When some 100,000 czechs packed into Prague's historic Wenceslas Square on a cold and damp evening last week, they were giving voice to what has become a peculiarly Czech prerogative. Since the Prague Spring of 1968 and through the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Czechs have taken personal responsibility for battling tyranny. The opponent this time, moreover, seemed disturbingly familiar. Attempts by the two ruling parties to install an unpopular new director of state television with a history of meddling in the content of newscasts smacked of the bad old days of communism. "We are here to show the government that we are not puppets," said Karel Papousek, a retired bank clerk who joined the protest. "What's happening now is a display of autocratic leadership that can't go on."
The standoff in the Czech capital is not just about free speech. Also at issue is raw politics, specifically a nonaggression pact between the governing and main opposition parties, one result of which is an apparent agreement to sacrifice media independence for their mutual advantage. The thousands who turned out over the past several weeks were objecting not only to hamfisted government interference in TV news but also to a political culture that they feel is failing to perform. Even the widely admired Vaclav Havel, the writer and Czech President who has called the appointment of a new TV director a violation of the "spirit and sense" of Czech broadcast law, is himself locked in a political struggle with the former Prime Minister and opposition leader Vaclav Klaus (a contest known locally as the Battle of the Vaclavs). For many Czechs, so-called big party politics, rather than the most recent stab at controlling the news, is what propelled them into the streets. Says Monika Pajerova, spokeswoman for Thank You, Now Leave, a protest movement opposed to the leading parties' cozy relationship: "This is a good test of our new democracy, a milestone in efforts to defend ourselves against the overgrown influence of the political parties."
By week's end, the standoff was nearing a denouement. With some 20 journalists holed up in increasingly squalid conditions in their offices, the ostensible focus of the protests, newly appointed TV director Jiri Hodac, suffered what doctors called a stress-related "collapse of the metabolism" and was rushed to hospital. His key supporters in Klaus' party seemed to be backtracking, and there was talk of new laws to prevent future meddling.
The Czech Republic is in good company in its troubles. State interference with press freedom has become a lightning rod for public frustration with governments across Central and Eastern Europe, even for the so-called good performers. In neighboring Hungary, critics of the government led by Viktor Orban say the Prime Minister's party has barred political opponents from a board of directors overseeing public TV and radio, a move that drew criticism from the E.U., Britain and the U.S. In 1999 in nearby Slovakia, a change in leadership led to a purge of journalists loyal to authoritarian leader Vladimir Meciar at the state TV station. The dispute turned hostile, and the journalists were confined to a cafeteria during working hours for four months before being sacked. "The crisis of Czech
TV is symptomatic of a [region-wide problem] — there is not enough respect for pluralist broadcasting systems," said Aidan White of the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels. "What we are seeing is a political culture refusing to change."
In retrospect, the December appointment of Hodac seems politically foolhardy. Only months earlier, the combative former bbc reporter had resigned as Czech TV's news director after being accused by most of his employees of excessive interference. Those same journalists greeted Hodac's resurrection by occupying the newsroom on Dec. 21. Last week, to give their action legal protection, they called it a strike. "There's been pressure around Czech television in the past, but Hodac's appointment was the last nail in the coffin," said TV anchor Jolana Voldanova, a spokeswoman for the rebel journalists. "His appointment was a clear signal that the ruling parties want to seize control of TV."
In his first official act, Hodac appointed as news director Jana Bobosikova, who had recently served as an adviser to Vaclav Klaus. She quickly fired 20 employees (though they have yet to accept their dismissal notices). Later Hodac took the unprecedented step of shutting down all ground-based broadcasting in order to prevent a group of rebel journalists from airing their own news. That decision, which for many Czechs stirred uncomfortable memories of the Soviet era, also breached contracts with the station's advertisers. The dueling broadcasts further muddied the waters. Opposing accounts of the Wenceslas Square protest, for example, cited crowds of "over 100,000" (the rebel broadcast) vs. "tens of thousands" (the replacement journalists' version). While the rebel broadcast said Czechs turned out for the cause, the replacement anchor, Dusica Zamova, said only "many people came to get a better understanding of the situation."
Speaking to Time shortly before his collapse, Hodac insisted that it was the occupying journalists who were breaking the law, not he. "State TV is a sacred thing for me," he insisted. "It's a truly impossible situation when unauthorized people control the newsroom." He denied allegations that he was in the pocket of politicians and said meeting with them was "part of this job. Nothing wrong with it." Hodac said his appointment was unrelated to his ties to Klaus' party. "Politicians all over the world express their ideas about how media should function."
The real problem may be an official oversight mechanism that invites abuse. The council running state TV is appointed by parliament. Directors' independence is supposed to be ensured by their five-year terms, but parliament has repeatedly stepped in to show its displeasure. Of eight serving directors today, seven are ruling party loyalists. A new amendment due for a vote later this week might help. It would remove political parties from the appointment process and open council sessions to the public. Parliament is likely to okay the measure. But old habits die hard, and the habit of power hardest of all. Also the Czechs' new habit of giving their politicians fits: another mass protest is planned for this week.
— With reporting by Frantisek Bouc and Tereza Tomickova/Prague and Angela Leuker/Vienna