Turning on the evening news 20 years ago, many Czechs were confronted instead with a public service announcement telling them the CT1 channel had been hijacked by an unauthorized signal.
The crisis that broke out at Česká televize (CT) in December 2000 saw the public broadcaster’s service interrupted as journalists occupied studios and produced their own news programming. The action protested the appointment of Jiří Hodač – viewed as a stooge of powerful former prime minister and president Václav Klaus – as director of the state-run outlet.
The new chief stuck to his guns for some weeks, appointing Jana Bobošíková – another Klaus-linked journalist – to run alternative news programming and to try to force the rebel broadcasts off the air by jamming them. However, when tens of thousands filled the streets in support of the journalists, demanding CT’s independence be defended, Hodač resigned.
Fast forward two decades and fears are growing that authoritarian forces are again stalking CT. There are spirited denials but the tactics look remarkably similar, while some of the cast are the same.
The worries that the public broadcaster may be under threat spiked in mid-November when the CT Council – a 15-member body elected to exercise public control over the outlet – dismissed its advisory board: the five-member Supervisory Commission. Disagreeing with the move, the president and vice president of the CT Council promptly resigned.
Legal challenges are being prepared but the remaining CT Council rejects the accusations that the dismissal was illegal. Instead, the council has swiftly appointed a new advisory board.
Unlike the council, the commission has access to all documents at CT. It is assumed that evidence is now being gathered that will support accusations that the broadcaster is being run inefficiently or corruptly, a longstanding point of attack against the management.
While populist and extremist political figures have criticized CT’s “biased” news coverage for years, it was during this spring’s election of new council members by the Chamber of Deputies – the lower house of parliament – that the campaign to force a change went properly into gear.
With close to 20 nominees vying for six seats, the ruling Ano party sprang into action behind the scenes, urging MPs to blackball candidates sympathetic to CT’s director general, Petr Dvořák. That helped oust several highly experienced candidates, including Michal Klíma , chairman of the IPI Czech National Committee.
It also opened the door for a trio linked with the radical right, who were elected by MPs from the far-right SPD, the communist KSCM and sections of the governing parties. Led by economist Hana Lipovská, all three have links to Václav Klaus Jr., who hopes his new hard-right Tricolor party will enter parliament at elections scheduled for October.
Lipovská, who is also close to figures surrounding populist president Miloš Zeman, has said that she depends on close confidante Jana Bobošíková for advice regarding her role on the council. Analysts suspect that the president is pulling the strings.
“This looks to be a populist front gathering support from radical parties across the political spectrum”, Vladimira Dvořáková, director of the Masaryk Institute of Advanced Studies at the Czech Technical University, said. “The people that have been elected to the council are very politicized and linked to extremists that seek to control public media. There’s concern that we could move in the direction of Hungary and Poland.”
To the streets
Opponents of these extremist forces have not been slow to sound the alarm.
Although they failed to block the election of Lipovská and her lieutenants, liberal opposition parties have worked to keep the issue in the media. The Senate – the upper house of parliament, which is opposition controlled – has condemned the dismissal of the Supervisory Commission as illegal and called for the responsible members of the council to be sacked.
This has helped put the seemingly mundane workings of the public broadcaster’s administration bodies on the front pages and allowed the threatened director general to plead his case.
“[CT] would become vulnerable the moment it lost its leadership for political reasons”, Dvořák warned as the commission was dismissed.
Civil society groups are also on watch. Protests outside CT’s Prague headquarters have been steered by Milion chvilek, the student-led movement that called over a quarter of a million onto the streets last year to demand Zeman and his sometime-ally Prime Minister Andrej Babiš quit.
Chairman Benjamin Roll says that the pandemic has illustrated the importance of CT’s independence, and that developments across the wider media sector have made its public service remit all the more vital, especially as next year’s elections approach.
“The private media is entirely controlled by oligarchs, so CT is the lone independent voice left”, he pointed out. “And without free media you cannot have free elections.”
“It’s unclear when they might come for Dvořák”, Roll added, “but if he is dismissed it would be a serious attack on Czech democracy. It will be time to go to the streets.”
However, the threat of another Christmas season punctuated by protest could yet see help arrive from an unexpected source.
While Zeman has links with some of the new forces at the broadcaster and has fanned the flames further, the prime minister, Babiš, is quietly watching events. While he does not appear to be orchestrating the plot neither has he done anything but pay lip service to the ideals of public media.
Although a centrist, the billionaire prime minister is a populist with authoritarian tendencies. He exhibits little patience with critical journalists and would no doubt welcome a tamed public broadcaster. However, support for Ano is already sliding due to his handling of the second wave of COVID-19, and he doesn’t need to provoke the electorate any further ahead of the election.
“Czech Television is widely viewed as a cornerstone of democracy and everyone remembers the crisis in 2000”, Jiří Pehe, a political analyst who is director of the New York University in Prague, said. Pehe was an advisor to Czechia’s first president, Vaclav Havel, who keenly supported the rebel journalists 20 years ago. “Babiš knows that a full crisis at CT would provoke huge protests, pandemic or not. And he certainly doesn’t want that. So should it come to the crunch he would definitely step in.”
However, that still leaves the longer term fate of Czech public media hanging in the balance. Before the general election changes the composition of the Chamber of Deputies, another parliamentary vote will install more new members on the CT Council.
Twenty years ago, the crisis at CT forced a rethink of how Czech public media should be run. It was decided at the time that instead of allowing only politicians to nominate and elect the members of the CT Council, the German model, in which nominations from other bodies such as trade unions or educational establishments are invited, should be adopted.
However, as the current fight shows, while political parties remain so heavily involved and with so much at stake, this process still struggles to offer sufficient protection
- Click here to read more from IPI’s new reporting series Media Freedom in Europe in the Shadow of Covid