Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
Czech Media and Civil Society: A survey

Jan Culik

We would probably all agree that independent, effective, professional and critical media constitute a necessary pre-requisite for the development of democracy. Four years ago, in a lecture given at the Schwarzenberg meeting of Czech intellectuals in the Tepla monastery in western Bohemia I said the following:

The media and the educational system make up the two most important sectors of any functioning democracy. In a working democracy, the media make it possible for the nation to carry out a necessary self-analysis; the educational system helps young people understand new ideas and to form independent opinions about these ideas. The media and the educational system are instruments of speech for the nation. In the Czech Republic, these instruments have been paralysed. There is no systematic public debate about the most important issues of public interest.

So, has the situation changed since then? Before we deal with this question, let us have a look at how the role of the media is defined by some Anglo-Saxon media theoreticians. Heather Duncan and John Rosenbaum of Ithaca College, New York, quoted some basic theoretical resources in the paper (here in Czech), they presented at a colloquium on the state of the media in Central and Eastern Europe, held on 8 to 10 April 1999 by the European Institute for Communication and Culture and the Lublin University in Piran, Slovenia:

"Colin Sparks, in his article 'The media as a power for democracy' (Javnost (The Public), 2 (1), pp. 45-59) provides an analysis of the relationship between the media and the execution of political (and other types of) power in democratic societies:

p>'The media are a basic, fundamental component of every viable contemporary theory of political democracy. It is not possible to sumbit even the most limited formal definition of democracy which would not recognise what a fundamental role is played by the media in the functioning of all elements of democracy.'

Sparks also uses the expression 'the press as a democracy watchdog.' Within this context, the press is not a part of the 'power elite.' Instead, it acts 'on behalf of the public, and it publicises instances of abuse of power by the government, by the state apparatus and by economic power-wielders.'

Spark adds: 'This beneficial behaviour is motivated either by the journalists' civic awareness or by the commercial value of this type of journalistic work.'

In their book Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue (New York, Columbia University Press, 1998), J S Ettema and T L Glaser interviewed American investigative journalists, holders of prestigious journalistic prizes, who work for highly respected media. They reached the conclusion that journalists 'do have opportunities to publish and disseminate information which activates the sense of society in what is right and what is wrong. They contribute to the developing moral dialogue in their societies.'

The role of a journalist as democracy watchdogs demands the cultivation of adversarial journalistic work. This tradition requires that journalists should do more than just publish facts. The investigation of each case is a trial of, as one journalist put it, 'to what extent the social consensus regarding ethical values functions and to what extent these values are valid under the given circumstances.' This is why investigative reporters maintain and develop moral values in their societies.

However, a paradox arises from the simultaneous application of adversarial journalistic work and the principles of journalistic objectivity. Most journalists say that they distinguish between the finding out of facts and their evaluation. They characterise their work as judging what 'is journalistically significant news, not as what is important for our ethical judgment. Journalistic work can never create a permanent, ideologically closed value system. Journalism may serve as a justification of dominant values, but it also serves as a means for changing these values.'

Czech journalism: provincial mediocrity?

How does Czech journalism measure up, with respect to the above definitions, ten years after the fall of Communism?

Occasionally, the Czech media themselves publish a few critical remarks about the shortcomings of Czech journalism. Often, this happens by accident, since it is one of the unwritten, fairly consistently observed principles of Czech journalistic work not to criticise the work of other journalists and other media and not to analyse it in depth. "If we criticise someone, they might criticise us...," is the line of thinking.

Recently, this principle was violated, in a rather interesting way, by Bohumil Pecinka, writing in the Prague Czech-language weekly, Reflex. Pecinka is a young journalist who has himself, since 1990, actively contributed to the creation of a bigotted, pseudo right-wing ideological middle ground of mediocrity. Nevertheless, in a recent edition of Reflex, Pecinka himself now criticised this type of journalistic work rather exactly:

"The Czech journalist moves in the environment of a small town. In a proper small Czech town, everything is governed by the middle-of-the-road ideological mainstream. Such a stream determines public opinion, ruthlessly terrorises doubters and steers them all toward the one and only acceptable view. The small town is not too open to debate. No new ideas occur. People do talk a lot, but this talk is rather unsubstantial; it is smalltalk.

The small town usually tolerates one or two people who bring in a different experience. From the point of view of the esteemed creators of the mainstream, these people are tolerated 'lunatics,' towards whom the small town assumes an attitude of tolerant superiority. Other people holding different views are either ruthlessly crushed by the onslaught of banality and conventional thinking or they are driven out of the small town altogether.

The small town does not know clear right-wing or left-wing, conservative or liberal views. It cannot afford such luxuries. The small town still worships the old nineteenth-century National Revival tradition of a united and unifying national attitude: one truth, applicable to everything. Journalists pretend that the truth comes through their computers.

Incidentally, try to establish the political views of any, with the exception of the clearly left-wing Pravo, of the Czech national daily newspapers.

The small town worships the mainstream; it consistently defends it against all different views and manifests a remarkable herd instinct in this regard. You rarely learn from Czech newspapers what is going on in the real world; yet, the newspapers frequently emphasise what the correct political attitude is. The moment you open a Czech newspaper, commentators put you into pigeonholes: are you Communists, cowards and lovers of the old order? Then think this. Are you democrats, are you intelligent and are you people of good character? This is your view. You don't want to join either group? Forget that, my friends. You live in the Czech Republic. You must join the crowd.

The tone of communication within the small town mainstream has two basic pitches: verbose praise ("our beautiful transformation") and depressive wailing ("everything has been stolen"). Which pitch prevails depends, naturally, on the mood of the times.

The supporters of the mainstream perform several dance routines. One of these is a game of pretend politics. Everything is fudged into insubstantiality. Both sides are happy and life takes a different course.

In reality, politics is a practical activity, aiming to change things. The small town does not think of this until there is a fire. At that point, a good old unelected civil servant enters the scene and writes up a new act of Parliament."

In response to this article, one reader of Britske listy remarked on 11 May 1999:

"What Pecinka describes is only the surface. The core is the inability to be authentic and to admit the truth without rationalisation. Pecinka' s article is nice, but one characteristic feature of the small town mentality is missing: 'What would people say?' Or in its contemporary 'variation: 'What will they think of us in Brussels and in Washington?'"

Closed debate

It is fairly easy to gather examples of this superficial, majority, small town view from the Czech media. On 7 April 1999, The Guardian quoted a Lidove noviny commentary on the Yugoslav war: "Well, it now seems that NATO is to be blamed for the Serbian atrocities. Who dared to say something like this? This excellent sentiment comes from Egon Lansky, a Deputy Premier of the Czech Republic. By saying this, he has ridiculed not just himself, but all of Czech society. It looks as though Lansky is not a minister in the government of a NATO member country, but a Serbian propaganda agent."

This is a good example of how Czech newspapers force a collectivist, conventional, thoughtless small-town mainstream interpretation. Exactly at the same time as the Lidove noviny article appeared, the Economist ran a large headline on its front page: "Kosovar refugees: Who is to blame? Milosevic or NATO?"

It is probably not very surprising that the majority of the Czech nation was against the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. There are no independent journalists of authority in the Czech media, who are known for their willingness to speak out in the interest of truth - against even the most powerful people. Thus, there was no one able to clearly and independently explain the Yugoslav conflict to the Czech people; no one whom people could trust on the basis of their past authority and integrity. Czech media cannot have independent journalists of such high moral calibre, because they firmly guard the small-town mainstream consensus. In the Czech Republic, the war against Yugoslavia has also been interpreted in a small-town manner: through the prism of local, petty party political conflicts.

Furthermore, people in the Czech Republic are still very sensitive and very hostile to ideological propaganda. If they are offered superficial ideological explanations of the war against Yugoslavia, it is their natural reaction to rebel against such explanations. In an atmosphere in which society is as yet incapable of conducting a matter-of-fact, critical debate, Serbian propaganda on the one hand and official NATO information on the other were often tolerated without analysis.

Freedom of expression is currently interpreted in such a way that anyone can say anything, without it being based on fact, because it is his "opinion." The vital precondition that views expressed in a debate must be subjected to a factual, critical oposition, is not respected.

This can be seen in the letters of some of Britske listy's 15,000 monthly readers. Letters come from a wide spectrum of people in the Czech Republic, from small Czech towns, from people who do not want to give their name and address. The following explanation arrived from an author who has attempted, in a series of articles, to analyse some of the shortcomings of the contemporary Czech political scene but refused to give his full name and address:

"I request that I remain anonymous. I will explain why. The task I have taken on is too difficult for an ordinary person. Everyone has their own ties - in the family, at work, in their environment. When power is held by those I criticise, they can easily make life difficult for me. I have already received several e-mails threatening revenge.
There is no democracy in the Czech Republic like in Great Britain, and it will take a long time for democracy to take root here. I want to try to improve things as an ordinary citizen, even though this is a task for politicians and for political parties. In my view, I will carry quite a burden for finding the courage to at least formulate the truth which many people here feel. Nobody in the Czech Republic will be surprised if I write under a pseudonym. Everybody can contact me by e-mail."

What do such letters mean? Is the fear and the desire to remain anonymous exaggerated or is it realistic?

So what do they publish?

The following excerpt from an analysis by Tomas Pecina, which was published in Britske listy on 1 February 1999 and subsequently in Gazeta wyborcza (in its Central European Supplement) on 26 February 1999, sheds some light on the spectrum of media which currently exists on the Czech scene:

"Mlada fronta Dnes (MfD)is a typical product of stereotyped journalistic thinking. It is a daily which conforms in every way to the demands of the 'small Czech man.' The articles are short, the commentaries without ambition; both are generally simple-minded, predictable and repetitive. The editorial staff is very careful not to print anything that would disrupt the stereotypical vision of the world which is constantly being reinforced in the reader. A reading of Mlada fronta Dnes holds no surprises and is the exact opposite of an intellectual adventure: it is a daily message from a stereotyped journalist to a stereotyped reader. It is a ritual in which the reader makes sure that he thinks the same way as the rest of the nation and is therefore 'normal.'

Lidove noviny, a newspaper of noble pre-war and samizdat origin, is more ambitious. This newspaper courts the middle-class reader. It devotes a certain amount of space to the arts. Its commentaries are more varied, longer and more thought out than in MfD. But, the newspaper openly pursues what it sees as a right-wing line. This produces a comic effect: no matter what its political editorials are about, they must always end with a condemnation of the government of Milos Zeman's socialists - Carthage must be destroyed. The intellectual emphasis in Lidove noviny also leads to the self-destructive practice of publishing 'recognised' authors, regardless of whether their texts are any good.

Pravo is a newspaper that has developed from the infamous Communist party daily Rude pravo. Like Mlada fronta Dnes, it was privatised by the editorial staff through asset stripping. The editors of Pravo, however, have not yet gone through a stage of 'right-wing' intoxication, and so Pravo's commentaries are more matter of fact, more objective and more analytical than the material published in Mlada fronta Dnes and Lidove noviny. But the newspaper tends to tow the party line of the Social Democrats and has firm ideological limitations. Thus, in autumn of 1998, Pravo underwent the greatest disgrace that a newspaper in a democratic country can suffer: Prime Minister Milos Zeman praised it and recommended it as suitable reading to the members of his political party.

In the realm of broadcast media, the public service television station - Czech Television - still retains many features of its totalitarian predecessor. News programmes are wooden; journalists must be obedient; initiative and new ideas are suppressed. The editors believe that practicing 'serious' journalism which in practice means avoiding conflict and being servile.

At the beginning of 1998, a new Chief Executive Director, Jakub Puchalsky, not yet 30, was appointed. Although he wished to transform news and current affairs following the example of the BBC, from the beginning, Puchalsky was under strong political pressure. As a result, he did not manage to retain his key reformer, the new News and Current Affairs Editor, for even two months. Gradually, he himself succumbed to the prevailing practice of 'affirmative' television journalism.

Nova TV - one of the country's two private stations - is currently the Czech Republic's most influential medium. Although it is a purely commercial TV station, Nova places considerable emphasis on news broadcasts. There is a demand for news programmes, which the public service Czech television is unable to fulfill. Nova TV also operates on a carrot-and-stick policy with the Czech politicians. Its political lobby is so strong that it has managed to practically eliminate all regulation of commercial television broadcasting. Local Czech politicians now fear Nova TV.

If somebody did not know anything about the Czech Republic and wanted to learn about it from reading Czech newspapers or watching Czech television, he would come to the conclusion that it is a country of many millions of inhabitants, it is economically quite self-sufficient and can afford the luxury of taking an interest in the outside world only as a curiosity - so self-centred and self-absorbed is the news reporting by the contemporary Czech media.

This self-absorption culminates in the evening news of both major Czech TV stations. A banal verbal skirmish between the representatives of Czech political parties is usually billed as the main event on the evening news. Voting in Parliament is endlessly dissected (Czech Television has approximately the same number of parliamentary reporters that it has permanent correspondents abroad). Politicians do not answer questions about how they fulfill the tasks of their public office; instead, they talk on screen about whether a particular coalition is going to be acceptable for them or not and whether or not they will apply for particular party political posts.

The television viewer - perhaps still as a result of the absolute lack of politics under Communism - consumes these worthless verbal escapades with great interest. Since the Czech television viewer has nothing to compare the broadcasts with, in time, he accepts the mediocre television programmes and the absurd newspeak used by Czech politicians as the norm.

The isolation of the Czech Republic from the outside world is defined not only by space but also by time. It is said that Europeans are fascinated by their own history. The Czechs, at least the way they are represented by the Czech media, are an exception that proves the rule. They are convinced that history is irrelevant. These days in the Czech Republic, if the newspapers deal with history at all, they do so superficially. Historical accounts in newspapers are grotesquely brief. The experience of forty years of a totalitarian system is being eliminated from the collective memory. An illusion is being created that the nation at that time was divided into evil, criminal usurpers - the Communists - and their victims - the rest of the population, in fact 'all of us.'

No wonder that this environment of discontextuality and irrationality, full of compulsory myths and taboo topics, fails to foster analytical thinking.

Jan Culik, 10 August 1999

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

The second article in this series wil appear next week in Central Europe Review.

The background material of this article can be found under the heading "sdelovaci prostredky, Ceska televize," in the thematic archives of Britske listy, where there are more than 230 articles in Czech on Czech public service television, published since January 1998.

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER:

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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