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Czech Republic: Parliament Debated TV Crisis

The lower house of the Czech parliament met on Friday (Jan 5) in special session to debate the crisis surrounding public television, involving issues of labor rights, free speech and political interference. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele monitored the debate and sent this report.

Prague, 8 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Friday's Czech parliamentary debate quickly crystallized along ideological lines, with most parties insisting that the issues are freedom of speech, professional competence and the independence of public television.

But Speaker Vaclav Klaus' right-wing Civic Democratic Party, ODS, has backed the embattled director of public television, saying the dispute boils down to respect for the law.

The special session was held to resolve a crisis that started two weeks ago when news employees called a labor action to protest the appointment of Jiri Hodac as the director of public television. The employees allege Hodac has ties to Klaus' ODS.

Since the crisis began, Czech Television viewers have been subjected to two variations of news: one produced by the striking workers and available only on cable, satellite and the Internet; the other by a small team around Hodac that can be seen on normal channels but is of very poor quality and lacking foreign news, sports and weather reports.

The labor action sparked a rally last week that drew as many as 100,000 people to Prague's Wenceslas Square to support the striking workers and to protest what many see as political interference in public television.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman told deputies on Friday that the TV employees who are staging a labor action are entitled to strike but he denounced their leader, reporter Adam Komers, as a "Maoist panic-hysteric."

Zeman said the turnover rate of directors at Czech TV, three in the past year, is high and means in his words, that "something is rotten in the state of Czech Television."

He also said, for the first time, that Hodac should resign.

"I'm for the dismissal of director general Hodac, although originally I was not. I don't want to accuse him of not having a quality broadcast -- because he was prevented [by the TV rebels] from having a quality broadcast. But he committed two basic managerial mistakes in an area that he could influence and in which no one prevented him."

Zeman said the two reasons that Hodac should go are that he halted all broadcasts on both public TV channels for 24 hours last week and that he hired an assistant whose business activities contributed to the failure of a bank (Investicni a postovni banka, IPB). But Zeman insists the issue should not boil down to a single personality.

In contrast, Vaclav Klaus branded the whole dispute "an artificial conflict" intended, he says, to spark a social crisis and possibly unrest with the goal of ensuring political changes.

"It is quite evident that in this scheme it is not about the director of Czech Television. One can hardly say the previous directors were good. The latest one has not had the slightest opportunity to work normally, so to debate today about his competence or incompetence is quite pointless because under no circumstances is this an issue of competence."

Klaus says the worst thing that could happen would be to give into rebellious public TV employees who oppose Hodac and are refusing to negotiate.

Klaus also repeated his wish to see either one or both channels of Czech public TV privatized. Alternatively, he says "a politically [parliamentary] appointed council for public TV" should be established that he says would represent TV license-payers and would remain beyond the reach of political interference. This third variant is the only likely option in the short term.

Parliament is due to meet again next Friday to amend the law on Czech TV to ensure that the regulatory and oversight body, the Czech TV council, in future consists of representatives of social groups rather than political parties.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Pavel Mertlik later rejected Klaus' call to privatize public television, describing this as an attack on civic society. Mertlik compared public media to public universities -- they are public property, but beyond the state's ability to interfere with them.

Klaus also denounced the existing TV Council which appointed Hodac 20 December.

"Today's crisis has clearly shown that the TV council, the Council of Czech Television, is a totally powerless organ which has no influence on the operations and independence of TV, regardless of its professional or political composition."

Klaus reiterated denials that Hodac was ever connected with his Civic Democratic Party.

The leader of the opposition center-right Freedom Union, Karel Kuhnl, himself a former international broadcaster, denounced Hodac as having had what he termed a "catastrophic" 11-year career in the Czech service of BBC world service radio and of being wholly unqualified to run Czech public television.

"Probably most importantly, he showed his sense for cultural values almost as soon as he took over by introducing censorship in the broadcasts, thereby violating the laws of our country. On providing balanced news he showed that his news is, to put it mildly, very one-sided."

Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, a Social Democrat, derided the system that made it possible for the TV council to appoint Hodac.

"The way the current system functions, it enables a small, behind-the-scenes group, by placing two or three people, to take control of public media. That is the whole essence of it."

The deputy prime minister also denounced TV general manager Hodac for incompetence.

"Director Hodac is not capable of handling the situation and even if he did control the situation formally, there would never be the impression that television is in good hands and provides a nonpartisan service. His mandate was unsuccessful and he should make the fundamental decision [to quit]."

Social Democrat Stanislav Krecek compared Hodac's news broadcasts of Wednesday's demonstration by some 100,000 Hodac opponents to those broadcast by the communists during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. A news broadcast during the demonstration made no mention of it and a later broadcast showed pictures of the site an hour before the demo began.