM, showing that only 24% of Czechs were completely satisfied with the recent re-election of Václav Havel as President. 40% expressed only minor reservations, 18% were mostly dissatisfied with the re-election and 15% were fully dissatisfied with it.

There were different ways to interpret these numbers. The results could be interpreted as 64/33 in favour of Havel's controversial re-election, but one could also say that it was 24/73, that is, three people had some reservations for every one that was satisfied. Combined with other polls at the time showing public confidence in Havel slipping, it seemed entirely possible that the latter was true and that a serious shift in public opinion was underway.

ČTK preferred the former interpretation, however, and sent out the the story with the headline: "Většina občanů je se zvolením Václava Havla prezidentem pro další volební období spokojena" (The majority of citizens are satisfied with the re-election of Václav Havel as President for another term). This exact headline was reprinted word for word by the most important Czech newspapers and even on Czech Television's Teletext.

As usual in the Czech media, the mass media not only accepted ČTK's reporting, they also accepted ČTK's particular gloss on events. The newspaper reader looking for another take on this particular story would have been hard pressed to find one.

No media self-criticism

While it's true to say that no real political censorship exists in the Czech media, this does not mean that censorship in the Czech media does not exist. In fact, extensive editorial self-censorship does exist in every media outlet: radio, television and newspapers. While some of this is normal and natural - there are always more words than pages to put them on (except on the Internet) - at least one area exists, where editorial self-censorship is blatant, disturbing and damaging to the nascent Czech democracy: the Czech media do not criticize the Czech media.

Newspapers do not criticize other newspapers, the radio does not analyse problems with television, newspapers do not examine errors in radio journalism, and so on. This is not to say that the occasional scandal at one media outlet will not be found on the pages or in the broadcast programs of other outlets. But in terms of precise analysis and constructive criticism of other media outlets, the Czech media prevent such issues from being discussed. The reasons for this are many.

Sometimes there is a straightforward reason. Oftentimes, media outlets work together on research and surveys and neither side wants to offend the other while they are co-operating. Neither side wants to damage their mutual business interest, and withholding articles in these cases is similar to those instances in which protection of commercial interests prevents the daily press from writing critically about their sponsors. This is certainly the case for Czech Television and Lidové noviny, for example: according to an editor I spoke with from Lidové noviny, that newspaper is reluctant to criticise its survey partner even in the pages of its Média a Komunikace supplement which one might assume would be a forum for such things.

Another reason has to do with the Czech media's professional community itself. The circle of journalists and editors is incredibly small in the Czech Republic, and it is very much focused on Prague. This tight circle of friends, acquaintances and colleagues keeps writers from criticizing other media outlets. After all, you don't want to bite the hand that may feed you in the future.

In larger countries, this is less of a problem. In the US if one upsets the media establishment in New York, one can always look for a job in Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles or Chicago. Not so in the Czech Republic with its one media capital, around which the small Czech news world turns.

Prague does not have the critical mass of journalists needed to make media self-criticism commonplace. Czech journalists are more like a small family than a group of professionals: sure there is sibling rivalry simmering under the surface, but no one is about to lash out too openly and risk being ostracised.

Whatever the reasons, the lack of criticism in the Czech media is damaging not only to the quality of the media itself, but also to the condition of democracy in the young republic as a whole. The first point should be obvious: without critically looking at itself, the Czech media cannot improve. Even in a small family, problems have to be identified and discussed openly before they can be solved.

The second point is perhaps more philosophical but no less true: the development of democracy in the Czech Republic is hindered by the absence of media that are strong enough to confront public criticism and respond to it positively. An open, tolerant and democratic society needs a healthy, open media, capable of discussing every issue from every angle, so that readers have the fullest possible understanding of their society and voters have the ability to make well informed decisions. Any list of taboo subjects - and the impossibility of discussing that list openly - constricts public debate and thus democracy itself.

Andrew Stroehlein, 14 January 2000

Archive of Andrew Stroehlein's articles on the Czech Republic

Note, this article is one element of the author's PhD project: Czech Media, Czech Politics and the Internet. Parts of the above text have been taken from the author's articles:

"Napsala to ČTK, tak to musí být pravda," Britské listy, 12 February 1998.

"Je čas na otevřenou debatu o stavu českých sdělovácích prostředků" (The time is right for an open debate on the Czech media), Lidové noviny, 14 December 1998.

"Grand Coalition of Politics and the Media," The Prague Post, 2 June 1999.

"Confessions of a Scum", The Prague Post, 14 July 1999.



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