Vol 1, No 4, 19 July 1999

C Z E C H  M E D I A - W A T C H:
Confessions of a Scum

Andrew Stroehlein

(cesky preklad ZDE)

I am dirt. I am scum. I am an amateur and a liar.

Well, that is what I am if you choose to believe Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman's opinion of journalists. OK, I may very well be scum and all that, but at least no one publicly doubts my sanity as they now do Mr Zeman's after these recent comments of his regarding the media.

No less than the world's favourite Prague-watcher himself, Jiri Pehe, has remarked that analysing Zeman's behaviour is increasingly a job for a psychiatrist rather than a political scientist.

There may, indeed, be good reason to call the men in the white suits for Prime Minister Zeman. He has delusions of mysterious briefcases full of supposedly incriminating documents that, upon examination, turn out to be either non-existent or obvious fakes. He sees impossible conspiracies lurking all around him and is willing to accept clear forgeries of the minutes of secret meetings as evidence of a plot against him. He promises to come up with evidence of corruption in the Foreign Ministry under the former leadership of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and then seems to forget the deadlines he set himself for going public with such evidence.

Certainly, these may be worrying signs of deteriorating mental health even for a politician, a type of person naturally more prone to paranoia than most.

Though I am no psychiatrist, I would venture to guess, however, that Milos Zeman is not mentally unstable. He is rather just a weak politician, a man who looks especially goofy, unprofessional and incompetent when compared to his slick predecessor and current protector, Vaclav Klaus.

Actually, despite being an indirect target of his most recent crusade, I feel that Zeman actually has a good underlying point with his criticism of the Czech media. The only problems are that, first, it is not a Prime Minister's place to reform the media in a democracy, and second, Zeman's method of immature tirade does more harm than good for all sides concerned.

Zeman is actually not under many delusions when it comes to his opinion of the state of the Czech media: a good slice of it is amateurish and corrupt. Many commentators and reporters are little more than hired pens for the politicians who pay them. The revolving door between the media, ministry press offices and larger firms' PR departments assures compliant reporting of state and business affairs. The small size of the media elite means that many important issues - for example, the very issue of corruption in the media - are never discussed responsibly.

Can I prove these claims? Well, after writing for a couple of years in the Czech media, I could give details of various meetings with journalists and editors of Czech newspapers, during which I was asked to write for their papers but was told specifically which subjects were off limits (usually due to advertising concerns and fears of disturbing co-operation agreements among media outlets). I could tell you of my discussions with Czech commentators when they admitted quite openly to being on the take from politicians or political parties. I could tell you of the time when I was personally offered money by a prominent Czech politician (through his people, of course) to write something favourable about him for a major Czech daily.

But my accusations would simply be denied by those concerned, and it would be a pointless game of one person's word against the other's in which I would look like a fool for making accusations I could not prove.

Any real proof is clearly impossible. Politicians, political parties and private firms do not exactly sign contracts with their hired guns in the media. The system does not work that way for obvious reasons.

Besides, everyone - both inside and outside the Czech media - would just shake their heads and wonder why I was making such a fuss about what has been known to all for a very long time.

This is clearly Zeman's problem. He can say he heard from a company director that the firm had to pay hundreds of thousands to get positive articles written about it in an economic weekly. Zeman can say another journalist was on the take from the energy monopoly to write favourable articles on nuclear power. Zeman can say the Foreign Ministry in the days of the ODS had the media wrapped around its finger. In fact, Zeman can say anything he likes, but aside from a few libel actions, nothing will ever come of it, because Zeman has as much hard evidence of corruption in the Czech media as I have: zilch.

As a responsible journalist, I may be scum, but I do not publicly blurt out that which I simply believe to be true - only that which I know I can prove. As a responsible politician, Zeman might want to think about doing the same.

Thus, it appears to me that Zeman is not mentally unbalanced, just incompetent. His point about corruption in the media is essentially correct - no delusions there. But he is making himself a laughingstock by continuously repeating things that, without clear evidence, can only be considered wild allegations.

Zeman is not a nut case. He is a politician who doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut, that is, a bad politician.

Andrew Stroehlein, 14 July 1999

This article originally appeared in last week's Prague Post.





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