Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 8
28 February 2000

Jan Culik Č U L Í K ' S   C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
Under the Influence

Jan Čulík

The Czech media has been far from perfect since 1989, but at least up to this point, there has not been compelling evidence proving that it is under the direct, systematic influence of business vested interests and their PR agencies. However, this situation seems to be changing.

Speculation, and in some cases quite hard evidence, is coming to the surface indicating that in principle, the situation in the Czech Republic is probably not too different from the situation in the other post-Communist countries in Central and East European, even though, hopefully, the corruption of journalists may not be so widespread as it is elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Ronald Lauder and the new Czech embargo against Iran

The latest controversy in the Czech Republic revolves around an attempt by a Czech industrial firm to export equipment for a nuclear power plant to Iran, a move which provoked the wrath of the United States.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent a special envoy to Prague on a mission to prevent this, and the Czech government buckled; Madeleine Albright will be visiting Prague soon, and Czech officials do not wish the visit to be "overshadowed by the Iranian controversy." The Americans have demanded a strict embargo against Iran and the Czech government has obeyed: it declared a "legislative emergency" and complied by drafting a special law, preventing deliveries to Iran.

Why did the embargo imposed on Iran have to be so strict? Here we enter the realm of rather unfounded, nevertheless rather interesting speculation. Milan Šmíd, who lectures on the Czech media at Charles University, has this to say in Britské listy on Monday, 28 February 2000:

Rumours circulate asserting that Ronald Lauder, the chairman of Central European Media Enterprises, has had a certain say in this matter. (Central European Media Enterprises ran the highly successful commercial Nova Television in the Czech Republic until last August when Czech television enterpreneur Vladimír Železný took it away from them and started to operate it under his own steam, with funding from a different source. In an earlier incarnation, Ronald Lauder worked for the American Department of Defense and was also the US Ambassador to Vienna, so he has undoubtedly good links to American diplomatic circles.)

Why should Ronald Lauder be interested in a Czech firm wishing to export its wares to Iran? Nova Television is currently backed and financed by the Czech consortium MEF Holding, This consortium helped Nova TV's chief executive Vladimír Železný to take away the television station from CME.

And MEF Holding controls the ZVVZ Milevsko firm, which wished to export its equipment to Iran.

Is it wild speculation to wonder whether Ronald Lauder, who is suing Vladimír Železný and the Czech Republic for extremely high damages, may have played a certain role in the American pressure on the Czech government to stop ZVVZ Milevsko's deliveries to Iran?

Milan Šmíd continues:

Nova TV's main evening news has recently hinted that if the Czech government wanted to avoid problems, it should buy out ZVVZ Milevsko and thereby solve the controversy over export to Iran once and for all. Can we truly believe that ideas for reports like these originate within the News and Current Affairs Department of Nova TV and not somewhere else?

Nova Television has also recently broadcast a highly critical report of the Czech central bank, Česká národní banka, and its head Josef Tošovský. According to the report, the Czech central bank has wasted a large amount of funds preparing Agrobanka (a bank that later went bankrupt) for privatisation, thus turning this bank into an empty shell. Is this what Czech President Václav Havel means when he speaks of "powerful financial groupings, currently attacking the Czech central bank"?

I have always hoped, that what happened to the media in Russian would not happen in the Czech Republic. In Russia, the most influential media are controlled by large banking groups which use them to further their own interests. However, recent developments in the Czech Republic fill me with pessimism. In the Czech Republic, too, the media seem to be falling "under the influence of powerful financial groupings," which are starting to use them to further their own vested interests.

PR influence in the Czech media

Lidové noviny recently asked several Czech journalists to comment on whether the Czech media were being influenced by vested interests. Unfortunately, they published their article on the matter (concluding, that practically no such interference exists in the Czech Republic and that the media are free) before I could provide them with Šmíd's material.

However, other thought on the issue came from several Prague journalists and were published anonymously in Britské listy. these included the following:

  • "Czech newspapers publish advertising copy basically provided by large travel agents (often with only formal changes to the text) without showing clearly that this is advertising. Tour operators invite journalists on "journalists' trips abroad", fully funding their complete holiday junkets and sometimes even providing pocket money in return for articles about their destinations, sometimes including logos of the appropriate travel agency. Such articles are published with a full approval by the editor-in-chief, who sends his favourite journalists on such trips as a reward."
  • "Telecommunication firms are in the habit of giving the latest mobile telephones, telephone cards or expensive pens to journalists as birthday presents. Firms selling computers provide journalists with computers for "testing." The duration of the "testing" is usually the whole operating life of the computer. If the firm's cooperation with the journalist is successful, he receives an upgraded model of the computer. Software and even cars are also being provided for "testing" in a similar manner."

How can an advertiser put pressure on the media? One correspondent provided the following list:

  • Advertisers demand free additional advertising.
  • Advertisers demand hidden advertising - articles which do not look like advertising. If they spend more than five million Czech crowns (GBP 100,000), they tend to demand a feature on the chief executive of the firm, which is supposed to like normal, independent copy.
  • Advertisers demand temporary embargoes (24 to 48 hours) on negative information. Before the information is released, "crisis management teams" go into action. They liaise with journalists in newspapers, radio and television and explain to them that if their newspaper or their station publishes the negative information about their firm, this will have negative consequences for the newspaper and the journalist in question will be personally affected.
  • Journalists are occasionally corrupted by deliberate leaks that are given by PR firms to "moles" in the editorial offices. Every journalist wants to break a story.
  • Moles trained by PR firms are placed in editorial offices of newspapers and radio and television. They are sometimes even paid in order just to allow themselves to be sacked, at a time when it is necessary to weaken the editorial team of a given newspaper for a certain time.
  • Artificial scandals are created: a campaign against a journalist is started with the aim of casting doubt on his findings in a particular case as a means of preventing him from starting to look into a more serious matter. The accused journalist must waste time on his defence and has less time to analyse the serious matter properly.
  • And sometimes it is quite simple: Journalists or editors are directly paid by PR groups.

Jan Čulík, 27 February 2000

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

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