Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
TV Nova, the Czech Health Secretary and Other Problems

Jan Culik

An analysis of some major programmes, broadcast on Czech radio and television over the past few weeks, clearly shows the principles by which the Czech media operate. They are primarily the principles of the western tabloid media.

It is not the purpose of the Czech media "to inform, to entertain and to educate" (to quote the principles of the BBC) but to look for an underlying emotional charge in problems which exist in the political sphere in the Czech Republic, to pounce upon such problems, and then to enhance the emotional charge as much as possible by adversarial, superficial interviewing and reporting. The Czech media then use the generated heat and light for its own commercial purposes: to increase print runs or to improve viewing or listening figures.

Thus the Czech media create and lives in a virtual reality world of irrelevant scandals, usually of their own making. Real issues are generally avoided, partly because journalists do not recognize they might be important for the life of the country and/or because a proper understanding of such issues would demand systematic investigative work which journalists are unwilling or unable to conduct. Also, editors-in-chief would be reluctant to publish the outcome of such enquiries because they would be "too complex". The Czech media seem to deal only with those problems which have a readily abusable underlying emotional charge. Also, the Czech media turn their attention to political and social problems only when it becomes apparent to journalists that the given problem could be milked emotionally to attract more readers, listeners or viewers.

An example of perhaps the most extreme form of this journalistic approach is the programme Kotel (The Cauldron) on commercial TV Nova. For more than half an hour each week, in a setting reminiscent of hell, the audience, seated in steep rows around a small platform, yells inarticulate questions down at a politician who is always silenced by a moderator after a few sentences, so that he cannot explain anything properly. However, the politician does not really need to explain anything properly, since the audience is irrational and primitive, inaccessible to logical reasoning. The programme has an extremely high emotional charge and is a clever exploitation by Vladimir Zelezny, the current owner of TV Nova, of the high levels of frustration that the Czech public feel towards politicians. But the programme does not solve anything - it just serves as an emotional release. In fact, the programme is very much liked by politicians: it creates the impression that they are "tough" because they submit themselves to "hard" questioning in the "cauldron". Nothing of the sort happens: the illiterate howling of the audience and the primitive work of the moderator can be easily tackled by any semi-competent politician.

Over the past two or three weeks, the Czech media have been in an emotional fit over the Czech health minister. This fit has largely been of the media's own making. Some observers think that the hysterical campaign against the relatively competent social democratic Health Minister is a part of the attempt by the "right-wing" Czech media to destroy members of the government one by one. The right wing Czech political parties are very much afraid that the Czech social democratic government might manage to start turning the economy round and would like to destroy the government before it manages to do so.

The state-run Czech health service, which was created in the second half of the 1940s on the basis of the British model, was basically dismantled by the privatisers in the Czech "right-wing" government after the fall of Communism in 1989. The whole system was deregulated and GP medical care was more or less privatised. At the moment, Czech citizens pay their own compulsory health insurance to insurance companies, and these insurance companies then pay doctors for their services on the basis of the so called "points" system. The system has many flaws and is open to abuse and corruption, especially as the Czech health service has become absolutely prostrate under the pressure of Western pharmaceutical companies. While under Communism, Czech doctors could prescribe some 1300 medicines (and this was more than sufficient), whereas now they prescribe some 40,000 medicines! This is a huge burden for the underfinanced Czech health service. Some underpaid Czech doctors are said to have fallen prey to substantial bribes by Western pharmaceutical companies. Private doctors do not have permanent contracts with the insurance companies, so they are in a very insecure position. There is practically no medical prophylaxis. For instance, the population is no longer screened for tuberculosis, although the number of TB cases is rising. Outpatient treatment is starved of cash. Most doctors are desperately underpaid and their private practices often struggle. They have rather stressful relationships with the General Health Insurance Office (Vseobecna zdravotni pojistovna), the strongest health insurance company in the Czech Republic and the one which dominates the Czech health service system. The current social democratic Health Secretary Ivan David has recently got into a number of high profile controversies involving possible corruption in hospitals and other institutions. In spite of the fact that David seems to be a thoughtful and rational politician, he seems to have alienated the media, who have been baying for his resignation. It is not really clear why: the various scandals that David seems to have been involved in are very difficult to read. Without independent evidence it is hard to say who is right - the beleaguered Health Secretary, or his various underlings whom he accuses of inefficiency or worse, and who accuse him of things in return.

In these circumstances, programmes like Kotel do not explain anything and when viewers ask the Health Secretary (he was interviewed in Kotel just towards the end of last week) questions like: "Why, Health Secretary, do you cling to your ministerial office so much?" the minister righly replies in a rather dignified manner: "I do not cling to the ministerial post at all. That is the view of the media. You are of course perfectly entitled to believe what the media present to you." But the issues remain hanging in mid air, unsolved. The population is confused.

The level of the overall debate can be perhaps brought into sharp relief by an article published by the leading Czech intellectual daily Lidové noviny on Saturday 13th November, 1999 (p.16). The article was intended as a joke and it is, in fact, truly hilarious:

[Health Secretary] Ivan David as a personal doctor to Premier Milos Zeman has turned out to be an absolute failure.

"The experimental medicine I have prepared for the Prime Minister has failed," said Ivan David in despair. After taking the special medicine, intended to increase Mr. Zeman's intelligence, it was found out that his inteligence remained unchanged but his sexual drive was increased. Thus during his visit to the White House last week, Zeman behaved scandalously. First, he declared his love in impeccable English to President Clinton and then he asked Madeleine Allbright [sic] to marry him, said Foreign Minister Jan Kavan.

The TV Nova dispute is now visible - it has acquired a usable emotional charge

For the reasons explained above, for several years, the controversial history of Vladimir Zelezny, TV Nova and CME was practically invisible to the Czech media. The issue was too serious and too complex for the Czech media to cover. Vladimir Zelezny and his cronies managed to get a commercial television licence from the Czechoslovak state in 1992 for free after they pledged themselves to create a high brow commercial TV station. The Czech media did not seem to be particularly exercised by the free gift of the television licence, worth tens of millions of dollars, by the taxpayer to a group of private individuals. Nor were they bothered when Zelezny and his cronies dropped the original highbrow project and started an extremely tacky, cheap and nasty television station. The Czech media were asleep when all the quality conditions of the TV licence were abolished by the Czech parliament, when CME, the American owners of TV Nova (CNTS) increased their ownership of the station to unprecedented 99 per cent and when CME gave Vladimir Zelezny more than 5 million dollars in order to gain a majority stake in CET 21, TV Nova's licence holder.

The media started to wake up properly only earlier this year when it became clear that a conflict had arisen between CME and Zelezny after Zelezny attempted to asset strip TV Nova under the nose of the Americans. In the spring of 1999, CME sacked Zelezny from the post of Chief Executive of TV Nova and in August 1999, Zelezny took their TV station off the air and created a new TV Nova, financed by shady Czech money whose origins are still shrouded in mystery.

It was only in the spring of 1999 that the Czech media woke up to the CME-Zelezny conflict because it discovered its huge emotional potential. Even so, the true nature of the conflict remained hidden to the Czech media and the Czech public: it is too complex to explain rationally. Even so, the Czech media have started to milk the superficial emotional aspects of the CME-Zelezny conflict.

The fact that the Czech public reacts emotionally and irrationally and does not have the facts at its disposal to provide information about the background and history of the conflict has served Vladimir Zelezny well. After supporting the American owners of TV Nova for several years and accusing all his critics in the Czech Republic of anti-american xenophobia, Zelezny has now jumped on the high horse of Czech nationalism, attempting to hide the fact that he has stolen the American station from its owners by his nationalistic rhetoric. This has been quite successful: The majority of the Czech public supports Zelezny in his "struggle" against the "alien and hostile" Americans.

This is something with which Ronald Lauder, the American owner of CME, did not take into consideration. When, on Moday 15th November, the Czech Prime Minister visited Washington, he was greeted by full page adverts printed in the New York Times and the Washington Post, warning the American public against investment in the Czech Republic. The advert, signed by "CME shareholders", complained that if you set up a company in the Czech Republic, local people might steal it from you while the judiciary and other state regulating structures will remain absolutely indifferent. The advert is basically true, although it does not mention the fact that CME may have got itself into its current difficult situation by its earlier aggressive behaviour in the Czech Republic when, using Vladimir Zelezny, CME repeatedly tried to bend the law as far as it would go.

Still, the goings on between TV Nova, Zelezny and CME have, over the years been too complex and too boring for normal people to follow. Ordinary people do not give a damn about the intricacies of the Zelezny - CME dispute, especially since Zelezny will use all his power in order to confuse the issue with the help of half truths and emotional manipulation.

Now that CME has published an advert, the obvious aim of which is to bully the Czech Republic into submission, it seems that the move has misfired. Lauder maybe does not know that all public debate in the Czech Republic takes place on an irrational, emotional level and if he inflames the hidden instincts of the Czech, he has all but lost his case. The publication of the advert seems to have awakened nationalistic feelings even in those people who to date have remained relatively rational observers. It does not seem to matter to the Czechs that contracts need to be honoured. People in the Czech Republic are disinterested in the details of the Zelezny-Lauder controversy. They are easily swayed and when told that an outsider is attacking them, they will assume a hostile attitude towards him. Even more people are now siding with Vladimir Zelezny in the Czech Republic after the publication of the adverts. It is a little like when the West started bombing Serbia. Even those Serbians who hated Milosevic irrationally rallied around him. The fact that TV Nova has been stolen by Zelezny from CME is now almost forgotten. Furthermore, the Czechs do not have much opportunity to compare TV Nova's offerings with what is broadcast on television in the outside world and so they are not even aware how cheap and nasty this avidly watched TV station is.

The problem is that the whole CME-Zelezny conflict does not really matter. No matter who wins, the tacky existence of TV Nova will undoubtedly continue. The Czech regulatory authorities are too weak to be able to pluck up their courage and force whoever becomes the ultimate owner of the main Czech commercial TV station to raise the quality of the programmes.

Jan Culik, 14 November 1999

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

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER

Profound Disillusionment, 8 November 1999

Communist Revival, 1 November 1999

Race Relations, 25 October 1999

Reminiscing Revolutionaries, 18 October 1999

The Educated Poor, 11 October 1999

Pricking Havel's Bottom, 4 October 1999

More Moribund Manouevring (Further TV Nova Tales), 27 September 1999

Mixed Czech Nuts, 20 September 1999

Nova TV: The saga continues, 13 September 1999

UK: Central Europeans Keep Out!, 30 August 1999

Czech Public TV: The yellow-bellies, 23 August 1999

Zelezny Pulls the Plug on Czech TV Nova, 16 August 1999

Czech Media and Civil Society: A survey, 16 August 1999

Czech Revival: No Pulse 99, 9 August 1999

Princess Diana, Al Fayed, the CIA and a Czech Spook, 2 August 1999

Nova TV: Commercial success or embarrassing failure?, 2 August 1999

Book Review: Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate, 26 July 1999

A Concrete Example of Muddy Thinking in the Czech Press, 19 July 1999

Press Freedom under Threat, 12 July 1999

Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999

The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999



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