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What the Czech Media Report on NATO, the EU, and IRAQ

Thirteen years after the fall of the communist regime, the Czech media are ranked by international media and freedom watchdogs among the freest in the world. This is true, in particular, about the print media, which have been privatized, and most of them are now owned by foreign investors. Occasional accusations that foreign owners influence the contents of those print media appear, but there is no strong evidence to back such claims. It should be pointed out that both the most important dailies and the largest chain of local newspapers are owned by German companies.

In the electronic media, the situation is different. Czech Television and Czech Radio are public service media organizations that are supervised by boards comprised of independent personalities, who are elected by the Parliament. Private nationwide television stations—TV Nova and Prima TV—are regulated indirectly. They are both supposed to operate under the terms of licenses that are issued by the Board for Radio and Television Broadcasting. However, Nova TV, in particular, has openly violated the terms of its original license, which stipulated that the station be an educational enterprise. In reality, it has become a typical commercial station, relying on cheap entertainment. Its newscasts have reflected this focus.

More seriously, Nova TV has openly pursued own political agenda, despite the fact the Czech broadcasting law bans commercial stations from engaging in political partisanship and propaganda. The Board for Radio and Television Broadcasting failed for many years to remedy this situation; it was finally recalled by the Parliament recently, and a new board is being installed.

Since Nova TV is by far the most influential medium in the country, its views of various political issues are important. As long as the station was financed by its American investors, it tended to be openly pro-American while, at the same time, it was quite anti-EU. The main reason for its anti-EU slant at that point was commercial; the station’s managers (director Vladimir Zelezny, in particular) were unhappy about the EU’s directives that demand that TV stations in member countries broadcast a certain number of works of European provenience.

After Zelezny parted with the American investors at the end of the 1990’s, the station became politically much colder toward the United States; at the same time, it continued being critical of the EU. Looking for political protection during an acrimonious legal dispute with its US investors, it began, on the domestic front, to side openly with some political parties. Currently, the station quite openly supports the largest opposition party—the conservative Civic Democrats. Its views of the EU are, as a result, quite similar to those of the Civic Democrats.

Those views are perhaps best personified by the party’s honorary chairman, President Vaclav Klaus. While Klaus does not oppose Czech membership in the EU, he his very critical of the organization—describing it frequently as bureaucratic, socialist, and suffering from a democratic deficit. He also warns against the dangers of losing our national identity in the EU. His view—as well as that of the Civic Democratic Party—is that the Czech Republic needs to be a member of the EU in order to work against attempts to transform the EU into a political union.

Nova TV mirrors such views quite faithfully in its newscasts and discussion programs. In general, it could be described as being rather euro-skeptic. On the other hand, its opposition against the EU has not gone as far as rejecting government funds to run official spots prepared by the government before the upcoming referendum on EU membership.

Nova TV is more ambivalent when it comes to NATO and the war in Iraq. Some of this ambivalence stems from the fact that on the issue of the Iraqi crisis the Civic Democrats are at odds with President Klaus. While Klaus has been openly opposed to the military intervention, making disparaging comments that upset US officials, his party has fervently supported the USA.

Nova TV’s reporting has been closer to Klaus’s line. During the war (and before), the station gave much prominence to the coverage of anti-war demonstrations and other protests. During the war, it quite often emphasized problems and failures of the US-British campaign. At the same time, it was, just like President Klaus, in a difficult position, because it did not want to appear as siding unambiguously with France and Germany, as that would amount to embracing a more pro-European line.

The best way to describe this most influential medium today is to use notions such as “nationalistic” or “provincial.” It offers a strange blend of impartial information, anti-EU and anti-US attitudes, Czech nationalism, as well as its own propaganda. It should be noted that in its attempts to secure domestic political backing, the station has been giving in the last year much prominence to the Czech Communist Party, which is openly against the Czech Republic’s membership in the EU and NATO, as well as against the war in Iraq.

Czech Television has been much less biased; however, it has not escaped biases completely. In its reporting on the EU, Czech TV has been occasionally quite tendentiously pro-EU, prompting protests from euro-skeptics that it engages not in informing people but, rather, in propaganda.

Those protests have not been entirely justified, however. The inability of Czech TV to present, in a balanced way, both advantages and disadvantages of membership in the EU has to do more with a general lack of knowledge about the EU than with intentional attempts to brainwash people. It also has to do with the fact that among well-known opinion makers, the community of euro skeptics is much smaller than the community of those who want the Czech Republic to become an EU member.

Another problem is that the arguments of both sides are quite often very ideological. This, in fact, has been the most serious problem of the EU debate in all Czech media. It is very difficult to find well-informed, well-argued, fact based articles or commentaries in Czech newspapers or electronic media. This is partly caused by the fact that even the most prominent opinion makers’ knowledge of the workings of the EU is often quite superficial, and partly by the overall character of Czech political culture. Even issues of national interest, such EU membership or Czech stance on the Iraq war, are often used in petty partisan conflicts, and couched in a highly ideological language.

One phenomenon that contributes to this kind of discourse is the fact that in most discussion programs on television and radio stations politicians debate important issues with one another. Very little space is given to non-partisan experts.

The situation is slightly better in the print media, but even there politicians often function as commentators. Moreover, Czech journalism has not completely freed itself from various political affiliations and partisanship, which often seeps even into reporting. In other words, not only commentaries and editorials, but often also would-be impartial reports contain politically-colored opinion.

Most Czech newspapers are, more or less, openly pro-EU and pro NATO. However, since some Czech newspapers openly side with concrete political forces, their political views are often reflected in the coverage of important issues, such as the EU or NATO. For example, both Lidove Noviny and Mlada Fronta Dnes, the right-of-center dailies, are strongly pro-NATO. In reporting and editorializing about the EU, both dailies are pro-EU but give a lot of prominence to “euro-realistic” views, which is a euphemism that the Civic Democrats use to describe their euro-skeptic views.

Interestingly enough, most of such “euro-realistic” debates do not really mirror important discussions in the EU. We will not learn much from such commentaries and reports about the most relevant currents of thought on the future of Europe among mainstream European politicians and intellectuals; we are often confronted with views that in Europe are represented by intellectual and political minorities, for example, parts of the British Conservative Party.

While there is nothing wrong with discussing issues such as whether the EU should completely abandon the project of political union and give up the plans to build common foreign and defense policies, it is not unfortunately the kind of discussion that dominates in Europe. However, since in the Czech Republic the strongest right-of-center party advocates such views, debates that do not really mirror the prevailing political discourse in Europe are quite prominent.

The leftist Pravo, among leading Czech newspapers, has been ambivalent about the American intervention in Iraq. Its views of the roots of terrorism have also differed from other newspapers. The newspaper has put much emphasis on the social roots of terrorism, such as poverty and globalization. Other newspapers, in particular the rightist ones, have sided more with the American view that Islamic terrorism is driven by irrational hatred against the West and, as a threat to democracy and the West in general, it must fought—if need be, militarily.

In general, both the debate on the war with terrorism and the war in Iraq quite faithfully mirror major intellectual and political debates in the West. It is so partly because leading Czech newspapers cooperate with major newspaper syndicates in the West, which means that the most important articles published in the West are either reported or translated. However, most syndicated columns printed in Czech newspapers originate in the United States. This means that we have in the Czech Republic an intense and interesting (if sometimes one-sided) media discussion of the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism but very poor discussion of the EU and its enlargement.

In other words, while newspapers readers can acquaint themselves with the most important Western views of the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, the discussion of the EU tends to be predominantly domestic. Czech newspapers occasionally publish pieces by EU officials, but such articles are quite often perceived as propaganda or are, quite frankly, too boring to read.

The main causes of a lack of quality in the coverage of important issues such as the EU, NATO, or the war against terrorism are a generally low level of professionalism among Czech journalists, a weak civil society, and weak political elite.

An entire generation of journalists was discredited by its collaboration with the neo-Stalinist communist regime in the 1970s and the 1980s. As a result, the Czech Republic has very few middle-age and older journalists whose moral credentials allow them to work in political journalism. The gap has been filled by young people, who are often enthusiastic but inexperienced and often not educated enough.

Another problem is that the Czech civil society has recovered from the forty-years of Communism only very slowly and is till quite weak. As a result, public discourse is dominated by politicians, who couch their arguments in a very ideological language. Moreover, because political parties and various lobbies associated with them have a large degree of influence in the media, various civic groups, which offer alternative views of various issues do not have easy access to the media.

Finally, the Czech political elite are influential but weak, when it comes to adopting clear decisions and accepting responsibility for such decisions. Issues of major importance, such membership in the EU or NATO, are thus often discussed only in the context of party politics—not in the context of formulating and fighting for national interests. At least in this respect, the Czech Republic still has a long way to go before its political culture catches up with some more developed Western democracies.

It’s been also at the center of a major controversy concerning its original American investors, who have sued the Czech state for not protecting their investments and won.

What the Czech Media Report on NATO, the EU, and IRAQ - NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Praha 26. 5. 2003