Vol 2, No 3
24 January 2000
Č U L Í K ' S C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
An Absolute End of Independent Czech Television Journalism?
Since the Chief Executive of Czech Public Service television Jakub Puchalský resigned prematurely and suddenly on 15th December 1999, the Council for Czech Television has been trying hastily to choose a new head for this important public organisation.
Nobody knows exactly why Puchalský resigned. A wide range of views and various vested interests have clashed in the public arena, but an open, factual and rational public discussion has not taken place. After all, the Council for Czech Television never explained why it had appointed Puchalský Chief Executive of Czech TV in the first place: his reform project, on the basis of which he was made Head of this Public Service organisation, remained secret. The Council for Czech TV argued that the project was Mr Puchalský's private property, he held a copyright to it, and there was no need to publish it. The project was only published on the internet in November 1999, a few weeks before Puchalský was forced out of his post, in a clear attempt to undermine his position.
Did Puchalský really have to leave because he was incompetent or because he was trying to implement a modernising reform against which the staff of Czech Television rebelled? In order to be able to make an informed judgment, one would have to know the facts from both sides. Or did Puchalský become a victim of political pressure, as he claims? Was it a serious matter when 300 of some 3000 employees of Czech TV signed a petition, demanding Puchalský's departure? Will not at least 10% of the employees of any large organisation always be willing to criticise its director sharply, especially if he plans to push through a major reform? Or was Puchalský forced to resign by interest groups in the film and television industry who were discontented that Puchalský was not ready to continue their contracts? Some voices have said that Puchalský did not rule Czech TV with a sufficiently firm hand - anyone could make whatever programmes they wanted, no proper production plans were made and the money that used to support the livelihood of influential members of film and television producers' associations seemed suddenly in short supply. The influential members of these associations are said to have risen in arms agaist Puchalský (they wanted their money) and added to the pressure which forced him to go.
It is unwise to start the process of finding a new Chief Executive without these questions being answered rationally, and the real situation in Czech Television should first have been properly clarified. On the basis of clear arguments from all opposing sides, and after consultation with media specialists (The Council for Czech TV does not consist of media experts), clear priorities should have been made as to what a new Chief Executive of Czech TV should be like. The selection process should then be started on the basis of these priorities.
Czech politicians are not particularly interested in the situation within Czech TV. They see the situation as a golden opportunity to seize control over Czech public service television and to use it openly as an instrument of political propaganda. There are clear connections between varying party political factions in parliament and the members of the Council for Czech Television. It is now obvious that rather than evaluating the situation and going for the option which would be the best for the country, the politicians have seized the opportunity to put Czech TV fully under their control.
Under the threat of being dissolved (the members and the head of the Council for Czech Television are paid by parliament what, in the Czech context, are relatively substantial salaries) the Council for Czech Television seems to have hastily acted to satisfy their paymasters; they are due to appoint a new Chief Executives this week. If the information that CER has at its disposal at this moment is correct, the decision, due to be made by the Council for Czech Television, will be catastrophic: it will put Czech TV directly in the pocket of politicians and may destroy independent television journalism for years to come.
Shortlist of candidates
Last week, the Council for Czech Television shortlisted three candidates: Petr Sladeček, a former programme director for Nova TV, Dušan Chmelíček, the current head of Czech TV's legal department and Kamil Čermák, a former press officer to the Czech Trade and Industry Secretary Vladimír Dlouhý and now an executive director for Czech Telecom.
Petr Sladeček is very unlikely to be appointed: his Nova TV past weighs too heavily against him. Dušan Chmelíček prepared and published an interesting, rational and well argued thirty page project for the further development of Czech Television (see Britské listy, 21 January 2000, [in Czech]). Maybe lethally for himself, given the fossilised structures within Czech Television, Chmelíček argues in the project that the crisis that has occurred in Czech TV over the past eight months was not only due to the insufficiencies of Jakub Puchalský and his people. In response to the heavily centralised management of Czechoslovak television under Communism, says Chmelíček, the founders of post-Communist Czech Television after 1993 gave the institution what he sees as a rather liberal, open, flat and anti-hierarchical structure. Gradually, a system of independent producers developed, and the individual producers could more or less do whatever they wanted. The problem was that there were almost no internal regulations and guidelines.
In other words, Chmelíček says what Britské listy have been saying, maybe more brutally, for a long time. The basic problem of Czech Television is a problem familiar to many Czech businesses: formal management structures were seriously underdeveloped and Czech TV was run by vested interests, by informal cliques of friends who made decisions during ad hoc meetings in the corridors or in the cafeteria without necessarily being accountable for these decisions. When Ivan Kytka arrived with Jakub Puchalský as the new Head of News and Current Affairs, he said in no uncertain terms that he was going to abolish this cronyism. As a result, he lasted only seven weeks before he was forced out. The cronyism abolished him!
In his document, Chmelíček repeats several criticisms which have been voiced in Britské listy, in particular with regard to the structure of the news and current affairs department. He also argues, quite sensibly, that in spite of the mistakes that Jakub Puchalský has made (among them, he notes, in particular, his "uncommunicativeness"), reforms must be continued and Czech Television cannot return to the situation "before April 1998" (when Puchalský took up his post); "there can be no return to non-transparent decision-making on the basis of internal customs, to constant improvisation and to ad hoc decision making even in the most important questions".
According to sources, Chmelíček has little chance of being appointed Chief Executive, exactly because he is "too rational" - he is seen as one of the Puchalský men.
Kamil Čermák's curious past
According to inside information, there are indications that the Council for Czech Television is about to appoint Kamil Čermák (29) as Chief Executive of Czech Television. If this happens this week, the Council for Czech Television will have made a catastrophic choice which will probably paralyse the independence of Czech Television for years. It is very likely that it will set it firmly on the path of reinforced cronyism.
After working for Czech Television as a moderator and a PR officer as a very young man, Kamil Čermák became the press spokesman for the Trade and Industry Secretary Vladimír Dlouhý. Dlouhý, a former Communist, was one of the most popular Czech politicians in the first half of the 1990s. Now he is seriously criticised for a number of privatisation projects that he oversaw.
Towards the end of 1994, a number of serious questions arose in connection with the privatisation of the Škoda car factory which the pre-1992 Czech government gave to the German car manufacturer Volkswagen, under certain conditions. Vladimír Dlouhý, a fundamentalist free-marketeer, ignored the negotiated conditions for the takeover of the Skoda car factory by the Germans and failed to demand their fulfilment. When difficulties arose, Dlouhý negotiated secret additions to the original Škoda-Volkswagen takeover deal which were disadvantageous to the Czech taxpayer.
The author of this article was working at the time as a reporter for the Czech Service of Radio Free Europe. In December 1994 he made a telephone application to the then 24-year-old Kamil Čermák's office for a radio interview with Vladimír Dlouhý about the Škoda-Volkswagen affair.
Kamil Čermák and his various assistants firmly and repeatedly promised that the interview would indeed take place. But using lies and various techniques of dissimulation they never organised the interview. It is unclear why they did not say that the Trade and Industry Secretary simply was not ready to talk about this matter. They preferred to go to absurd lengths in employing a large range of evasion techniques for an extremely long time. They of course did not know that the author of this article was meticulously making a record of all this.
Jan Čulík tried to obtain the interview by telephoning the Trade and Industry Ministry for the duration of three months, from December 1994 until March 1995. He recorded all the conversations with the ministry and in April 1995 he broadcast a half hour documentary radio programme, made up of of a collection of Kamil Čermák's dissimulations and evasions. It was like a fantastic absurd play. Due to a huge response by the listeners, the programme was repeated. A transcript of the programme is in available in Britské listy, 12 January 2000 [in Czech].
A live studio debate between Jan Čulík and Kamil Čermák was arranged, subsequently to the broadcasting of the documentary programme in orer to clear up the matter. Shortly before the debate was due to be broadcast, Kamil Čermák notified the station that he would not turn up for the debate. Instead, he later wrote and recorded and broadcast a response to the programme, which included a number of further lies, aiming to discredit Jan Čulík's credentials as a journalist. (Later on, Trade Secretrary Vladimír Dlouhý said to a journalist working for the same radio station that he hoped the station had discontinued employing JC.) A transcript of Kamil Čermák's response to the documentary radio programme can is also available in BL, 12 January 2000 [in Czech]. Amongst other things, he argued that Jan Čulík's attempt to arrange an interview with Secretary Dlouhý were "harming the interests of the Czech Republic".
After finishing his stint at the Trade and Industry Ministry, Čermák was given a lucrative post at the Czech Telecom company, which at that time was still predominantly owned by the state.
According to internal sources in Prague, Kamil Čermák is now the hottest candidate for the post of Chief Executive of Czech Television. His case is strongly supported by influential MPs Vladimír Mlynář (The Freedom Union, US) and Petra Buzková (The Social Democratic Party, ČSSD). Both these MPs are highly ambitious, but without government posts. They know that if their political careers are to take off, they need intense television exposure. They also know that Kamil Čermák will be forthcoming towards politicians, in the interest of his career, so that they can rely on his support in this respect.
It is remarkable that the Council for Czech Television seems ready to appoint to a highly prestigious public post a person about whom it is a matter of public record that he does not hesitate to lie in public in order to further his personal aims.
If Kamil Čermák is chosen for the post, it does not mean that Czech Television will become a propaganda instrument for a single political party. Čermák is far too shrewd for that. It is, however, very likely, that he will turn Czech television to an obedient propaganda instrument for all the parliamentary parties. Henceforth, there will probably be very little independent, critical reporting.
Čermák's "contribution" to Czech Telecom
It is said in Čermák's defence that he has had strong management experience: as a 29-year old, he has had 4000 employees of Czech Telecom under him. It is necessary to explain that his has been a career of a typical political protege. His boss Vladimír Dlouhý was satisfied with his services and so he secured him a cushy post in Czech Telecom.
Incidentally, Czech Telecom is regarded as one of the most customer unfriendly utilities in the Czech Republic. It holds a monopoly on telephone landlines and by exhorbitant charges it hampers the development of the internet in the Czech Republic.
In November 1999, Czech Telecom circulated a letter to its customers, signed by Kamil Čermák, its executive director for sales and marketing. In wooden bureaucratic newspeak, Čermák explained to the customers that telephone bills will now no longer be made up of figures given by counters of impulses, placed at telephone exchanges. He explained that Czech Telecom now had detailed information about all individual telephone calls made (like what telecoms in other countries provide free in people's telephone bills). But Czech Telecom was does not give its customers itemised bills. The aggregate bill figure will henceforth be based on thenew, detailed digital information, which for the time being will remain accessible only to Czech Telecom itself. (In case of queries about telephone bills, telephone subscribers must present themselves in person at an appropriate agency at the outskirts of Prague at an appropriate time where officials will show the customers their itemised bills on a computer screen. Should the customer require a printout of the itemised bill, a charge per each individual line of the bill will be made). At the same time, Czech Telecom continues to charge the customers for telephone calls in units of three minutes, in spite of having detailed, digital information about each telephone call made, with precision to each individual second.
An eloquent example of a shoddy deal which the Czech public must accept from a privatised monopoly. It is strange that journalists in the Czech Republic have rarely compared the business practice of Czech Telecom with the practice of telecommunications companies abroad. Obviously Kamil Čermák's sales and marketing techniques have been very effective. And so they will be in Czech television. Why is it that when looking for solutions, the Czechs often seem to chose the most catastrophic alternative?
A young journalist in Prague has explained this to me: "Because people here do not understand that they do not need to be slaves. They do not know how to stand up and simply say 'No'. They think that they must continue passively to accept the shit that is being thrown at them. They do not understand yet that they are living in freedom."
Jan Čulík, 23 January 2000
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.
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