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Czech Republic: Broadcasting Council Meets In Effort To Resolve Crisis

Czech public television ceased all broadcasting last night. Its recently appointed director-general says programming will only resume once the country's Broadcasting Council determines which broadcasts are legal -- his, or those by rebel TV employees. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Prague.

Prague, 28 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting is meeting in Prague today to discuss the crisis in public television, which last night ceased broadcasting all programs on both its channels. Czech public TV employees continue to refuse to accept the council's appointment last week of Jiri Hodac as director-general and Hodac's subsequent choice as news director, Jana Bobosikova. They say Hodac's appointment was suspiciously abrupt, and they accuse both him and Bobosikova of close connections with Vaclav Klaus, head of the Civic Democratic Party, or ODS. Miroslav Mares, the head of the Czech Television Council -- which is subordinate to the Broadcasting Council -- describes as "questionable" Hodac's justification for the cessation of broadcasts. Hodac last night posted a written announcement to viewers that said programming would only be resumed after the Broadcasting Council decides who is authorized to broadcast -- in accordance with the law on Czech television -- and who is not. Mares says the law makes no mention of authorized or legal broadcasts. In any case, just before today's crisis meeting, Broadcasting Council Chairman Martin Muchka raised doubts whether the body could take on the role of arbiter in the dispute. He said: "Our meeting has to correct the error made by Czech TV [that is, Hodac], labeling us as some kind of 'arbiter.'" Muchka said Hodac's announcement had "misled" viewers. The Broadcasting Council's deputy chairman, ODS member Petr Stepanek, insists the most important point is that Hodac was elected legally. "I think that the Broadcasting Council -- in contrast to some artists, a part of the general public and certain biased populist politicians -- cannot be driven by its emotions, sympathies or antipathies, but must respect and uphold the law. From this point of view, Director-General Jiri Hodac was elected completely legally. He is the legal, legitimate director and that means he is the only person responsible for Czech TV's program." Stepanek accuses the rebel employees of "de facto nationalizing" Czech public television for themselves. The employees today issued a statement calling Hodac's blockage of public TV "open censorship of broadcasting." By ceasing broadcasts, they said, Hodac must bear responsibility "for the immense damage he has caused: loss of viewers' trust and financial losses resulting from a decline in viewers' fees and advertising income." The employees continue to broadcast regular programming through satellite, some cable stations and the Internet. But their broadcasts are estimated to be reaching only some 350,000 households. A group of 42 legislators today handed Klaus, who is speaker of the lower house of parliament, a request to call an extraordinary session to discuss the problems at Czech public TV. Members of the ruling Social Democratic Party and four opposition parties signed the request, but there was no signature from an ODS member. Nonetheless, Klaus later formally convened the session for January 5. Some 5,000 supporters of the employees turned up last night at Czech TV headquarters in Prague, 600 more at Czech TV in Brno and 300 in Ostrava. At the same time, actors in theaters around the country are continuing to appeal for public support. Hodac has called for a criminal investigation of the rebel staffers, and Bobosikova wants security personnel to remove 20 of them, whom she fired two days ago. But the police say they will not intervene. When Bobosikova now comes to work at Czech TV headquarters, she is accompanied inside by bodyguards in leather jackets. Today, the bodyguards prevented a rebel TV crew from filming her. Deputy Prime Minister and acting Justice Minister Pavel Rychetsky told reporters: "I do not consider it likely that repressive [that is, police] units would interfere in a legal-labor dispute." All the government can do at this point, Rychetsky says, is to prepare a bill amending the law on Czech public TV and redefining the nature and authority of the Broadcasting Council to make it a truly independent body. At present, the parliament-appointed council, one of several media regulation bodies, is in the hands of the ruling Social Democrats and their partners in opposition, the ODS. Rychetsky met last night with Hodac and the rebel employees. But he failed to win the employees' support for his proposal for a one-month truce, during which Hodac would remain on the job and the employees would be allowed to continue working while legislation is prepared for passage. A member of the employees' crisis command, anchorman Petr Kopecky, explains: "If we were to agree to some annulment of the dismissals and to Hodac remaining for the time being, we would be throwing away everything that we have done so far."