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Czech media representatives harassed as EU referendum draws near

Date: 03 June 2003

            On Wednesday, 28th May 2003, Jana Bobošikova – one of the leading television journalists in the Czech Republic, whose weekly political discussion programme on the main independent TV station, TV Nova, is a central event in the political life of the country – received a phone call from the police.  She was told that she was the subject of a criminal investigation for alarming the public and spreading false information and that she must come to the police station for questioning;  if she failed to co-operate with the police, a court order would be issued forbidding her from working as a journalist for an indefinite period.

            Mrs Bobošikova went to the police station the following day, Thursday, 29th May where she was there subjected to an interrogation which lasted more than six hours.  The police were especially interested in an interview which Mrs Bobošikova had conducted with Jan Kasal deputy chairman of the  Christian Democrat Party (KDU-CSL) in May 2002.  The police captain who conducted the interrogation repeatedly asked Mrs. Bobošikova what she had in mind by asking certain questions, and why she chose to ask one particular question at the start of the interview.   Outraged by the brazenly political nature of the criminal cross-examination, Mrs Bobošikova, who was accompanied by her lawyer, replied that, as a journalist, she had the right to ask whatever questions she wanted.

            The cause of the criminal investigation was a complaint which had been received from a woman, a “private citizen” in Olomouc, dated 4th June 2002.  BHHRG, whose representative visited Prague the day after Mrs. Bobošikova’s police interrogation, has seen a copy of this letter.  It is hand-written, and contains numerous, odd errors.  For instance, it breaks off at one point in mid-sentence, while the same sentence is repeated later on in the text.  In other words, the letter seems to have been copied out rather clumsily from a pre-written text.  When the lady citizen submitted further material to bolster her complaint in December that year, she appended a typed transcript of the Bobošikova interview.  At the bottom of the page is the electronic address of the internal mailing system of the Czech Parliament:  the “private citizen” obviously has good connections inside the political machine.  Indeed, it looks suspiciously like she was put up to it.

            In the offending first question, Mrs Bobošikova had asked  Mr. Kasal to respond to allegations that the Christian Democratic  Party (KDU-CSL)   is connected to the German Expellees Association and, in particular, to the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft which campaigns for the revocation of the Beneš decrees.  These decrees were passed in 1945 and 1946 to give effect to the decision taken by the Allies at Postdam in 1945 to transfer the ethnic German population of  Czechoslovakia into Germany.  The Sudeten Germans, it will be recalled, were agitated by Hitler to campaign for their “repatriation to the Reich”, which duly happened when, following the Munich agreement in September 1938 between Germany, Italy, Britain and France,  Nazi Germany used the Sudeten German question as a pretext for occupying the whole of Bohemia and Moravia, and for establishing a “protectorate” on the territory of the Czech half of the former Czechoslovakia. 

Considering that the Sudeten question was instrumentalised to make Czechoslovakia a victim of Hitlerite aggression, and that it is therefore part of the origins of the Second World War, it is understandable if many Czechs feel uncomfortable that contemporary Austrian, German and European Parliament politicians have reopened the issue now.  Historical memories aside, the revocation of the decrees would inevitably lead to a flood of claims for property restitution, or for compensation, because the expropriations of 1945-1946 might then retrospectively be declared illegal.  The Czech situation is therefore somewhat comparable to the situation of Israel when faced with the demand for a “right of return” for the descendants of Palestinians driven out of their homes in 1948.  In the Czech case, the Germans might not physically return to live in the Sudetenland;  but the cost of paying compensation to the descendants of 3,000,000 Sudeten Germans would be far more than the Czech state could sustain.  It would be a mortal blow to the state’s finances.

Yet many people in the European Union have called for exactly this outcome.  In April 1999, the European Parliament called on the Czech Republic to rescind the decrees, thereby implying that their revocation should be a condition for EU membership.  Austrian politicians like the Governor of Carinthia, Jörg Haider, did campaign, in 2001 and 2002, for Austria to veto Czech accession to the EU if the decrees were not rescinded.  The leader of the Sudeten Germans’ Association, the Landsmannschaft, the Christian Democrat MEP, Bernd Posselt, has said that admitting the Czech Republic to the EU with the Beneš decrees still in force would have an effect on the European system comparable to that on a computer of importing a virus. 

The row over the Sudeten German question rumbled on throughout 2002, and led to sharp exchanges of words between the then Czech prime minister, Miloš Zeman and Jörg Haider.  The row was also discussed by the Austrian and Czech presidents, Thomas Klestil and Václav Havel.  The Christian Democrat candidate for the post of Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Bavarian prime minister, Edmund Stoiber, stoked up the flames even further when he demanded, in the strongest terms, that the Beneš decrees be revoked.  In May, moreover, the Bishop of Olomouc, said Mass at the annual meeting of the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft in Nuremberg.  Since the  KDU-CSL is usually considered to be  close to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Bohemia and Moravia, and since the issue was very much in the news, it was entirely natural for Mrs. Bobošikova to raise it in the interview.  The notion that such a matter is an appropriate subject for a criminal investigation is grotesque.

Alas, this is not the only example of intimidation of the independent media by the pro-EU government of the Czech Republic.  On 15th May, the Director of TV Nova, the businessman and Senator, Vladimir Železny, was dismissed from his post with one hour’s notice.  BHHRG’s representatives have  interviewed Senator Železny twice before[1] and met him again the day after Mrs. Bobošikova’s visit to the police station.  Mr Železny  alleged that he had been sacked on the direct orders of the Interior Minister, Stanislav Gross.  If true, this would confirm that the Czech authorities are guilty of gross interference in media freedom in the Czech Republic.  Mr Železny also confirmed that the government had demanded that TV Nova broadcast, for free, a series of pro-European advertisements in the run-up to the referendum on EU accession which is to be held on 13th and 14th June.  In both cases, the threat was made, according to the new majority owners of TV Nova, that these were conditions set by the government if TV Nova was to keep its broadcasting licence.  Mr. Železny was famous, among other things, for his weekly discussion programme, “Call the Director”, in which members of the public could ring up and discuss things with him on air.  This programme was axed as soon as Mr. Železny ceased to be the director of the company.

The result of these actions is that there is now a  massive imbalance,  both in the electronic media and in the press, in favour of the “Yes” camp in the forthcoming EU referendum.  Even though a major political party, the Communist Party of Bohemia & Moravia, (KSČM)  is against EU accession (it polled 18% in last June’s elections) and even though the main opposition party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) tends be critical of the terms of EU accession, there is little outlet for euro-critical views in the media of the Czech Republic.  Opinion polls show that Czechs are among the least euro-enthusiastic people in the accession countries.  The political class, especially the government, therefore has a strong motive for wishing to silence the voices of those, like Mr. Železny, who favour open debate about EU membership.  This means that  the political “campaign” in the run-up to the EU vote can in no way be called democratic, since the main media outlets are all unashamedly biased in favour of EU entry, while euro-critical voices are marginalized.

As it happens, the questions Mr. Železny asks are directly related to the ones for which Mrs. Bobošikova was so brutally harassed by the police.  Elected Senator for the Southern Moravian region of Znojmo last October, Mr. Železny has taken a strong professional interest, as a member of the Senate Committee on European Integration, in the impact  EU membership will have on Czech agriculture.  Land in the Znojmo region, which is on the border with Austria, is overwhelmingly agricultural:  71% of the region’s income comes from farming.  The fields there are properly husbanded, in stark contrast to the collapsed state of agriculture in neighbouring Poland.  In fact, Czech agriculture was one of the few genuinely efficient parts of the Czechoslovak  economy at the end of the Cold War.  4.8% of the population produced twice the country’s agricultural needs, and exports were strong.  Indeed, the country could have produced up to five times its own needs.  This compares with Poland, where 21% of the population is required to provide for the needs of the population.  The quality of agricultural produce was high, and the sector was genuinely competitive.

As soon as the Berlin Wall came down, Austrian farmers, whose land is  adjacent to the farms in Southern Moravia – the whole area, on both sides of the border, forms a continuous, gently undulating plain – realised  Czech agriculture could be a serious competitor.  Wine in Znojmo is produced for about € 1.10 whereas  over the border in Austria the  cost is  € 2.40. Onions, for example,  cost about twice as much in Austria (17 Czech crowns per kilo) as they do in Znojmo (8 Czech crowns per kilo) but the price of Austrian onions is in fact only 1.8 Czech crowns as Austrian farmers receive export subsidies.  Consequently, competitive Czech growers are forced out of business by EU subsidy.  Although Czech agriculture can feed the country many times over, 24% of food now sold in the Czech Republic is imported.  As soon as the Austrians and Germans woke up to the competition they faced from their Czech neighbours, the European Union imposed import quotas on Czech products like sugar when the country signed its accession agreement with the EU.

As if this were not enough, in March 2002, the European Commission announced that the candidate countries  would receive only 25% of the subsidies paid to farmers in the existing EU member states, and that this state of affairs would last not for a couple of years, as had been originally suggested, but instead until 2012.  This extraordinary deal was presented to the candidate countries on a “take it or leave it” basis, and they took it.  The consequences will be dire.  When the Czech Republic joins the EU in 2004,  the income of a Czech farmer on one side of the ditch which separates his country from Austria will receive one quarter of the income of that of  his Austrian neighbour on the other side.  This imbalance will last for eight years.  If the transition period had been short, Czech farmers might have been able to make ends meet.  But, over an eight year period, it is inevitable that they will be driven out of business.  Once local  farming has collapsed, the price of land will fall – and Austrian farmers will, in all probability, buy it up for a song.  So even without the formal revocation of the Beneš decrees, there is every possibility that the Czechs will find themselves, once again, second-class citizens in their own country.  And one of the few people raising this important and potentially explosive issue was Mr. Železny, who is now silenced.

Mr. Železny’s dismissal comes after a bitter two-year row between himself and his former business party, the American cosmetics heir,  Ronald Lauder.  Lauder, a Republican Party fundraiser and former US ambassador to Austria, joined up with career diplomat, Mark Palmer, to create Central European Media Enterprises (CME) in 1991.  The company bought TV stations in nine transition countries, but its part ownership of TV Nova was the only thing which made any money.  Indeed, TV Nova is the most profitable television station in the whole of central Europe.  For various reasons, the ownership structure of TV Nova was complicated because the broadcasting licence was held by another company, controlled by Mr. Železny, while CME was the service provider to it.  The suit was brought when Mr Železny, the director and licence holder, started to run TV Nova without CME.

In addition to the legal battle between Mr. Železny and Mr. Lauder, a suit brought under  Swedish arbitration, Mr. Lauder also sued the Czech Republic under Dutch law in The Netherlands for failing to protest his investments.  The Czech Republic lost this suit in March and was ordered to pay some $350 million in compensation to the American investor.  The government has heaped blame on Mr. Železny for this, saying that the wealthy businessman has cost every Czech family 1,000 Czech crowns.  BHHRG was able to ascertain that this government campaign against Železny has been successful, and that many Czechs feel angry that they are picking up the tab for one of the richest men in the country.  But following the loss of the suit, Mr. Železny has claimed, both in public and to BHHRG, that the Czech government failed to produce 70 key documents in its own defence.  He has claimed that they show, among other things, that the broadcasting licence was offered to CME on numerous occasions.  His belief and claim, in other words, is that the government may have deliberately engineered its own defeat in order to have a pretext for turning on him and getting him sacked as director of his own company.

The dismissal of the Mr. Železny was made possible because, last autumn, majority ownership of TV Nova passed to a group of financiers called PPF.  BHHRG was able to ascertain from other sources that this group is currently engaged in delicate negotiations with the Czech government over a large and potentially lucrative financial transaction involving the repurchase of bad debt bought from the failing state sector by the government during the privatisation process.  Now that privatisation is coming to an end, this deal represents one of the last chances to make a lot of money quickly and easily in the Czech Republic:  in future, investors will have to devote their time to the more humdrum task of investing in companies that make things and provide services. But the fact that PPF wants something from the government may have made it unduly susceptible to political pressure on the independent TV station, and this has been shown to be the case with the demand that Železny be sacked and that pro-EU ads be broadcast.

            When Lauder won the case against the Czech Republic, CME announced that it had hoped for an ever larger settlement, but that it was prepared to continue working with the Czech government to find a solution.  The speculation in Prague is, therefore, that the police harassment of Mrs Bobošikova is part of an overall assault on this powerful independent media voice, and that the outcome will be that TV Nova will be returned to the control of Mr. Lauder.  This would have the double advantage of saving the Czech taxpayer a hefty bill, and of handing the government a compliant TV station:  as a creation of the American establishment and the State Department, CME is hardly going to show the independence of spirit that TV Nova had under Mr. Železny.   The task of handing the licence to Mr. Lauder will have been made all the easier by the fact that, earlier this year, a new broadcasting council was elected which has no opposition party representatives among its members.  Unusually, the parliamentary vote was public, enabling the prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, to see how his deputies were voting.

            Two years ago, Mr. Spidla played a key role in the crisis which engulfed the appointment of a new director of the state-owned Czech Television.[2]  (See BHHRG’s report on the Czech TV saga at the time.)  Then, huge demonstrations were organised in Prague to protest against “political interference” in the state TV.  It was alleged, falsely, that the new director, George Hodač, was a stooge of the then leader of the opposition and present president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus.  Politicians from the small Freedom Union Party, like Jan Ruml,  slept overnight  in a sleeping bag in the headquarters of Czech TV, to create a sense that the TV station was braving a siege from hostile political forces.  The whole miserable and entirely artificial charade lasted several weeks until Hodač was chased out of office.  Protests resounded around the world, from governments and NGOs like the Committee to Protect Journalists.  Now, by contrast, the silence is deafening, and the independent media in the Czech Republic is being intimidated and  silenced without so much as a squeak of protest from the international human rights  establishment.