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Czech Republic: Public TV Crisis Begins To Ease

  • Jolyon Naegele

The crisis at Czech public television may finally be easing. Representatives of the strikers and of management met for the first time overnight in talks mediated by the deputy prime minister and a trade-union confederation leader. The parties were due to meet again later today. But RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports on one notable impediment to a constructive solution to the four-week-long crisis: Czech politicians remain divided over whether the parliament's lower house should continue to choose the members of the body overseeing public TV.

Prague, 16 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Newsroom staffers at Czech public television are continuing their labor action despite their first talks with management since the crisis erupted on 20 December with the appointment of Jiri Hodac as general director.

Antonin Dekoj, an independent union leader, and the acting head of Czech TV, Vera Valterova, met overnight (Monday night) at government headquarters in the presence of Deputy Prime Minister and Labor Minister Vladimir Spidla and trade-union federation deputy chairman Milan Stech. But disagreement between the sides barred the presence of the spokesman of the rebel newsroom staffers as well as the controversial new financial director of Czech TV, Jindrich Beznoska.

Valterova said after the first round ended early this morning (Tuesday) that she hopes both sides will gradually be able to reach a constructive solution.

Trade-union federation chairman Richard Falbr, who has been on the side of the rebel TV employees throughout the crisis, later spelled out what he saw as the next steps.

"It is in the interest of the trade unionists and the strikers to conclude an agreement [with management] that would start by ensuring the strikers are not punished and to conclude with a promise by all the people who contributed to this situation -- by their appointment [to Hodac's management team] and by the drastic measures they took -- to quit Czech TV. These are the people of Hodac's team."

Officials say the second round of talks later today will be without the presence of the government or the trade-union federation and that no results will be made public.

The latest developments follow general director Hodac's resignation Thursday (11 January), just two hours before a demonstration in Prague's Wenceslas Square by more than 50,000 people. The demonstrators greeted the news of Hodac's resignation with cheers, but demanded the dismissals of Hodac's aides. Jan Kraus, the spokesman for the rebel journalists, told the crowd:

"As you may have heard, the general director, Jiri Hodac, has just resigned from his post as director of Czech Television."

On Friday (12 January), the Czech Chamber of Deputies -- the parliament's lower house -- held its second marathon session in eight days on the TV crisis, meeting for some 15 hours into the early hours of Saturday morning. The mood was decidedly sour, with Speaker Vaclav Klaus pounding his fist on a table and demanding an apology from an opposition deputy. During the session, the chamber agreed to dismiss the controversial Council for Czech Television, which had appointed Hodac.

For the past four years, all members of the nine-member Czech TV council have been political appointees.

Toward midnight on Friday Klaus -- the head of the center-right Civic Democratic Party -- held a private meeting with Social Democratic Prime Minister Milos Zeman. The two reaffirmed their so-called "opposition agreement," which enables Zeman's minority government to function. They rejected a proposal by Zeman's Culture Minister Pavel Dostal, and backed by the opposition Freedom Union, that a new 15-member TV council be jointly appointed by both houses of parliament and possibly by the president as well.

The lower house confirmed the Klaus-Zeman deal and then recessed. The arrangement agreed upon by the chamber ensures that the members of the new council are nominated by social organizations such as church and veterans' groups. The lower house would then select the council's 15 members from among the proposed nominees.

But the Czech Senate, where the Freedom Union -- together with three allied groups -- holds a majority, is likely tomorrow to reject the lower house's insistence on concentrating all power over Czech TV in its own hands. If that happens, parties to the opposition agreement warn that the momentum to end the crisis over Czech TV may be lost.

At a Senate session on Friday, Senator and former ambassador to the U.S. Michael Zantovsky, a member of the small Civic Democratic Alliance -- a Freedom Union ally -- said the cause of the current crisis was the politicization of the TV council. He accused some political parties -- above all, Klaus' Civic Democrats -- of trying to strengthen their influence in public media through the council.

Zantovsky warned that any party or group of parties with a parliamentary majority in the future could do the same. He quoted the adage of Britain's 19th-century Lord Acton: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Then Zantovsky said: "Unfortunately, that's true in a democracy. Nothing in the current law," he added, "can prevent such a danger and that is why it is necessary to change the law."

Meanwhile, deputies have begun the search for a temporary general director for Czech TV. And Klaus' Civic Democrats have invited all other parties in parliament to a discussion on how to elect a temporary director who would be apolitical and not linked to any interest groups.

A permanent general director can only be appointed by the new TV council. The council, in turn, can only be named after the amendment to the law on Czech TV has been ratified by the Senate and signed by President Vaclav Havel.

European Union Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen said in Brussels today that the debate over Czech TV has shown the "preparedness of the Czech people to enter the EU, for which," he said, "they should not be criticized." Verheugen noted that the Czech TV crisis "will not have an impact on Czech [EU] membership nor the speed of accession talks." He said that, however the Czechs resolve the affair, it remains an internal matter.