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Czech Republic: TV Crisis Continues

  • Jolyon Naegele

The crisis around Czech public television shows no signs of abating. Officials yesterday discussed ways to end a standoff between the management of public television and striking workers, while demonstrations were held in Prague and other cities in support of the workers. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports the main issue is the recently appointed director of Czech television, Jiri Hodac, who the workers allege has ties to former prime minister Vaclav Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party.

Prague, 4 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- No solution is yet in sight to a dispute that has deprived Czech public television viewers of balanced and comprehensive news reports for two weeks.

The dispute pits pragmatists who claim to uphold the law in their bid to control public television against idealists who insist that constitutional rights to free speech take precedence over regulatory legislation.

The government yesterday agreed on a proposed amendment to the law on television, but the amendment won't formally be approved until later this month. According to the proposal, members of two oversight bodies, the councils of Czech TV and Czech Radio, would represent social organizations -- rather than political parties as at present.

The Senate yesterday, at a separate meeting, rejected a proposal from Klaus's Civic Democratic Party, or ODS, to remove the television crisis -- the sole topic for discussion -- from the agenda.

And a Prague district court yesterday rejected a request by public television's new director general, Jiri Hodac, to ban rebellious staffers from using TV equipment. Judge Lubomir Novak refused to explain the reasoning for his decision.

The dispute started last month when the Council of Czech TV, which consists mostly of political appointees, fired Czech TV's director after just 11 months in office. A competition was announced for a replacement -- and some 30 people applied -- but the council within days appointed Hodac.

Hodac, who had previously worked in the Czech section of BBC radio's World Service, spent four months last summer as a news director at Czech television. During that time he fired a top reporter, allegedly at Klaus's request. He has also worked in recent years as an adviser for Klaus's ODS.

Hodac emigrated to Australia in 1980 but before that he wrote on military and security matters for two newspapers: Svobodne Slovo and the army daily Obrana Lidu.

Czech TV employees declared they would not work for Hodac and devoted nearly half of their news broadcasts to the situation at Czech TV.

Hodac's first move was to hire former television anchorwoman Jana Bobosikova to be his news director and Bobosikova's husband to be Hodac's adviser. Bobosikova until recently was a paid internet and media consultant to Vaclav Klaus.

The news staff also refused to cooperate with Bobosikova and she later fired them. But many staffers have remained in the office and on the job, broadcasting a "rebel" version of television news available on cable, satellite and the internet. The rebel version competes with Bobisikova's "official" television broadcasts which are available on the normal channels.

Rebel staffers deride Bobosikova's news programs as "Bobovision," a term that has caught on with the general public and is now widely used along with "Normalization TV" -- a reference to the post-Soviet-invasion broadcasts which Bobovision resembles.

Bobovision's main evening news averages just eight to 10 minutes and is technically poor. During the remaining 20 to 25 minutes allotted for news, weather and sports, Bobovision displays a written message from Hodac calling on unspecified "state organs of the Czech Republic" to take action to resolve the situation.

Since New Year's rebel staffers have denied Bobosikova access to the newsroom unless she leaves her bodyguards behind, which she has declined to do.

Hodac has hired a private security service to block access to the newsroom. Security officers allow staff to leave but prevent them from getting back in.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman opposes the rebellion although most of the leaders of his Social Democratic party support the action. Zeman says:

"What no one has the right to do is to inform the public that he or she does not intend to respect valid laws of the Czech Republic or respect the legitimacy of this or that appointment."

President Vaclav Havel has come out in support of the rebels and telephoned them Sunday to wish them a Happy New Year -- insisting he was speaking to them as a private citizen rather than as head of state. His wife, actress Dagmar Havlova, visited Czech TV on Tuesday (Jan. 2) and declared she is "very happy" that she can support all those who are struggling for the independence of Czech TV."

The leaders of the four non-communist parliamentary parties met for four hours on Tuesday but failed to agree on a resolution to the Czech public TV dispute.

The trade union chief at Czech TV, Antonin Dekoj, said yesterday some 1,300 of the more than 2,000 employees at Czech TV support the labor action.

The lower house of parliament is due to hold a special session devoted to the situation on Friday, but if the parties' chairmen cannot agree it is unlikely that their parliamentary deputies will either.

The Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes yesterday published a list of laws currently being violated by one side or the other in the dispute. These include the Constitution's bill of rights and freedoms, the penal code and the law on television.

A spokesman for the European Commission says the commission will consider an appeal from the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, or IFJ. The IFJ, which claims to represent 450,000 journalists around the world, describes the dispute as a litmus test for press freedom in the Czech Republic.

The European Commission's chief spokesman, Jonathan Faull, says "the Commission will consider the appeal from the International Federation of Journalists" and will make public any reaction.

"As is well known, the Commission is committed to the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of the media, as indeed we are sure is the Czech government."

The IFJ for its part says it is supporting the Czech TV employees on the grounds that their "struggle ... is about putting an end to censorship and political manipulation of media."