There seem to be almost constant problems with the media in the Czech Republic, especially in the most important of them all - television. It would appear that these problems are now a typical feature of Czech post-Communist reality.
Over the past ten years, the Czech Republic has failed to develop a reliable regulatory framework for the media that would enable television stations, in particular, to report effectively on the state of Czech society and to produce good quality, independent and critical journalism.
Readers will be familiar with the soap opera of the commercial Nova Television station, its director Vladimír Železný and the American investors Central Europe Media Enterprises (CME). CME is now locked in a bitter dispute with Železný over the issue of ownership of Nova TV.
As a result of recent developments at the International Chamber of Commerce in Amsterdam, where the dispute is being dealt with, it looks as though Železný is going to lose.
Czech public service television has a rather poor track record. Ivo Mathé, Czech Television's chief executive until early 1998, managed, up to a point, to steer Czech Television through various cataclysms of post-Communist reality.
While he strove for independence (Mathé kept an uneasy truce with the powers that be), he placed the main emphasis on entertainment output. News and current affairs – surely the most important part of the output of any public service television station – was of inferior quality.
In 1998, an attempt was made by the Council for Czech Television , the regulatory body, to improve the situation. The Council appointed a new director, Jakub Puchalský, 28, a former BBC Czech Service employee.
Puchalský's new Head of News and Current Affairs, Ivan Kytka, attempted a reform of the News and Current Affairs Department. Kytka's reforming effort was boycotted by Czech Television 's employees and, quite spectacularly, Kytka was forced to resign after a mere seven weeks in the post.
Chief Executive Puchalský's credibility was seriously impaired by his failure to defend his right-hand man. From then on, Puchalský barely survived in his post amidst mounting controversy. Although Puchalský was appointed for a six year term, he did not even last for a full two years and resigned in December 1999.
Although the Council for Czech Television was widely criticised for selecting Puchalský in 1998, it ignored these criticisms and appointed his ally, Dušan Chmelíček from Czech Television's legal department, as the new Chief Executive at the end of January 2000.
Czech politicians were displeased that the Council refused to appoint a different candidate, a much more pliable individual, and disbanded the Council as punishment. A new Council (its members are nominated by the Czech political parties and approved by Parliament) was created in the spring of 2000.
Throughout the convoluted developments within Czech Television over the past two years, complaints over political interference have been often heard. It is, however, very difficult to ascertain the true extent of the politicians' meddling with the independence of Czech public service television.
The problem is that most of the individuals involved have regularly made serious professional mistakes on the basis of which they should have been sacked anyway. Czech politicians have learned to use the incompetence of people at, and around, Czech Television in order to assert their own political ends, ie to enfeeble the broadcasting outlet that should be functioning as an assertive watchdog over Czech democracy.
Over the past two weeks or so, Václav Klaus, the head of the Czech right wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS), accomplished a sophisticated maneouevre in this respect, as a result of which he has now managed to completely destroy Czech Television's credibility.
In April 2000, Czech Television's Chief Executive, Dušan Chmelíček, appointed Jiří Hodač, another former employee of the Czech Service of the BBC, to become Head of News at Czech Television. An early interview with Hodač in Britské listy (see also here in CER) created the impression that maybe good times were ahead and that Hodač might be able to finally bring news and current affairs into the modern, professional era.
Unfortunately, early hopes placed in Hodač seem to have been out of place. Over the past ten days or so, in reaction to Václav Klaus's pressure, Hodač and Chmelíček have made several incompetent decisions which have now seriously compromised the integrity of Czech Television and provoked a rebellion in the news and current affairs department.
The Prorok problem
For a number of years, Czech Television has been running a one-hour flagship political debate programme on Sundays at lunchtime. Under Ivo Mathé, the programme became notorious for its inferior quality. Central European intellectuals and politicians are often prone to long-winded, verbose speech-making.
This debate programme usually lacked a firm structure, was often weakly controlled by the presenter and suffered from too many guests in the studio. From 1998 onwards, various and not terribly convincing attempts were made to improve it. Over the past two years, the programme, which is now called V pravé poledne (At High Noon) was presented by Roman Prorok, one of the more professional members of the news and current affairs team.
Unfortunately, due to a rather weak back up and research team, even Prorok's programmes often degenerated into verbal diarrhoea. One of the members of the new Council for Czech Television recently singled out Prorok for personal criticism – thus, unwittingly, turning him into a symbol of Czech Television's independence.
It is universally acknowledged that news and current affairs on Czech Television suffer from political interference. Politicans play with Czech Television like a cat with a mouse. They promise to take part in a political debate, then withdraw at the last minute, saying that they would only turn up if certain conditions are met.
With the arrival of Jiří Hodač at Czech Television, it was decided that Czech Television would fight this practice by publicising these little games played by politicians. If a politician refused to participate in a debate programme, this would be explained on air and an empty chair would be shown.
Unfortunately, during the first serious application of this principle, the practice misfired because it was seriously mishandled, landing Czech Television in a mess of its own making.
Roman Prorok invited the four chiefs of the main Czech political parties to the studio for a debate that was due to be broadcast on Sunday 4 June. Václav Klaus refused to come, pointing out that he was due to be returning from abroad at that point.
Prorok refused to accept this explanation, telling Klaus that if he did not turn up for the programme, there would be an empty chair in the studio.
Klaus became livid with Prorok, calling Dušan Chmelíček, Chief Executive of Czech Television, directly. Apparently, the conversation was quite heated. Politicians are not supposed to directly interfere with Czech Television's decisionmaking: if they are unhappy about something, they are to place their complaints before the Council for Czech Television.
The problem was that, as a result of gross incompetence, Czech Television had already run ads over two days wrongly asserting that Klaus had accepted an invitation to take part in the Sunday lunchtime debate programme.
Klaus was understandably upset and, allegedly, shouted at Chmelíček to take the trailer off the air immediately. In spite of Prorok's and Chmelíček's insistence Klaus refused to take part in the television programme, until the very last minute.
However, the threat of showing an empty chair worked. On Sunday morning, Klaus relented and decided to come to the television studio after all.
But, by this time,presenter Roman Prorok was thoroughly demoralised. He could hardly control the lunchtime broadcast, which was hijacked by the party leaders who, unashamedly, turned the programme into advertising for their political parties.
Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, the leader of the Social Democrats and currently the Czech Premier, repeatedly attacked and ridiculed Prorok.
Instead of supporting their front man in a difficult situation, Czech Television's management committed a serious mistake at this point. When Prorok got to work on Monday morning, he discovered an impersonal, official circular "from above," addressed to all Czech Television's employees.
The circular informed everyone at Czech Television that Prorok has been removed from his post as presenter of V pravé poledne - thus signaling that Prorok was now an untouchable in the corridors of Czech Television.
It may well be true that Roman Prorok is not a very good presenter of debate programmes. But, surely, if Jiří Hodač wished to improve the programme, he should have decided to start preparing its new version behind the scenes. After many weeks of rehearsals, when the new programme was brought to perfection, it could have been introduced on air.
Even if we accept Hodač's argument that he did not sack Prorok because of pressure from Klaus, but because of Prorok's inferior work, surely this is not the way to improve the situation. Even without Klaus's pressure, the rash sacking of Prorok smacks of incredible incompetence.
Czech Television's management officially announced that a different journalist, one Jaroslav Dědič, was due to take over on V pravé poledne as of the following Sunday. Embarrassingly, after the official announcement had been published, Dědič said that under no circumstances was he going to take the job.
As a result, Hodač, Head of News, was left frantically looking for someone else. Eventually, he found a replacement in a Czech Radio journalist, Antonín Zelenka, whose performance on the following two Sundays (11 June and 18 June) was far from convincing – in fact it was much worse than Prorok's.
Hodač argues that Prorok was incompetent and that on Sunday 4 June, he lost control of the V pravé poledne programme. In his view, it was absolutely justifiable to sack him.
The only problem is that Prorok was sacked by Hodač immediately after Václav Klaus bitterly complained about him to Czech Television's Chief Executive. Under the circumstances, it was extremely unprofessional of Hodač to remove Prorok from V pravé poledne , as he immediately opened himself to accusations of just doing what Klaus wanted.
Since Jana Dědečková, a member of the Council for Czech Television , had publicly criticised him, this journalist Prorok had become a symbol of the independence of Czech Television and became virtually unsackable, no matter what his professional deficiencies. It was a serious mistake to sack him nevertheless - and Czech Television 's reputation has suffered greatly as a result.
Towards the end of last week, the widely read Czech semi-tabloid weekly Mladá fronta Dnes discovered a series of telephone and mail exchanges between Václav Klaus, his assistant Ladislav Jakl and the management of Czech Television.
The publication of this information has created a real scandal in the Czech Republic, which has preoccupied much of the media for the past few days. It is very difficult for Czech Television's management to defend themselves against accusations of weakness and lack of integrity.
Head in the sand
Czech Television itself ignored the issue from the very outset. Surely a professional, independent and critically minded television station would have informed the public of the Prorok controversy on the very day that Prorok was sacked.
But Czech Television's main evening news (edited by Zdeněk Šámal, Head of News and Current Affairs Hodač's subordinate) failed to inform the Czech public about the controversy stemming from Prorok's sacking. Czech Television stubbornly ignored the issue, although it was featured widely in other media, thus further undermining its own credibility.
With the scandal threatening to engulf Czech
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His PR department produced a two-page disclaimer and Chmelíček tried to persuade Zdeněk Šámal to have the statement read out on the main evening news. Šámal refused to broadcast such statement, pointing out that it was not the business of Czech Television's main evening news to disseminate propaganda from the television station's management.
He added that he would only be willing to broadcast an all-round report on the scandal, featuring a number of opposing views. As a result, Šámal was sacked by Chmelíček. Šámal's cronies in the News and Current Affairs department organised a petition in his support.
Klaus's masterful feat
Where do we go from here? By bringing about the sacking of Roman Prorok, Václav Klaus has accomplished an admirable strategic feat. Czech Television presented him with a challenge.
It tried to free itself of the ongoing blackmail by
In other words, Klaus poked at them to find out what they were made of. In response to the prodding, they collapsed.
With this little game, Klaus has masterfully managed to destroy the credibility of Czech Television. No matter what Jiří Hodač and Dušan Chmelíček do now, they cannot regain a reputation for independence and integrity.
Jan Čulík, 17 June 2000
Jan Čulík is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.