Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999
C U L I K ' S C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
Press Freedom under Threat
Great Britain struggled for a number of years with attempts to introduce a press law which would be capable of taming the irresponsible, coarse and manipulative British tabloid press. In the end, experts concluded that it would be impossible to introduce a press law in Britain without seriously jeopardising basic freedoms of expression.
No such qualms seem to exist in the Czech Republic. On 7 July 1999, in spite of vociferous protests from the Czech media, the Czech Parliament passed the first reading of a controversial draft press law and handed it on to the relevant parliamentary committees for discussion.
Background: The Czech media
The Czech media are generally second rate. There is no authoritative, independent, investigative journalism. Czech journalists are, on the whole, afraid to stand out from the crowd. They huddle together, hiding behind prejudices, cliches and the political lines of their newspapers. Their meekness and incompetence is accompanied by arrogance. It is customary for establishment elites in Central Europe to assume they know better than the ordinary citizen, and they tell him so regularly in no uncertain terms.
Rather than revealing new problems, introducing new ideas into Czech society and helping to create an agenda for the government, the Czech media peddle safe cliches, which they try to impose on the general public. They tell the citizen what to think. If the citizen does not agree, the media call him names ["provincial" and "Communist" being two favourites, ed.].
When reading Czech newspapers or following Czech radio or television, one feels very strongly how people hold on to the well tried and tested, conventional ways of thinking and how new, different, independent ideas are seen as shocking and even subversive. Yet it is obvious that progress is based on new ideas, even if they are incorrect - mistakes are important as useful learning devices. But the method of trial and error, using open public discussion about topical issues, is practically denied to the Czechs.
The deplorable state of the Czech media merits a serious public discussion. There is a catch, however: such a discussion could only take place in the media, but the media cannot accommodate it because they are not up to it.
As a result of the Czech media's weakness, the Czech Republic's economic and political problems are deepening. What country could survive for any length of time without a serious, ongoing public debate about its current condition and its future direction?
Czech Premier: "Journalists are scum"
The problems of the Czech media are now being exacerbated by recent political moves. Social Democratic Prime Minister Milos Zeman has deflected the attention of the public away from the need to start a serious debate about the media by superficially calling journalists names. Over the past few weeks, Zeman has called Czech journalists "manure and scum, amateurs and graduates of schools for retarded people". He has also said, "I deeply despise amateurs. I see lots of amateurs around me and the greatest concentration of amateurs I see among the political and economic commentators of our (sic) press, our radio and our television."
Zeman' s displeasure may be the result of the fact that most of the Czech media assume a critical attitude towards his government. The Czech Internet daily, Britske listy, has recently published a confidential Czech government report on the Czech media. It is obvious from these documents that the Czech government is not interested in a serious analysis of what the media is doing. The government only records whether the media write favourably or critically about its members.
As a result of Zeman's abusive remarks, some employees of public service Czech Television (renowned for its low quality news bulletins) and some other journalists wrote a letter to Zeman, demanding "correct relations" with the Czech government. Hardly a deep and meaningful discussion about the standards of the Czech press.
Controversial draft press law
A more serious controversy has arisen with regard to the proposed draft new press law, which passed its first reading in the Czech Parliament last Wednesday.
The most frequently discussed aspect of this law is its Article 13, the proposal that everyone - every citizen, every politician - be given a legal right to reply to any article published about them, even if the published article is factually correct. The Czech media are outraged. They have spent much energy over the past few weeks trying to discredit this proposal, thereby, again, deflecting the debate on the media in the Czech Republic from the serious to the superficial.
But last week, Czech members of Parliament seem to have deliberately approved the draft law in order to defy the media, in spite of their "hysterical campaign", as one MP put it.
Even Czech television news has taken up arms against this provision of the proposed law. Under relentless pressure of the brutally primitive commercial station TV Nova, its main competitor, Czech TV news normally keeps its news items as short as possible, hurling them at the viewer at the heart-attack rate of approximately one item per minute or minute and a half.
But this past Thursday, Czech TV news made an exception. Its moderator spent a full five minutes reading out a letter by a government minister, reacting to a previous Czech TV programme, just to show how boring television broadcasting would become if the new press law were to come into force. Other journalists are warning that newspapers would become clogged by articles from politicians, demanding their right to reply. Extensive supplements entitled "Additions to factually correct articles" might need to be printed regularly, they fear.
Undoubtedly, the Czech government is introducing this provision in order to keep journalists under the thumb of the authorities. The Czech government does not have a clue about what proper, independent, journalistic work should be about.
In the view of the government, it is right and proper that everyone should have a legal right to respond in print and on radio and television to what is being said about them, even if there are no factual inaccuracies. This, says the Czech government, would be a "valuable extension to press freedom" in the Czech Republic as it would "force journalists to accept responsibility for what they write."
"It is fair," says Prime Minister Zeman, "that politicians should always have their right to reply."
No matter how wide coverage the above problem has received, according to Czech media expert Milan Smid (see article in Britske listy - in Czech), the main danger of the proposed law lies elsewhere, in Articles 6 and 21.
Article 6 stipulates that the publisher of a periodical is responsible for the content of his or her publication. The publication must not contradict the Czech Constitution, specifically, it must not support violence, racism, pornography or intolerance.
The problem, warns Smid, is that according to article 21, anyone can demand punishment, including the closing down of the periodical, if he or she comes to the conclusion that the publication has contravened Article 6 of the press law. Smid points to the fact that the formulations such as "inciting intolerance" are extremely vague and can be easily abused by powerful forces, which might for instance decide to close down a newspaper which it simply regards as a nuisance.
"I am not a lawyer, but somehow I feel that it should be the purpose of the law to prevent the publication of racist articles, not to make it possible to close down periodicals. The Czech Republic already has laws to punish individuals for inciting racial hatred. It is not necessary to liquidate newspapers for this."
According to Smid, the ruling Social Democrats do not understand that modern press laws in democratic countries are not designed to protect "morals": "Contemporary press laws primarily guarantee freedom of expression and the independent existence of publications. Only secondarily do they remind journalists of their responsibilities."
Let us hope that the three controversial articles are eventually removed from the proposed Czech press law. One has one's doubts, however, when following the level of discussion in the Czech Republic on this matter.
What they're saying
To document the level of discussion, here is an extract (extract in Czech here) from a line of reasoning by Ivan Langer, deputy head of Vaclav Klaus' s Civic Democratic Party (ODS), and, more importantly, the Chairman of the Media Commission of the Czech Parliament. The extract is taken from an article, published in Hospodarske noviny (full text here), a prestigious Czech economic daily newspaper, partially owned by Handelsblatt and the Financial Times of London:
"The world of the media is basically nothing but a business activity, whose aim it is to make money. If this activity did not lead to achieving profits, we would not be witnesses to the existence of so many private firms in the sphere of the press, radio and television. No matter how logical this fact is, it is often forgotten - and forgotten deliberately, not accidentally. Indeed, what is worse, often this real aim is cloaked in high-flown cliches about the media being here for the citizens and nothing else. This is not true. The world of the media is primarily (not exclusively) the world of business and its driving force is to be more (financially) successful...
It is the aim of public service regulation (apart from the economic level) to achieve or to defend a certain interest of society. (But) it is extremely difficult to define the regulatory activities of the state, because they hide a number of pitfalls and risks...
It is even more problematic to define the interest of society - to ensure ideological plurality in the media. The problem is that ideological plurality is not always a synonym for the plurality of ownership. In other words, the concentration of ownership in the media does not always mean an attack on the freedom of access to information and on the dissemination of information.
On the contrary, often the so-called fight for freedom to disseminate information is nothing less than a struggle waged by the economically weaker elements against stronger owners. It is a struggle for a niche in the market.
And public service regulation of the media has nothing at all to do with defending the interests of society. Such interference in the media is only an instrument for pushing through the economic interest of private business players.
When we speak about regulation when defending a certain interest of society, a question arises whether, for instance, the right to reply is an overstepping of the bearable (limit) of regulation or whether, on the other hand, such a right is a correct intercession in the sense of levelling the field between those who write and those who are being written about.
Hence this is not an assault on the freedom of the media but it is a question whether this inequality (between those who write and those who are being written about) and the consequences following from it are to be tackled by law or only by the courts."
Langer's words reveal everything that is wrong with the political approach to the media in the Czech Republic today.
Jan Culik, 10 July 1999
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.
Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER:
Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999
The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999
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