Despite the Czech Republic’s status as a leading candidate to join the European Union, local journalists continue to face significant risks for criticizing politicians and government policies, while political interference in the media inhibits the expansion of press freedom.
The country’s entire political establishment was shaken at the beginning of the year by a crisis at Czech Television (CT). On December 20, 2000, CT’s supervisors–all of them politically appointed–abruptly dismissed the general director and named journalist Jiri Hodac, a loyalist of Parliament speaker Vaclav Klaus’ Civic Democratic Party (ODS), as the station’s new head.
According to international reports, Hodac was appointed in a backroom deal between the ruling coalition and the powerful, conservative ODS. Klaus, a former prime minister, was suspected of trying to consolidate control over CT in advance of parliamentary elections, scheduled for sometime in 2002. CT staffers were so outraged that they occupied the station’s offices and began broadcasting their protests during prime time.
The dispute also divided the country’s political leaders, with President Vaclav Havel publicly supporting the journalists and criticizing Klaus, his main rival. On January 3, 2001, about 100,000 people gathered in Prague’s Wenceslaus Square to demand Hodac’s resignation. As popular support for the journalists grew, senior politicians backed away from Hodac. On January 11, 2001, with 50,000 protesters in Wenceslaus Square calling for him to step down, Hodac resigned.
On January 23, the lower house of Parliament–the House of Chambers–overrode Senate opposition and amended the country’s Media Law in an effort to depoliticize the station. The nine-member Czech Television Council (CTC), which oversees the network, was dismissed and expanded to 15 members. The new legislation gave professional and civic organizations the right to nominate new CTC members, subject to Parliament’s approval.
On February 9, Jiri Balvin, an experienced and respected journalist, was appointed as the interim CT director. CT staffers ended their strike on February 10 after receiving assurances from Balvin that he would maintain editorial independence. Parliament finally approved new CTC members in late May. On October 31, the CTC selected Balvin for a six-year term as CT general director.
Even as the CT crisis ebbed, independent journalists who criticized government policies continued to face considerable risk. On October 22, Prime Minister Milos Zeman threatened legal action against the independent, Prague-based weekly Respekt because of its sharp attacks on government corruption. Zemen characterized the weekly as “the garbage pail of Czech journalism.” After protests from CPJ and other press freedom organizations, Zemen abandoned his threatened lawsuit.
On February 28, a court ordered Zeman to offer a public apology for suggesting that Ivan Brezina of the Prague weekly Reflex had accepted bribes to write articles about a nuclear power plant. Zemen was also ordered to pay 300,000 koruny (US$8,000) in damages, the CTK news agency reported. On December 6, the ruling was overturned on appeal.
On October 23, Frantisek Zamecnik, former editor of the controversial, pro-communist regional weekly Nove Bruntalsko, was convicted of libeling three local officials and sentenced to 16 months in prison. The case was under appeal at year’s end.
In a positive development, Tomas Smrcek, a former television reporter, was acquitted in June of “endangering classified information.” Smrcek faced eight years in prison for displaying a confidential government document during a 1994 television interview that aired on the Nova channel. He had used the document to support allegations of corruption against the chief of the State Security Service.
The U.S. government-run news service Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has offices in Prague, and Czech authorities took steps throughout the year to protect the station from a number of threats. On April 22, for example, Czech authorities expelled Iraqi diplomat Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani for conducting surveillance of the RFE/RL headquarters. There were unconfirmed international press reports that al-Ani was planning a terrorist attack on the RFE/RL building, which also houses the U.S.-funded Radio Free Iraq.
After September 11, Czech authorities deployed troops and armored personnel carriers outside the RFE/RL building as a security precaution. Because of the physical vulnerability of the building, Prime Minister Zeman called on the United States to relocate RFE/RL headquarters from downtown Prague to a more secure location, The Associated Press reported.
Prime Minister Milos Zeman threatened to bankrupt the independent, Prague-based weekly Respekt with a series of debilitating lawsuits in retaliation for its criticism of his government.
Zeman announced that his government was planning to file suit against Respekt and its editor-in-chief, Pyotr Holub, after Holub wrote an article calling the ruling Social Democrat (CSSD) government corrupt, the CTK news agency reported.
The prime minister later told a group of journalists that members of his cabinet would file separate complaints against Holub, all demanding financial compensation, “so that Respekt finally ceases to exist.”
Zeman valued the reputations of his 17 cabinet ministers at 10 million crowns (US$270,000) each, implying that his government would seek 170 million crowns (US$4.5 million) in damages.
He went on to say that he wanted an “equality-based partnership to reign between the government and the press” but added that journalists should not be surprised by his cabinet’s “allergic” reaction to lies.
Respekt has often reported on scandals and conflicts of interest within the CSSD.
After strong protests from CPJ and other press freedom organizations, Zeman and the members of his cabinet dropped the threatened lawsuits.