PRAGUE -- A Czech television station has come under fire after details emerged of an editorial meeting in which journalists were told to report negatively on the migrant crisis or find employment elsewhere.
In a secret recording of the TV Prima meeting last September that has now been released by a watchdog website, the station's news editor can be heard intimating to journalists that refugees should be presented as a risk to the country and anyone who disagreed with this stance should consider finding another job.
The vice chairman of the board of directors of the company that owns the privately owned TV station also weighed in at the meeting, telling reporters in no uncertain terms what was expected of them.
Describing the current situation with refugees as potentially "the beginning of the end" and claiming that he didn't want his 9-year-old daughter to be wearing a burqa in 20 years, Lubos Jetmar told the gathering that he was afraid the migrant crisis "could really be a far bigger problem than we realize."
"There are now a few hundred thousand [migrants] here [in Europe], maybe a million, I don't know," he is heard saying in the leaked recording. "But, as of the moment there are lots of them here, they really won't respect our rules."
Jetmar also told the journalists that once these floods of migrants arrive, they will start "really, really pushing their truth, their way of seeing the world, their religion, and their rules."
Fanning The Flames
The revelations have now triggered a furious debate on how the migrant crisis is being covered in the Czech media.
Like much of Central Europe, media coverage in the Czech Republic has been dominated in recent months by the influx of migrants coming to Europe, many of whom are fleeing conflict in places like Syria and Afghanistan.
Although only 1,525 people actually sought asylum in the Czech Republic in 2015 (compared to 162,000 in Sweden, for example), news reports showing throngs of migrants en route to Western Europe have helped turn the migrant crisis into a divisive issue.
WATCH: Czechs Clean Up After Protests End With Firebombing
A number of ugly incidents recently, such as the firebombing of a refugee help center and the vandalizing of businesses that had signed up to a tolerance campaign, have highlighted how fraught the issue has become. According to one recent survey, more than 70 percent of Czechs now believe all foreigners living in the country represent a massive threat to national security.
“The media has exaggerated the situation,” says Klara Kalibova, a human rights lawyer who also runs the In Iustitia NGO, which works with victims of hate crimes including migrants. “They don’t use actual numbers. They don’t use important sources. They don’t use sources which are reliable. And sometimes they also invite so-called experts on the topic of migration and refugees who are actually not experts -- who are, for example, politicians from some marginal parties who tend to be far right.”
Although Kalibova says many Czech media outlets have been remiss in their reporting, she singles out TV Prima as one of the worst offenders.
The station, which is estimated to have nearly a one-quarter share of the market, has also been criticized by others for its increasingly strident reporting, which some say has helped foster a climate of fear in a society that is not really used to having so many foreigners in its midst.
Now, this leaked recording appears to lend credence to these allegations.
One of the reporters who was at the TV Prima meeting and spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity said that the journalists had been called in because management had been "livid" about two recent reports on the migrant situation. One had been about a volunteer center that was providing food and clothing to refugees and another had debunked rumors that migrants were bringing serious diseases with them to Europe.
‘A Big Mass Of People’
In the weeks after the meeting, the journalist said a lot of material was excised from reports, including interviews with actual refugees that showed the human face of the crisis.
"They didn't want anything that portrayed refugees as human, but which showed them as a big mass of people," the source said. "Essentially, we were told that...we would not be objective, and we would not be balanced. It was a clear breach of the journalistic code of ethics."
Robert Brestan, the editor in chief of Hlidaci Pes, the website that broke the story, said he had also noticed a change in TV Prima’s coverage since the meeting last September.
In his opinion, Prima’s reports on the migrant crisis were “quite balanced” and “normal” until then, but after this editorial meeting “the style of coverage changed a lot.”
According to Brestan, Prima’s news reports have now become more opinion-oriented, which he claims breaks one of the most fundamental rules of journalism.
“It’s a basic, maybe the first, lesson in every journalistic school all over the world,” he says, “that you can’t mix opinion and news.”
‘A Comprehensible, Consistent Approach’
After initially dismissing Hlidaci Pes’s reporting as “speculation,” TV Prima eventually published a statement on the matter. While maintaining that its news coverage was “based on an independent description of events,” the station said the meeting in September was held for the purpose of “establishing a comprehensible and consistent approach to…ongoing refugee issues.”
It also denied that its journalists had been ordered to report negatively on migrants and said Jetmar had been invited by the head of news, Jitka Obzinova, “simply as a person with several years of experience of working in the Arab world.”
According to rights lawyer Kalibova, Prima’s uncompromising approach to the migrant issue is now polluting the entire media space.
“I would say that TV Prima is kind of influential, because the other news [outlets] see that it’s paying off and they’ve changed how they do the news for example,” she says. “They see that the ratings of TV Prima have increased so they’ve changed a little bit the way they report on these topics.”
In its defense, TV Prima has cited a report, published in December by the Czech media’s regulatory body, which it says confirms the “balanced nature” of its news output.
In fact, the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting actually said that TV Prima’s coverage of the migrant situation “unduly ignored the perspective of refugees themselves and instead portrayed them as a problem for Europeans.”
“This significantly Eurocentric attitude could implicitly reinforce negative (antirefugee) attitudes among the Czech public," it added. Nonetheless, the council eventually concluded that it did not believe “such an approach would in itself breach any of the provisions of the Broadcasting Act."
In light of Hlidaci Pes’s revelations, the Czech broadcasting authority says it will conduct another detailed analysis of television news reports concerning the migrant crisis.