Czechs battle over TV, democracy

Following a weekend ruling by parliament, Czech Television might fire its new controversial director today.

The biggest demonstrations here since popular protests toppled the Communist regime 11 years ago will likely bolster the independence of public television and, perhaps, force a change in the country's political culture.

The opposition politicians accused of trying to make Czech Television their mouthpiece now appear in total retreat, following a demonstration in Prague last week, where 100,000 people backed protesting staff at the public television station.

Jiri Pehe, a political commentator and head of New York University in Prague, has no doubts that this will force political change in the Czech Republic.

It should, he says, at least call a halt to a decade of power grabbing by political parties and may lead to a revival of the type of broader, pluralistic, civic society, supported by Czech President Vaclav Havel, where parties and their leaders are not the only actors on the public stage.

"This is very positive. For the last 10 years, ever since the Velvet Revolution, the political parties have sought to control and occupy all areas of public space, which have been gradually vacated by independent citizens and bodies," Mr. Pehe says.

"This battle over public television has essentially been a battle between two very different visions of democracy and society: those that believe in a civil society and the right of citizens to participate and those, like [former Prime Minister Vaclav] Klaus, who want political parties to have control."

The Czech parliament voted early Saturday that removal of Jiri Hodac, Czech Television's controversial new general director, was vital to end the two-week dispute between the protesting television staff and Mr. Hodac's new management.

If Hodac fails to resign voluntarily, the resolution called on Czech Television's ruling council to fire him when it meets today.

In any case, parliament looks almost certain to pass a new law Friday intended to prevent political parties in the future from cramming the public broadcaster's council with their own appointees. Protesters say the law meets most of their demands, but add that Hodac must step down from his post.

Hodac's appointment on Dec. 23 sparked an immediate protest from television journalists. They appealed on air for the public to protect free speech, provoking the new management to black out their broadcasts.

Protesting newsroom staff accused Hodac of being a puppet for Mr. Klaus, who also leads the center-right opposition party, the Civic Democrats. Hodac bowed to political pressure from Klaus to sack a popular presenter of a midday political program during his short four-month tenure as head of news programs last year, the protesters say.

While Hodac denied the charges of political bias, he did not help his case by appointing Jana Bobosikova, a former political adviser to Klaus, to the key position of head of television news.

Klaus has warned that a victory for the public-television protesters would be "the worst thing possible" for Czech democracy. His party stood out alone against the vote in parliament calling for Hodac to go.

Klaus's "party first" version of democracy had, with mixed success, been attacking independent institutions over the past year, according to Pehe, with the opposition party leader making full use of his leverage over the current Social Democrat government headed by Milos Zeman.

Only the tacit support of Klaus's party allows Mr. Zeman's minority government to stay in power, with the price for this backing set out in a pact between the parties known as the "opposition agreement."

Among other things, the pact called for a change in Czech electoral law, widely interpreted as a move that would squeeze out smaller parties and reinforce a two-party system, and curb the powers of Mr. Havel.

Havel and the government were involved in a highly public battle at the end of last year over a new law that would have both curbed the head of state's powers to appoint the country's central bank governor and increased the governor's dependence on political parties. The issue exploded again when the government questioned the legality of Havel's recent appointment of a new bank governor.

However important the issues, electoral law and the central bank governor did not excite the public imagination, although voters punished the two main parties during elections for the Upper House, the Senate, last November. The results, in which an alliance of smaller parties made heavy gains, has effectively stopped ambitions to change the electoral law.

"Public television was very different," explains Pehe. "This was something that touched people directly, which they paid for, and which they could understand."

Czech Television's two channels had largely fought off political influence over the past decade and attempted to provide a serious and independent service that starkly contrasts with the "down market" popular offerings of its two main private-channel rivals, Nova and Prima.

When polled, the public broadcaster is always voted by Czechs as the most trustworthy source of news, a huge turnaround from the days of the Communist regime, when it was widely despised as a source of political propaganda.

Newspaper coverage is often tainted by the suspicion that the paper, or journalist, is taking a line because of party allegiance or corruption.

The country's biggest-selling Czech daily, Mlada Fronta Dnes, helped change that impression last summer when it claimed to have exposed a smear campaign by those close to Prime Minister Milos Zeman to taint a dissident member of his own party. Zeman attacked the newspaper, and unsuccessfully, attempted to have it prosecuted.

Observers say the big picture for Czech society and politics could look very different after this battle for control of the small screen.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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