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Friction Grows Between Czech Media and Government Watchdog Group

Prague, July 25 (RFE/RL) -- Friction is growing between independent broadcasters in the Czech Republic and the government media watchdog, the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting.

In the latest salvo, the Council is threatening to pull the license of the most successful television station in the Czech Republic, TV Nova.

According to the Council, TV Nova is run by a company called the Czech Independent Television Group. But the Council says it issued a broadcast license to an international broadcasting conglomerate called CET 21. By using another company to operate the broadcast facility, TV Nova is violating its broadcasting agreement, the Council says.

The Council says similar problems exist with the second independent television station in the country, TV Premiera, as well as with the successful Radio Nova Alfa, owned by Television Nova.

The Council objects to the operation of TV Premiera by a company of the same name, while the broadcast license was issued to a company named FTV. In the case of Radio Nova Alfa, the Council says it issued an operating license to a company called Kaskol, but that the radio is run by a group named Radio Nova Alfa.

Marina Landova, spokeswoman for the Council, said withdrawal of the broadcast licenses would be an "extreme measure" which the Council would consider as a last resort. Before taking such an extreme step, the Council can levy fines of up to 2 million Czech crowns ($75,000) if the media outlets fail to resolve the issue.

Landova said the Council does not want to put anyone out of business, but is simply trying to clarify the ownership ties of the broadcasters.

Vladimir Zelezny, TV Nova's general manager, said Tuesday on his station's news show that he considered the Council's decision a joke. If the real problem is a signature on two contracts, he said, it can easily be resolved with the addition of two more signatures.

But the "real problem" likely lies beyond just contract signatures.

The Council and TV Nova have been at odds for more than a year. The Council has levied fines against the television station on an almost regular basis for breaching a variety of regulations.

In one of the most recent incidents, the Council fined TV Nova for beginning a broadcast of the violent American movie, "Reservoir Dogs," five minutes before 10 p.m. Graphically-violent or sexually explicit films may not be aired before 10 p.m. in the Czech Republic. The Council also fined Nova for using its programs to promote a magazine it gives away with memberships in its television club. Nova has appealed all of the Council's decisions.

Zelezny has used his weekly call-in show regularly to condemn the Council's decision. He also criticized the Council for releasing announcements of the fines to the print media before notifying the television station.

Jan Jirak, a media analyst at Charles University in Prague, said he expects the dispute to be settled. He said politicians in the Czech Republic are not used to handling the media professionally and are, in fact, afraid of the media.

The media, especially Television Nova, which has captured 70 percent of the viewing and advertising market in the country in its two years of existence, wield tremendous power, he said..

"If Zelezny went on television and said that because of a Council decision, there would be no more Dallas on Monday nights, people would tear down Prague," Jirak said.