"Welcome to our mini-revolution," an economics student from Charles University told me the day after Christmas.
By 26 December, the affair involving Czech Television (ČT) and its new management was just heating up but certainly short of a revolution. Jiří Hodač, the former BBC reporter with alleged sympathies for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), had been appointed director of ČT less than a week before, giving rise to a petition movement and a small demonstration on Wenceslas Square which attracted only a handful of people.
Jana Bobošíková had been named by Hodač as the head of the ČT newsdesk the night before Christmas Eve, giving rise to dueling news broadcasts: what some Czechs came to call Bobonoviny ("Bobo's news") on the one hand, and opposing news broadcasts by rebel journalists on the other. A crisis in ČT's management, perhaps, but certainly not a revolution.
But just over a week later, the scene on a packed Wenceslas Square indicated that the crisis at ČT was not just another typical petition drive.
Following a week of broadcast blackouts, staff dismissals, sit-ins and strikes, the ČT affair had emerged as a freedom-of-speech issue. The parade of actors, journalists and students reiterated themes of freedom and independence of the press to the chants of "Svobodu!" (Freedom).
Pamphlets circulating among the crowd, particularly those of the group Pravý Blok led by Petr Cibulka, compared the appointments of Hodač and Bobošíková to the 1948 coup and even the "Normalisation" of the 1970s. Signs labeling Chamber of Deputies and ODS Chairman Václav Klaus and Prime Minister Miloš Zeman as "new totalitarians" or calling upon reform of the legal system were waved alongside Czech flags.
Tomáš Halík, the respected Catholic intellectual, even invoked the teachings of Jan Hus, who had been burnt at the stake on charges of heresy in 1415, in calling for Czechs to seek justice and truth in a free press and the institutions of political and civil society.
Of course, despite the sights and sounds reminiscent of 1989, a public movement calling for independent public television is not exactly revolutionary. Despite the widespread public distrust and disgust with politicians, the petitions do not call for overthrowing the system of government but instead advocates changing several specific laws albeit along with several faces. And while some may express concern over the effect of the crisis on the Czech Republic's international image and quest for EU membership, the entire affair in actuality can present an important opportunity for those interested in enacting change of the political system through civil society.
Indeed, to the outside observer, the crisis involving ČT may initially seem to reflect an immaturity of Czech democracy. The apparent inconsistency of laws governing the management of ČT, the suspension of broadcasts ordered by Director Hodač and the possibility of a split between the Social Democrats and the ODS, which could spell the downfall of the government, may seem to point to political instability as well as an inability of the Czech Republic to enact consistent internal legislation governing the exercise of the ever-important right to free speech.
Such possible concerns even prompted Foreign Minister Jan Kavan to send letters to EU members assuring them that the situation regarding ČT did not threaten democracy or freedom of speech in the Czech Republic.
Though EC Commissioner Rutger Wissels denies any impact of the ČT crisis on the Czech Republic's prospects for EU accession, it is difficult to believe that the crisis will not indirectly affect EU attitudes toward Czech membership particularly after last year's relatively disappointing progress report which pointed to a lack of progress in such areas as judicial and civil service reform, areas indirectly related to the legal and management problems facing ČT today.
In reality, however, the EU and others should view the public outcry surrounding the events within ČT as a positive sign for the Czech Republic. In a country plagued by political stalemate wrought by the Opposition Agreement (the political deal which allows the Social Democrats to govern with the silent support of the Civic Democrats) and accompanying public disgust with the perceptions of immature politicians playing petty politics for personal gain, the existence of widespread public interest in reforming a part of the political system may indicate that the force of a revitalized civil society, so often advocated by Halík and President Václav Havel, may indeed be an engine of positive change.
Could this be the one?
Though previous petition and civic movements, such as Impulse 99 and Thank You, Now Leave, were met with initial optimism until their inability to produce political results became apparent, the situation regarding ČT appears to present new conditions for reform which the previous movements lacked.
After plans for the 3 January demonstration on Wenceslas Square were announced around Christmastime, one man, a retired physicist, voiced his view that they would amount to nothing.
"In 1989, we protested against the government that lacked legitimacy," he asserted. "This time, what can we stand up against? The problem is that the law is poorly written and that the legal authority to change the situation in ČT lies with the Television Council. They are not sensitive to what happens on the streets."
However, a week later, my friend's sentiments had changed.
After a week of what he saw as iterative blackouts and the intransigence of the Television Council seemingly in accordance with the position of Klaus, the entire matter became an issue of who controls information in the Czech Republic: "I will go to Wenceslas Square to show that the politicians cannot do whatever they want without any consequence."
This outrage against politicians is nothing new and was, of course, a primary force behind the Impulse 99 and Thank You, Now Leave movements. But the crisis at ČT was accompanied by something else: a concrete set of goals to achieve in the political arena.
Whereas the Impulse 99 movement called for "a restoration of the entire social climate to good health" and the Thank You, Now Leave movement issued the rather unrealistic demand that the country's top politicians voluntarily leave their positions, the primary civic initiative associated with the journalists at ČT, "Czech Television-A Public Matter," presented a petition "Two-Thousand Words for the Year 2000" which presents demands for legal reform in addition to calls for the resignation of Hodač and the ČT Television Council.
In the words of one protester, "The civic movements last year were abstract; this time we are focused on something concrete." The solidarity of the Senate with the protestors, the gradual association of political parties with the position of the dissenting journalists, and the government's promise for reform of the laws governing ČT management in the upcoming weeks can only further the sense that civic outcry is yielding results.
From the civic to the political
Public outrage and the sense that tangible changes are being sought are not the only factors increasing the prospects of civic initiatives as tools of political reform. The new governing arrangements involving fourteen regional authorities may also serve to diminish the power of central political parties and raise the importance of local politics.
As Jiří Pehe notes in the recent issue of The New Presence, the new regional governments will become fourteen new power centers, within which local politicians will derive power bases relatively independent from the central parties in Prague. This emergence of internal pluralism within the political parties will certainly make possible greater public voice and influence within parties, thereby making civic influence more powerful than before on parties at the local level.
These three elements—serious public outrage at politicians, a sense that civic involvement can lead to concrete political results, and a new more decentralized political framework—can serve to increase the influence of civic culture in political affairs. As the political sphere remains abhorrent to most Czechs and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future, a cleverly conceived, concrete civic action project on a capitivating issue such as legal reform could provide the grounds for the legitimacy of a new political party or movement, should civic leaders overcome their disdain for direct involvement in the politics of today.
Indeed, widespread frustration with the political status quo coupled with concrete political proposals have often served as a crucible for new political leadership and political reform. The abolition movement in the United States in the mid-19th Century brought a new Republican Party into existence. This party, tapping into widespread public fears over federal health care policy, was swept into power in 1994 after providing a ten-point action plan of tangible measures which it promised to consider if elected.
Indeed, the relationship between politics and civic society remains complex with the antagonism between politicians, intellectuals, and the public at-large being well-noted. The low turnout figures in the recent Senate and regional elections, as well as the continued low-confidence level of Czechs in their political system, indicate that restoring respect to politicians and faith in the political system will be an arduous task.
Yet the public demonstration on Wenceslas Square and throughout the Czech Republic has shown that disdain for politics has not completely eroded passionate public interest in upholding what are perceived as basic political rights in opposition to a political system that is increasingly seen as setting the rules of the game in the favor of those in power.
Whether the crisis in ČT serves to bolster the popularity of the sympathetic 4Coalition political grouping (as Klaus and some commentators have suggested) or gives rise to further movements for other specific reforms remains to be seen. But in light of new institutional arrangements and the willingness of the public to back concrete reform proposals on the streets, the potential for forcing real political change seems to exist, at least for the moment.
Writing in the daily Lidové noviny the day after the š Jaunary protests on Wenceslas Square, Tomáš Halík observed:
The rapid rise of a moral coalition in defense of independent public television indicates that the political scene in the Czech Republic could give rise to interest in a broad regrouping that might have the boldness to overcome the stereotypes and the limitations of former distrust (of the political system).
Whether this regrouping will aim at concrete political action or just another reaffirmation of abstract principles may well determine whether the public demonstrations surrounding ČT are simply another manifestation of public disapproval with the status quo or a true "mini-revolution" in the relationship between Czech politicians and citizens.
Robert M Kokta, 7 January 2001
All photos courtesy of Štěpán Kotrba, commentator and political analyst for the Czech Internet daily Britské listy
Also on the Czech TV crisis in this issue of CER:
- Jan Čulík's article reviewing the current Czech Television crisis
- Andrew Stroehlein's overview and analysis of the crisis
- The role of the Internet in the crisis
- James Partridge's look at the protest and other issues surrounding events
- The crisis escalates: Prime Minister Zeman calls on President Havel to leave politics
- Jana Dědečková, member of the Council for Czech Television, rejects Parliament's demand
- CER articles on the "Děkujeme, odejděte" (Thank you, now leave) demonstrations: as they happened and in retrospective
- "No Pulse 99," our article on the civic initiative Impuls 99
- Archived articles about the Czech media in CER