On day ten of the Czech TV rebellion, the European Union, called on by the International Federation of Journalists, stepped in, and it became obvious that the conflict had moved from Prague to Brussels. It had been adopted by the players in a broader European struggle and became just another part of their complex political agenda.
With EU politicians now clashing with other EU politicians and European Journalists over the media, are we witnessing the prelude to a bigger battle over media within the European Union?
"Yes," says Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists.
But why did he call on the EU to support the rebel journalists in press freedom and independent journalism, when the EU is reknowned for its non-transparency and its hostility to investigative journalism?
The tenth anniversery of Lithuania's fight for freedom and its dramatic and bloody finale, the battle for control of Lithuanian TV, was remembered throughout the European media this past weekend. On TV the heartbreaking scenes from January 1991 were replayed: Soviet tanks and Black Berets firing on unarmed Lithuanian citizens, who blocked the way to the TV tower with their bodies and hence thwarted the Soviet plan to regain control over Lithuanian TV broadcasts-and, thus, over the nation.
In Vilnius citizens placed flowers at the seven crosses raised outside the TV tower in memory of those who gave their lives for national independence and freedom of speech, which at that time was still more of a rebellious dream than an accepted professional practice on Lithuanian State TV, for so long the mouthpiece of a Communist totalitarian regime.
...and the everyday
In Prague the Czech TV journalists' rebellion against alleged attempts to gain political control over the public TV network was supposed to be over, and the national crises it triggered, solved. But no.
At noon on Saturday 13 January, the rebel journalists announced that they would continue to occupy the newsroom for a third week. They already seemed to have won this media war over Czech TV; their key demands had already been met by early Saturday.
First, Jiří Hodač, the new general director whose appointment triggered the turmoil at the station, had resigned on Thursday, citing ill health. That news broke on day 20 of the rebellion, just hours before some 60,000 people gathered at yet another rally in Prague's Wenceslas Square to call for his resignation.
Hodač was alleged to have close ties with the right-wing Civic Democratic Party and its leader, Václav Klaus, the former Thatcherite prime minister whom the Czechs love to hate and who is widely tipped as a possible successor to Václav Havel for the presidency. Hodač has always denied the allegation.
The rebels second key demand had also been met: the Council for Czech Television, the governing body that had been selected by the Czech parliament and that is responsible for appointing the general director, was dismissed.
After a marathon session of 18 hours, the Lower House of the Czech Parliament passed a bill proposing that future general directors would be appointed by a TV Council of 15 persons (as opposed to the current number, nine). Also, instead of the members of the Council being selected directly by parliament, the bill calls for members to be nominated by civic movements, cultural organisations and religious groups.
This model resembles the German model for public service TV oversight. The aim is to prevent party political influence over TV.
But many are sceptical about this and say that if a party decided to propose its candidate through a non-political organization, it would always find a way to do so.
In order to end the rebellion at Czech TV, the Lower House also passed an amendment which would enable it to temporarily assume the powers of the Council for Czech Television and elect an interim general director for Czech TV. Under the new law, the chamber will hold some council powers until at least ten out of 15 new council members are elected, which may take months to happen.
And the election of an interim Czech TV general director will depend on how fast the bill will pass in the Senate, the Upper House of the Czech Parliament, and on whether President Havel, who is supporting the striking journalists, will sign it.
Moving the goalposts
At this point, the first groans of disappointment were heard from the rebelling journalists. When it became clear that the whole management appointed by Jiří Hodač would remain in place until a new temporary director was appointed, the rebels balked, saying they would remain on strike until the last Hodač appointee had been sacked.
This anouncement was made by the rebels' spokesman, Adam Komers, immediatly after parliament voted.
The emergency committee of the striking TV journalists then called on Věra Valterová, who since Hodač's illness has been acting head of Czech TV, to immediatly create the conditions for the departure of news chief Jana Bobošíková, financial director Jindřich Beznoska and "other persons," threatening to expand their strike if their demands were not met.
This threat, however, was later withdrawn.
It was Saturday afternoon, day 21. The rebels' everyday life is dragging on. There is yet another newscast to produce, and Libor Dvořák from the foreign desk has one more event to write in his book, a chronicle of photos and diary notes from the rebellion. Physically and mentally exhausted after sleeping, eating and working together in the newsroom for three weeks straight and stuck with each other's company day and night, they are now also fighting to keep up their spirits.
The many foreign journalists trigger discussions and comparisons with journalists' conditions and problems abroad. It is fun, it is inspiring and it also seems to broaden professional conciousness and knowledge on all sides. Saturday, Franco-Czech political scientist Jacques Rupník popped in for a chatty, cheerful seminar on politics.
But the weekend has been generally grim, and the new law has been a bitter disappointment for the rebels. What many in the Western media saw as a victory for them, they themselves see as a great failure, at least for now.
Stick with the management we want to get rid of? For how long?
The Czech TV rebellion has long ceased to be an internal Czech conflict between management and staff, between two Václavs, Havel and Klaus, or even between the populace and a deeply unpopular ruling coalition.
Of course, maybe the TV rebellion was only ever about Czech TV. The origins of this case have developed over years of conflicts and failures in Prague over how to turn the former Communist station into public service television for a democratic society. During the last couple of years, three general directors, all of them former BBC journalists with the explicit aim of reforming Czech TV, were forced to resign or were sacked.
But it has gone well beyond the confines of the Czech particulars; it is an international media event now. Apart from being something of a media festival for many visiting young foreign journalists, the conflict that made global news during Christmas was different on one crucial aspect to all past crises at the national broadcaster: the news journalists and media workers had founded a civic organisation, Czech Television—A Public Matter, and started a petition of 2000 words written by Ludvík Vaculík, the man who penned the revolutionary 2000-word manifesto of the Prague Spring in 1968.
Clearly, something big was happening here.
Above all, the rebels had called on the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the biggest and most powerful journalist organisation in the world, before they took action.
They were promised international support from the very first day.
Rapid reaction of another kind
By day 10, the European Union had made its move. Called on by the IFJ to act, the European Commission announced that it was considering stepping into the dispute over alleged political interference at publicly owned Czech Television.
In a statement one day earlier the International Federation of Journalists had called the Czech TV strike a "'Moment of Truth' for Press Freedom and Democracy."
The Brussels-based IFJ described the dispute as a litmus test for press freedom and democracy in the Czech Republic, which is seeking membership in the European Union.
Aidan White, general secretary of the IFJ, told Central Europe Review that he personally called Romano Prodi, the chairman of the European Comission, set up a meeting with him and persuaded him to suggest that the EU step into the Czech TV battle.
The Czech Cabinet responded to the EU immediately by sitting down to hammer out legislative proposals to amend the broadcasting law to avoid any question of political influence on Czech TV. A new broadcasting law had long been under discussion, but now everything seemed to happen in a rush.
"This is a legislative state of emergency," said Prime Minister Miloš Zeman.
The same day, at five pm, over 100,000 Czechs gathered in the biggest demonstration since 1989. Supporters of the rebel TV journalists had called for a demonstration on the symbolic Wenceslas Square, heart of the Velvet Revolution, and the public came out en masse to show their support.
Also, the Czech Senate was sitting in extraordinary session while the giant demonstration at Wenceslas Square went out over the global media.
A couple of days later, Rutger Wissels, European Commission negotiator for the Czech Republic, reassured the Czechs that the crisis surrounding the appointment of the new TV director had not yet harmed the reputation of the Czech Republic in the eyes of the EU. He added that the EU executive was closely following the situation in Prague and that its results would undoubtly be reflected in the Commissions's EU accession preparation assessment report which would be issued in the autumn.
He praised the reaction of Czech civic society and said that the Commission was interested to see the independence, legitimacy and trustworthiness of public television be protected by clear and transparent means. The EU negotiator also pointed to the rules for public service media approved in 1996 by the Council of Europe and said he hoped the Czech Republic would abide by them.
Further European pressure mounted up. Three days after the EU Comission had stepped in, the Council of Europe called for a quick and just settlement to the dispute and warned that prolonging it would harm people's right to freely obtain information. The Council of Europe appealed directly to the Czech Parliament, again sitting in one of its emergency sessions to discuss the crisis.
The general secretary of the Council, Walter Schwimmer, said that the solution should be in harmony with the Council of Europe's recomendation R (96) 10, which guarantees independence for public radio and television broadcasting. Schwimmer stressed that the Council of Europe was prepared, willing and able to help find a way out of the crisis.
The impressive statements from powerful European institutions were in response to an appeal for support from the International Federation of Journalists. In a conflict where Czech journalists were claiming their independence was threatened by political inteference, the IFJ's choice of the EU as an ally may seem odd to say the least.
The European Union is infamous for its lack of transparency, its secrecy and its hostility to investigative journalism. Journalists are often stymied by its constant attempts to limit public access to official documents concerning the inner workings of the Union and to classify official documents showing the bases of important political and policy decisions.
Given this, there was indeed an ironic ring to the Commission's admonition of the Czech Parliament not to harm people's right to obtain information.
Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, has himself been involved for years in the political wrestling with the EU over freedom of information and access to documents. Hence the question: if you fear the Devil, why then call on Satan?
Preaching and practice
Aidan White denies any contradiction in calling on the EU to support the rebel journalists.
"Quite the contrary," he says. "The IFJ's strategy is to hold the EU accountable, to constantly remind the Union of the agreements, acts, codes and values it has committed itself to, to put pressure on the political classes in the EU to practise what they preach."
This was also, by the way, the gradually succesful strategy of the Czechoslovak Charter 77 movement and the Polish KOR movement in the late seventies and eighties. Repressed dissidents learned to use the courts where they stood accused to prove that the Communist authorities broke their own laws. This had an empowering effect on suppressed citizens who filled the court rooms to listen.
White says the political classes in the new Central European democracies, which are applying for EU membership, seems to continue to excercise influence over media in general and public service TV in particular.
"The political culture has to change, and it will gradually."
"But media are in crisis in the whole of Europe today," says Aidan White. "The political classes are used to controlling the flow of information here, too. He sees the EU's escalating drive to extend the classification of documents every year is an exemple of that. Germany and France have been pressing for more and more limitations on public access to documents, and the UK has been sitting on the fence."
The growing concentration of ownership, the powerful European media conglomerates that turn information into infotainment dumbing down whole nations of citizens, the tabloidization of news reporting... all these developments are threats against one of the basic conditions of a democracy: the well informed citizen.
So, in other words, the Czech TV rebellion is a prelude to a bigger battle over media within the European Union?
"Yes," says Aidan White bluntly.
A proxy war
At the centre is the battle over public access to official EU documents. The principle of freedom of information (access to documents) is in the first Article of the current code of access: citizens have the right to request any document subject only to very specific and narrow exceptions.
The particular case under fire right now is a decision by the Council of Ministers to limit access to documents on military and non-military crisis management and on the security of the European Union or one of its member states.
The Netherlands, backed by Finland and Sweden, took the matter to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg and asked for accelerated procedure last fall. Also, The European Parliament in Strasbourg has pressed charges against the Council of Ministers for what is called "the Solana Decision."
The phrase "non-military crisis management" refers to civilian aspects of crisis management, such as police and judicial co-operation. This would exclude, for example, access to all documents relating to the new EU rapid-reaction paramilitary police force, even with regard to policy-making matters.
The "Solana decision" allows international organisations such as NATO and third-party countries such as the US to veto citizens' access to documents if the documents have been drawn up by or in conjunction with them. For all the rhetoric of the EU on the need for greater transparency, only the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland voted against adoption of this decision.
The Council of Minister's decision was adopted on 14 August, while the European Parliament, its legislative partner, was in recess. National parliaments and organisations of civil society were also not informed. Some of the press dubbed this incident "Solana's military coup."
Javier Solana, ex-Secretary general of NATO, is Secretary General of the European Union's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as the Secretary General of the Western European Union (WEU) defence grouping.
A new code on the horizon
A new code on EU citizens' rights of access to documents is currently being discussed by the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. The three EU institutions have to agree a new code by May 2001 to meet the commitment in Article 255 of the Amsterdam Treaty to "enshrine" the right of access to documents.
In the corridors of power in Brussels, the positions of these institutions indicate that they are heading for more secrecy and less openness. Numerous examples of the EU policy of secrecy plus analyses as to what this means in concrete terms to ordinary citizens and journalists are published online in The IFJ publication "Essays for an Open Europe" written by Tony Bunyan, Deirdre Curtin and Aidan White
This is the broader European political agenda and battle over access to information into which the rebelling Czech TV journalists were brought.
In Prague the striking journalists are awaiting larger public discussions in the Czech Parliament and within civic society over the quality of Czech public service broadcasting and how it could be improved. How this will impact on the upcoming great European battle over media remains to be seen, but in any case, the wider European question remains clear: why bother reforming public broadcasting legislation and administration to improve standards of journalism if more and more of the ground journalists are supposed to cover is being classified?
Anna-Britt Kaca, 15 January 2001
Anna-Britt Kaca is a TV journalist at the Finnish Broadcasting Company. She covered the breakdown of Communism and the transition in former Eastern Europe and the Baltics on television and radio.
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Czech Television—A Public Matter