Attacks on the Press 2000: Czech Republic

WHILE CZECH JOURNALISTS HAVE GAINED EXTENSIVE FREEDOMS since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Czech media continued to face pressure from both political and business interests last year.

On December 20, the politically appointed supervisors of the state-run Czech Television network abruptly dismissed general director Dusan Chmelicek and appointed Jiri Hodac in his place. Hodac had resigned in August after four months as the station’s news director, where he was perceived as a loyal servant of Parliament Speaker Vaclav Klaus’ Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which has a hand in state media appointments under a power-sharing agreement with the minority government.

Outraged at Hodac’s appointment, Czech Television staffers occupied broadcasting facilities and began broadcasting their protests during prime-time viewing hours. News director Jiri Vondracek joined the rebel staffers, who also received support from Czech ombudsman Otakar Motejl and other officials.

The dispute took on an increasingly politicized tone, with President Vaclav Havel publicly supporting the journalists and criticizing Klaus, his main political opponent and Hodac’s primary backer. On January 3, 2001, about 100,000 people gathered in Prague’s Wenceslaus Square to demand Hodac’s resignation.

As popular support for the rebel journalists grew, senior government officials backed away from Hodac. On January 11, 2001, with 50,000 protesters in Wenceslaus Square calling for him to step down, Hodac resigned. The following day, Parliament dismissed the nine-member Czech Television Council (CTC), which oversees the network, and amended the Law on Television to create a council of 15 members, to be nominated by professional and civic organizations. The striking journalists continued to occupy the station, however, demanding that all the managers whom Hodac had hired resign from their positions as well.

For his part, Prime Minister Milos Zeman regularly scolds Czech journalists for their alleged lack of professionalism. “Journalists claim they are the watchdogs of democracy, but they are no pit bulls of Czech society, rather degenerate mongrels who are only on the lookout for sensations,” Zeman wrote on October 7 in the Prague daily Pravo. “Given their intellectual inferiority, they are unable to grasp the core of developments.”

In two separate court cases last year, government officials went beyond invective in efforts to intimidate independent media. Journalist Tomas Smrcek faced eight years in prison for displaying a confidential government document during a 1994 television interview on a private station. The document apparently proved that Jiri Ruzek, a political candidate who later became chief of the State Security Service (BIS) had improperly tried to clear a friend of drunk-driving charges. Smrcek’s trial began in mid-November, and was still proceeding at year’s end.

The so-called Olovo Affair began in late August, when Czech prosecutors filed charges on behalf of Prime Minister Zeman against journalists Sabina Slonkova and Jiri Kubik of the Prague daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. The two journalists were charged with forging a confidential government document that outlined a plan to discredit popular CSSD politician (and Zeman rival) Petra Buzkova.

After police learned that the document was in fact genuine and had been drafted by an adviser to the prime minister, Slonkova and Kubik were charged with obstruction of justice under the new Print Media Law, which obliges reporters to reveal their sources if the latter are wanted by the police. President Vaclav Havel pardoned the two journalists on October 3, but they asked prosecutors to proceed with the trial, saying it would “set a precedent by deciding once and for all whether a journalist has…the right to protect his or her sources.”

In response to the journalists’ request, state prosecutors proceeded with trial preparations, but no trial date had been set by year’s end.

The 2000 Print Media Law also includes a right-to-response clause requiring media outlets to provide space or airtime to parties who feel insulted by press coverage. This clause could inhibit editors from challenging powerful officials or other individuals. On September 20, the Chamber of Deputies passed an amendment to the Penal Code that strengthened punishments for the vaguely defined crime of “inciting hatred.” On a positive note, a new Freedom of Information Act took effect on January 1, after being defeated several times in recent years.