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Czech Republic: New Prime Minister Means Change In Media Policy

Prague, 8 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The replacement of Vaclav Klaus by Josef Tosovsky as head of the Czech government heralds a major change in the prime minister's relationship with the news media. At least for the months to come.

In his five and a half years as the Czech Republic's head of government and seven years as top leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Klaus was masterfully using the news media to his best advantage.

In addition to weekly cabinet and ODS news conferences, Klaus spoke to reporters once or twice daily. He had a weekly radio show and for a while a weekly TV show where he answered viewers' queries. He also wrote for several years a twice weekly column in the Prague daily Lidove noviny.

His news conferences largely focused on his own achievements; excessively so in the view of his numerous critics. Questions on issues not on Klaus' agenda were rarely answered. He would berate reporters for their poor command of economics or for phrasing their questions in what he considered an unacceptable manner.

The Czech news media over the last seven years frequently appeared almost unwilling to challenge Klaus on personal as well as political issues.

While the media have repeatedly delved into President Vaclav Havel's private life, coverage of Klaus's private life has remained largely off limits.

Two years ago Klaus was said to have telephoned Ronald Lauder, the US majority owner of a media company controlling the Czech TV-Nova, demanding that a story about his private life be taken off the air. Klaus reportedly threatened that Nova would lose its license if the program was aired. The program was quashed.

During the current political crisis, Klaus demanded and received live air time from state-financed Czech radio on very short notice (within several minutes) to denounce his political opponents.

To a large extend, Klaus's seeming domination of the media reflected his strong personality. But it also testified to the weakness of the media themselves.

Too often reporting on political issues remains sporadic, inconsistent and fragmentary, frequently lacking solid backing in reliable sources.

For example, rumors that Klaus has been building a villa near Lake Constance in Switzerland have been circulating among journalists and Czech Foreign Ministry staffers for at least two years. But it was not until late last year that a few Czech reporters trooped off to Switzerland to try to find out the truth. And this only after Klaus declared that he and his family are suing private TV-Nova for 100 million crowns ($2.8 million) for hinting that he and his wife may own a villa near Davos. The TV station based its story on an interview with a police chief in northern Moravia, who has since said he will testify on Klaus' behalf.

In contrast to Klaus, Tosovsky, former chairman of the national bank, is relatively media-shy. He is a man of few words. His press briefings have been precisely "brief," his comments tend to be factual and devoid of strong emotional undertones that characterized so much of Klaus' pronouncements.

Tosovsky has appointed his spokesman, Vladimir Mlynar, to a ministerial position and has let it to be known that he himself will be meeting with the press only on rare occasions, when he has something important to impart. But Mlynar, 31, announced yesterday he would be the government's, not Tosovsky's spokesman and hence not in a position to relay Tosovsky's opinions.

In a significant departure, the new cabinet decided yesterday that its discussions will be recorded, albeit for internal use, with the records kept one year after the government leaves office. Moreover, the cabinet also agreed to publish within 24 hours all materials from its formal weekly sessions.

Tosovsky is expected to stay in office only until early elections are held, probably in June. And it is far from certain whether his restrained style of dealing with the media could be lasting.

Meanwhile, Klaus appears ready to launch a new election campaign for himself and his party. In a moderated TV discussion last Sunday (Jan. 4) during which he debated with his former coalition partner but current opponent, Christian Democrat (KDU-CSL) party leader Josef Lux, Klaus strongly defended his record while largely ignoring Lux's remarks. Next day, Klaus' pronouncements featured prominently in the papers while those of Lux went largely unreported.

Over the weekend, Klaus reiterated his intention to sue TV-Nova and suggested he was the victim of what he called a "media assassination".