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Czech Republic: Klaus Declares Legislative Emergency

  • Jolyon Naegele

The dispute surrounding control over Czech public television continues with the focus on parliament and the health of the controversial new director of public television. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Prague that director Jiri Hodac's chances of professional survival are waning.

Prague, 5 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The speaker of the lower house of the Czech parliament, former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, has declared a state of legislative emergency effective 8-12 January.

Klaus, speaking yesterday, said this will enable lawmakers to accelerate the debate and approval of a government bill amending laws on public television and radio broadcasting.

"This government bill will be debated in a so-called shortened process so that it can be discussed and adopted in a single day."

Klaus says he hopes the bill "takes the entire problem out of the streets and squares" -- a reference to nightly protest demonstrations in Prague, Brno and Ostrava -- "and places it where it belongs, in parliament."

The bill was agreed on by Prime Minister Milos Zeman's minority government on Wednesday (3 January). It is intended to depoliticize the electronic media's regulatory and oversight bodies. Klaus says parliament will discuss and vote on the bill in the first reading at a special session 12 January.

Parliament's media commission and culture committee held a joint session yesterday to discuss the two-week-old crisis in advance of an emergency session of the lower house today.

Deputy speaker of parliament Petra Buzkova, a member of the ruling Social Democrats, is sponsoring a resolution calling on the TV council, a supervisory body over Czech public TV, to ensure independent, balanced and professional news on Czech TV and to resolve without delay the crisis. She says this is impossible without the departure of controversial new director Jiri Hodac.

"The declaration also contains a section which calls on the [TV] Council, in the event that director Hodac does not resign his function, that the council at its next session on Monday dismiss him."

Members of the TV council that appointed Hodac, the man at the center of the crisis, defended their decision at yesterday's session and said Hodac should continue in his job.

The Communist Party (KSCM), which until now has sided with Klaus' Civic Democratic Party in backing Hodac and denouncing the striking TV employees, switched sides yesterday, throwing full support behind the TV employees' labor action.

Rebel journalists at the TV have occupied studios since 24 December demanding Hodac's ouster, alleging he has close links to Klaus' party. They fear Hodac is politically biased. Hodac denies the accusations.

Hodac was hospitalized yesterday after suffering what his champions say was a "total collapse due to exhaustion." Associates found him unconscious on the floor of his apartment after he failed to show up for the parliamentary hearing.

A hospital spokeswoman Eva Jurinova says Hodac is in stable condition in intensive care following what she terms "acute health problems." She says he definitely is not in any life-threatening situation, adding that "doctors are working to determine all the causes of his illness." Hodac suffered a similar illness the day he resigned from Czech TV news last August.

Wednesday night, as many as 100,000 people demonstrated in Prague's Wenceslas Square demanding Hodac's resignation. Another demonstration is being planned for 11 January. The upper house of the Czech parliament, the Senate, in a special session on Wednesday called on Hodac to resign.

Culture Minister Pavel Dostal is preparing a lawsuit against Hodac for violating the Constitution's Bill of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, and possibly for "sabotage" for blacking out a news program last night in which Dostal was interviewed.

The district attorney's office in the area of Prague where Czech TV is headquartered said yesterday investigations of 27 lawsuits linked to the Czech TV situation, 24 of them by citizens against Hodac and three by Hodac against employees, have so far failed to prove that any criminal act has been committed.

A group of eight senators from the center-right "Quad Coalition" have called on the district court to take measures to ensure that Hodac and the government-run Czech Radiocommunications office stop jamming public TV signals during news broadcasts.

News staff opposed to Hodac continue to produce news programs but Czech Radiocommunications block these from being broadcast. They are available only via satellite, cable and the Internet. Hodac's deputy has fired the news team but they refuse to leave the newsroom.

Hodac has hired a small news team that produces a shortened news program available on regular channels. Most of the rest of the time TV viewers see only a written message from Hodac calling on "state organs of the Czech Republic to use all suitable means to help renew the legal broadcasts of Czech TV...and to counter illegal operations."

Czech Radiocommunications last night denied censoring television broadcasts, insisting it is operating according to a legal and valid contract with Czech TV.

Vaclav Klaus summed up the situation in a commentary in the business daily "Hospodarske noviny" yesterday. He said: "This is not a normal labor dispute. Nor is it merely the issue of financial interests of certain groups linked to Czech TV; above all it is a basic political clash of two concepts of democracy." As Klaus puts it, "either standard democracy wins or else a system which someone has perhaps slightly pejoratively called Havlocracy" -- a reference to President Vaclav Havel's idealism and his dislike of political parties.

European Commission ambassador to Prague Ramiro Cibrian met with First-deputy Prime Minister Pavel Telicka yesterday to discuss the situation. Telicka says the fact that the EC minister asked for the meeting at very short notice is a certain signal that the Commission is taking a heightened interest in the situation. Telicka describes the Czech TV situation as "serious, critical and from the Czech Foreign Ministry's point of view unfortunate." In his words, "we don't want to earn the image of a country where public media are somehow interfered with incorrectly or illegally, nor gain the reputation of a country incapable of resolving its own problems."

The President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, is still studying an appeal from the International Federation of Journalists to intervene in the ongoing crisis. Commission enlargement spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said yesterday the Commission was keeping a close eye on the situation.

"We follow the situation very closely of course, we take note of the fact that the new draft legislation is in the pipeline now in order to improve the situation, but as for the rest...all I can say is that we are confident that the Czech democracy, which has proved and demonstrated its vitality in the past, will find the resources to overcome and settle this issue."

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