Plenty of static on Czech TV

SUN JOURNAL

Independence: Striking journalists have seized their newsroom to protest political influence.

January 13, 2001|By Adam B. Ellick | Adam B. Ellick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic - In the past three weeks, Tereza Engelova has left the newsroom of state-run Czech Television only twice. She has eaten in the conference room, slept on the editing suite floor and used a portable toilet in the audio suite.

It is something more than dedication to a story.

Engelova is one of about 40 journalists who went on strike Dec. 23 and seized the TV newsroom to protest the appointment of a new general manager, Jiri Hodac. They accused Hodac of representing the political interests of a former prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, and of compromising the station's independence.

Hodac resigned Thursday, giving ill health as the reason, but the journalists, backed by tens of thousands of demonstrators, have vowed to continue their protests until the station's entire senior management resigns.

The lower house of parliament held an emergency session yesterday to try to end the strike. Deputies of the lower house voted in favor of a measure that would reform the station's management, much as the striking journalists have demanded.

The lawmakers were debating whether to give the supervisory Czech Television Council more independence from political parties. A proposed amendment would also give the lower chamber temporary control over the television station, allowing it to appoint an interim director.

But replacing the management might take as long as a month because any legislation must also be approved by the Senate and President Vaclav Havel, who has sided with the journalists.

Journalists said they had sought Hodac's ouster as a protest against political meddling in television news.

"It's really important to protect democracy, something this country didn't have for such a long time," Engelova says in the editing room that now doubles as her bedroom. "When I heard Hodac was [appointed], I was so angry at the politicians. They're laughing at the whole nation. They think they're gods and no one can stop them."

Hodac once worked for the British Broadcasting Corp., but reporters considered him tainted because he had once applied to work as a spokesman for Klaus, the former prime minister. Worse in the eyes of the journalists, Hodac hired Jana Bobosikova - a former economic adviser to Klaus - as news director.

Hodac was properly appointed by the government's Television Council, a nine-member panel chosen by parliament. But police refused to help him remove striking journalists from the station's newsroom.

Wary of attempts at censorship since communism's collapse in 1989, the Czech public has supported the journalists. About 5,000 people have gathered nightly outside the Czech Television headquarters to watch "pirate" broadcasts produced by the striking journalists on big-screen TVs. Supporters also left food for the strikers, who hoisted it into the newsroom by rope.

Nearly 200,000 people have signed a petition supporting the strikers, and another protest is planned for Jan. 20 unless the entire senior management resigns. The demonstrations have been the largest since the 1989 protests that helped end communist rule.

Until this week, Hodac maintained control over the public airways and produced a nightly news program. At the end of each night's program, the station broadcast a statement saying the journalists' strike was illegal.

Engelova was one of 20 journalists Hodac fired last month. She was counting on Hodac's resignation, because lawyers for the journalists said the journalists worried that reporters could be held responsible for the station's loss of revenue.

"That was my risk," Engelova says. "If I have to pay it back, it will be very sad, but I don't think I'd regret it."

She and her colleagues locked in the station have stayed busy producing news programs and helping organize demonstrations.

Her journalist boyfriend, Michal Kubal, has been there, too. They had planned to take their first vacation together in Brussels, for New Year's Eve. Instead, when midnight neared, they found themselves leaning out a newsroom window, waving to protesters on the street. The journalists counted down to the midnight, and their supporters - champagne in hand - yelled, "We are drinking for you."

"It was the best New Year ever," Engelova says.

Jakub Polachsky, a former Czech Television general director, describes the political pressures on TV journalists as "enormous." He says political leaders have in the past offered bribes for prominent coverage.

Jiri Pehe, a political commentator and former adviser to Havel, says he admires the striking journalists.

"Despite the fact that I'm a political analyst and an insider, I've totally underestimated the devilishness of some of our post-communist politicians," he says. "As citizens, we have to watch them all the time, or they'll try any trick to get their hands on public goods."

He cautions that the TV reporters will find it difficult to report objectively in the future: They will know who supported or opposed the strike.

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