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Czech Republic: End May Be In Sight To Public TV Crisis

The crisis surrounding Czech public TV appears to be heading toward a resolution three weeks after the sudden, controversial appointment of Jiri Hodac as director general. The appointment prompted a labor action among TV employees who suspect Hodac may be subservient to political interests. It also sparked massive public protests over what many fear is increasing political influence over public television. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Prague that Hodac's side in the dispute appears to be backing down.

Prague, 10 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The often amateurish news broadcasts of the so-called "legal" management of Czech public TV have ended, 17 days after public TV's new director general, Jiri Hodac, banned professional news broadcasts produced by striking television employees as "illegitimate."

Hodac and his news director Jana Bobosikova have been their own worst enemies, broadcasting poorly produced and often one-sided newscasts and failing to report on foreign news, sports and weather. For one 24-hour period (27-28 December), they broadcast nothing on either public TV channel except for a message from Hodac asking for unspecified "state organs" to help resolve the situation.

The original news staff blockaded itself in the newsroom and continued to work normally. But their programs were available only on the Internet, to fee-paying satellite users and through some cable services. Nevertheless, their persistence appears to have paid off and Bobosikova yesterday announced her team would cease broadcasting its own news and that the broadcasts of the striking journalists would be aired over normal channels.

The crisis sharply divided both the public and parliament, with speaker Vaclav Klaus and his right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS) denouncing the rebel employees, while the ruling Social Democrats and the opposition Christian Democrats and Freedom Party calling for Hodac's resignation.

MPs were incensed by coverage of their parliamentary resolution last Friday calling on Hodac to resign. Bobosikova's team ignored the call to resign in the Saturday news shows and instead concentrated on the resolution's confirmation that Hodac's appointment was legal.

News coverage was further hampered yesterday after Bobosikova's team was forced to move out of the rented facilities it was using and was reduced to recording its news broadcasts in a hotel room.

Late last night, Bobosikova appeared on the air to announce her team would no longer be broadcasting.

"At this moment, I have exhausted all managerial, human and technical possibilities to ensure news from substitute premises and substitute equipment."

The rebel staffers initially weren't sure what to make of her statement and spent another night in sleeping bags on the floor of the newsroom.

The strike leader, reporter Adam Komers, maintained his hard-line stance but opened the possibility of talks.

"The crisis committee of Czech Television welcomes [the fact] that point two of the striking employees is to be fulfilled. This opens the way for possible negotiations about the remaining demands contained in the strike declaration."

Another rebel reporter, Marek Vitek, says Bobosikova was not making a concession by halting her broadcasts. He says she had no choice but to stop broadcasting because she had neither the manpower nor the technical capacities to ensure that the broadcast looked at least a bit normal.

The right-of-center daily "Lidove noviny" carried the headline today that "Bobosikova has given up".

But the 36-year-old mother of two corrected that impression in an interview with Czech public radio this morning.

"I must stress that I am not resigning and that of course on the one hand I will carry through the personnel changes which I initiated: that is the immediate sackings and lay-offs effective after two months. And on the other hand, I will try to negotiate with those who did not lock themselves in the newsroom and who are behaving normally."

Bobosikova noted the labor action at Czech TV is continuing and staffers are still wearing red and white ribbons pinned to their chests in solidarity.

The rebel staffers continue to demand that Hodac resign. They contend that he lacks the experience to be director and that he is too close to Klaus's ODS.

Hodac has not been in his office for a week after collapsing at home Thursday and being hospitalized until Monday.

The country's foremost legal expert, a former justice minister and ex-Supreme Court chief justice Otokar Motejl, may have sealed the fate of Hodac's team when he told a Hodac interviewer Monday evening that the dispute was not so much a legal issue as one of bad management. Motejl added that he expected the dispute to eventually land on his desk in his new capacity as ombudsman.

Hodac issued a statement last night (Tuesday) saying he wants to resolve the situation at Czech TV "in a civilized manner and according to the law." He said he could be dismissed but that he would not resign.

In Hodac's words: "I see nothing but a political reason motivated by populism for me to resign. I am not a politician. The law is on the side of the legally appointed management of Czech TV and neither artificially provoked tension nor political pressure can destroy this fact."

Last week, President Vaclav Havel, Prime Minister Milos Zeman and both houses of parliament called on Hodac to resign. But none of those calls were binding, and the Council of Czech TV, which appointed Hodac, insists there are no grounds for his dismissal.

The lower house of parliament meets Friday to amend the law on public TV and will debate ways of accelerating Hodac's removal. The amendment on its own, once passed by both houses of parliament and signed by Havel, would require the Czech TV council to give up its authority within 30 days and would create a new, larger council with 15 instead of nine members. The new members would represent social organizations rather than political parties.

The MPs are under public pressure to resolve the dispute quickly and are likely to dismiss Hodac and the entire council and replace them with a temporary overseer. But that will take until at least the end of next week to complete.