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Czech Republic: Struggle For Control Of Public Television Spurs Protests

An apparent political struggle for control of Czech public television during the Christmas holidays has triggered an emotional public debate, while denying viewers access to balanced and comprehensive TV news. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele says the battle over Czech TV raises several important issues, especially respect for the law as against the independence of public media.

Prague, 27 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The sudden pre-Christmas dismissal of the director-general of Czech public television, his speedy replacement and the appointment of a news director with a communist past, sit-ins by staffers who see these events as a political maneuver-- all this has set the stage for a confrontation that evokes memories of the 1969 post-Soviet invasion "normalization" of then Czechoslovakia.

The staff of Czech public TV is deeply divided over the events of the past few days. But it is clear that the overwhelming majority of employees reject the dismissal of director general Dusan Chmelicek and refuse to accept either the appointment of Jiri Hodac as Chmelicek's successor or Hodac's subsequent appointment of Jana Bobosikova as news director.

Czech President Vaclav Havel today spoke out in support of the independence of Czech public TV and against the dismissal of Chmelicek and appointment of Hodac.

"Perhaps in this case the letter of the law was adhered to but [it was] against the law's sense and spirit -- and this is incredibly dangerous."

Havel noted that the Czechoslovak Communist dictatorship came about in 1948 "quite legally and in accord with the letter of the law but at variance with the spirit of the post-war constitution."

Hodac has no apparent communist past. After emigrating to Australia in 1980, he worked for several years for the Czech service of the BBC and earlier this year briefly served as news director at Czech TV.

But Bobosikova has a very different history. In her first letter applying for a job at Czechoslovak TV in April 1989, she noted that she had worked, in her words, in "elected posts in the central committee of the Socialist Union of Youth" and was a member of the communist-run election commission in Prague.

More recently, Bobosikova has been a paid advisor to the chairman of the Civic Democratic Party -- or ODS -- Vaclav Klaus. This has angered many Czech TV employees who perceive her appointment as a move by ODS to gain political control over public TV. Hodac, himself close to ODS, was forced out of his job as news director this summer because staffers strongly objected to what they perceived as his partiality to Klaus.

For nearly a week now, supporters of the rebellious TV employees -- including prominent actors, politicians and other public personalities -- have appeared in the studio as witnesses, standing behind anchormen as they read the news. Several ministers -- including those for culture and environment -- in the current Social Democratic minority government have also expressed their support.

In response, unable to use Czech TV's studios to broadcast their news program, Hodac and Bobosikova borrowed studio space from private television and brought a young regional employee to Prague to read the news. Now most viewers can only watch Bobosikova's version of the news, which remains overwhelmingly centered on the TV crisis, and is running as filler largely non-newsworthy features from the provinces that have a pre-1990 tone to them.

On Sunday (Dec 24), her first day at work, Bobosikova ended up writing and --anonymously -- voicing a report about herself.

"Director General of Czech TV Jiri Hodac today appointed Jana Bobosikova as news director of Czech TV. Rebellious employees refused to respect her appointment as well as [that of Hodac]. Bobosikova immediately fired the news editor Stepan Hajek."

Bobosikova's first report immediately sparked accusations of incompetence and lack of professionalism.

Czech TV's regular news team has continued to produced its own news programs. But they are only available to some 350,000 households through satellite and some cable networks.

Each side accuses the other of pirate broadcasting and breaking the law. Several Czech newspapers today said both sides are probably breaking the law.

Late last week, Klaus proposed that Czech public TV be privatized. His party is largely supportive of Hodac and Bobosikova and has taken a hard line against the rebelling employees. So has Petr Stepanek, an ODS member of the parliament-appointed Czech Broadcasting Council, which fired Chmelicek and appointed Hodac.

"Broadcasts which [Hodac] approves are legal, broadcasts which he doesn't approve are not legal. From the point of view of the law, Mr. Hodac is the legitimate and legally appointed director general of Czech TV."

Nevertheless, a few prominent ODS members say Hodac should resign. Among them are Prague mayor Jan Kasl and the well-known actor Jiri Bartoska. In addition -- as was true during the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled communist power -- Czech actors and others connected with the theater are in the forefront of the dispute, vigorously supporting rebellious TV employees.

Actors have begun gathering signatures at theater performances throughout the country. At the National Theater in Prague last night, actor Boris Rosner was warmly applauded when he introduced a petition calling for the resignation of Hodac and the entire broadcasting council, and for legislation insuring Czech TV's independence.

"The initiative cannot succeed without the support of our public. Thank you.

On Monday, Bobosikova ordered 20 disobedient newsroom employees to go home and write analyses of Czech TV news. They refused. Yesterday she tried to fire them for not obeying. But they refused to accept their dismissal notices, remained on the job and chanted "freedom" until Bobosikova left the news room.

"[We want] freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom."

Last night, up to 3,000 demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of Czech TV to voice their support. But today, Hodac announced he was calling on the police to intervene.

"The police have already received several criminal complaints from us and are beginning their work. I expect that the Ministry of Interior will proceed decisively, quickly and thoroughly in this matter because, really at this moment, Czech TV -- a public medium -- is at stake and people have the right [to expect] that the police will intervene as quickly and thoroughly [as possible]."

Michal Kubal of the Czech TV employees' crisis command says the staffers will not be provoked and will continue to work as long as they can.

"The staff from the existing news department remains on the job, carrying out its functions, working on the production of normal news programs. No-one can stop [Hodac] from threatening them with prosecution, of course, but nevertheless they are doing their work."

French political scientist Jacques Rupnik, who grew up in Prague, told Czech TV last night that the struggle for control of public television is particularly worrying because it involves an apparent attempt by a political party to dominate news broadcasts. That, Rupnik says, puts the Czech Republic in the same category as Russia. The coming days will show just how accurate his analysis is.