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Czech Republic: Lottery Affair Points Up Incomplete Media Independence

A controversy over a news report on the Czech Republic's largest private lottery company is again raising questions about media independence in the country. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky looks both into the Sazka lottery affair and earlier indications that Czech press freedom may be far from complete.

Prague, 19 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Betting fever is rising in the Czech Republic. And one of the chief companies cashing in on the fever is Sazka, a word that means "bet" or "wager" in Czech.

Sazka operates the only nationwide daily lottery, and airs many commercials on Czech public TV. Five months ago, a public TV reporter uncovered some questionable business practices at the company, along with numerous instances of what he said was heavy-handed lobbying of Czech politicians. The charges were aired last week, but only after a week's delay to allow Ales Husak -- Sazka's president -- to immediately rebut the report, which he claimed was one-sided.

The director of Czech Television, Dusan Chmelicek, denies Husak personally lobbied him to hold up the airing of the program. He says the reason the program was delayed was because it was one-sided.

Miroslav Mares, the chairman of the Council of Czech Television -- which oversees the nation's two public TV stations -- calls the episode "strange."

"In so far as the charges made are true, then the report has a place on public television. Of course, it was strange that the director [of Czech Television] said it [the report] was bad, than said it was good and released it."

Mares says the more than $2.2 million (90 million koruna) Sazka spends annually on advertising on Czech public television may have influenced Chmelicek's actions. He also says his council will investigate libel allegations made by Sazka.

Czech Culture Minister Pavel Dostal, whose ministry oversees TV legislation, says that the Sazka affair demonstrates the power of commercial interests in the media.

"What happened shows that advertisers have influence on public broadcasting, in this case television. In my opinion this is very dangerous, more dangerous than the influence of politicians [on the media]. Because if a politician did something similar, journalists would create a scandal [that is, investigate]. Advertisers not only advertise in public broadcasting but advertise in those media which employ journalists who, in this case, cannot create a scandal because their publisher would also lose an advertiser."

The Sazka controversy comes when times are difficult not only for low-budgeted Czech national television, but for the country's journalists in general. One reason is that Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman regularly castigates them for what he calls their lack of professionalism. One of the social democrat leader's fiercest barbs came a few weeks ago, when he said [in the daily "Pravo"]: "Journalists claim they are the watchdogs of democracy. But they are not the pit bulls of Czech society, just degenerate mongrels, searching only for sensations."

In addition, a Czech journalist now faces eight years in prison for a report aired on a commercial TV station, which the government says compromised state security. A few months ago, Tomas Smrcek reported that six years ago Jiri Ruzek, the head of the country's state security service, had "hired" (that is, put on the government payroll) a friend in 1994 to protect him from prosecution on a drunk driving charge. During his report, Smrcek held up a paper showing the man had indeed been hired by Ruzek. The Czech government says that, by doing so, Smrcek revealed a classified document, and thereby broke the law.

In another incident a few months ago, two journalists at the Czech daily "Mlada Fronta Dnes" were formally charged by the government for refusing to reveal the sources of their report on what was called Operation Lead. The operation was allegedly a smear campaign meant to discredit a Social Democratic party leader, Petra Buzkova.

Under a new media law passed by the Czech parliament early this year, reporters are obliged to reveal a source for a story if the source is a wanted criminal or suspected of wrongdoing. In the Operation Lead affair, the two journalists refused to reveal their source. The controversy went as high as President Vaclav Havel, who granted the two journalists clemency.

But the reporters say they will continue to challenge the law in court. One of them, Jiri Kubik, told our correspondent they want to continue the fight for the right to protect a source -- a bedrock principle of journalism in the West.

"The press law contravenes European standards in which protecting a source [of a story] is ensured."

Other elements of the new Czech media law have been a source of controversy since it took effect last February. The law's so-called "right-to-response" clause forces journalistic organs to grant time or space to any side felt to be slighted in media reports. A U.S. journalism professor, James Brodell, has warned that many editors will back down from taking on powerful interests for fear of the law's repercussions.

But some of Czech journalists' troubles may be of their own making. Last week (Oct 11), for example, a former director of the Czech utility CEZ (Theodor Dvorak) testified in court that he had paid a journalist to write favorable stories about nuclear energy. CEZ owns the controversial new Czech nuclear power plant at Temelin.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.