By: Andrew Yurkovsky
The Czech Republic has eight national newspapers
with a combined circulation of nearly 1.8 million sp.
JOURNALISTS IN THE newly independent Czech Republic are discovering that influencing the political process in a free-market democracy may be as difficult a task as overcoming the ideological control of the old Communist regime.
Almost five years after the Velvet Revolution, many reporters are dissatisfied by what they perceive as their lack of clout.
By Western standards, Czechs are still voracious readers, despite the inroads made by television news. A country of 10 million people, the Czech Republic has eight national newspapers with a combined circulation of nearly 1.8 million.
Readers enjoy a wide selection of dailies and weeklies, from the flashy tabloid Blesk to the no-nonsense Lidove Noviny, from the unapologetically Communist Halo Noviny to its right-wing rival, Necenzurovane Noviny.
To what extent, however, do readers ? especially the politicians among them ? pay attention and respond to what they read?
If political scandals are the measure, the answer is not enough, according to Jiri Kryspin, a deputy editor at Lidove Noviny. Many of his colleagues agree.
Estimating that there were 30 political scandals last year, Kryspin puts the success rate at a mere 10%. The difficulties facing journalists include efforts by politicians to dismiss criticism as politically motivated, and the belief among officials that they are not accountable.
Says Kryspin: “Journalists often touch only the surface of scandals and do not get to the bottom of things . . . . It’s difficult to get beneath the surface, and the state of society is such that the use of heavy weapons is required to get a politician to resign. It has to be a very big scandal. In Germany, suspicion alone is sufficient for someone to be removed from politics.”
Among last year’s three journalistic triumphs, Kryspin includes the case of Jiri Setina, the controversial prosecutor general. Setina resigned from his post last September, a little more than a month after Rude Pravo, formerly the Communist Party organ and now a leader in investigative journalism, accused him of improperly obtaining a government apartment. As other newspapers launched their own inquiries, the list of alleged improprieties lengthened, prompting politicians to join journalists in calling on Setina to step down.
Jana Petrova, spokeswoman for Premier Vaclav Klaus’ ruling Civic Democratic Party, claims that personnel changes in the government are hindered by the lack of qualified specialists and the need for consensus among coalition partners.
“If the political situation were more stable, if there were no fear that things could revert to the way they were, or that an opposition party would try to change things, then newspapers would act to greater effect,” Petrova says. “And politicians would certainly resign, because there would always be some kind of replacement.”
But the head of the journalism department at Prague’s Charles University, Barbora Osvaldova, believes that her colleagues greatly underestimate the effect of what they write. Regardless of the average citizen’s claims of indifference, interest in politics remains high, a fact reflected in newspaper circulation figures that she considers large in comparison with those elsewhere in Europe.
“It doesn’t happen right away, that someone writes, ‘This person is bad,’ and the next day he resigns,” says Osvaldova. “But, little by little, the truth will come out. I think in the last four years our journalists have done a lot of work.”
Though reporters and editors may downplay the extent to which politicians react to their criticisms, in other ways the press is undeniably influential, serving as a forum for debate about economic and political change.
The decision in 1992 to divide Czechoslovakia into two separate states is, perhaps, the most obvious example. In fact, Pavel Rychetsky, a lawyer and a former vice premier in the Czechoslovak government, believes that a large part of the blame for the breakup rests on the shoulders of journalists.
“The [politicians] carried out this elimination of the state without the citizens, without a referendum, and that could happen only because the mass media began to support it, because the mass media, especially the right-wing newspapers, stirred up nationalism, racism, xenophobia,” Rychetsky charges.
Martin Komarek, deputy editor of the centrist Mlada Fronta Dnes, says that despite the poor record on political scandals and a declining readership, the influence of the press has actually increased since the period immediately after the 1989 revolution.
At that time, he claims, former Communist papers like his own had not regained their credibility, and Lidove Noviny, published underground by dissidents before the revolution, had not yet learned how to criticize President Vaclav Havel.
Politicians and party spokesmen, for their part, offer a mixed appraisal of the press. They agree on one point, however: There is room for improvement.
Shortcomings, they say, include insufficient education, which leads journalists to take the claims of politicians at face value, and a tendency to politicize rather than report facts.
Among the prescriptions offered by journalists for fostering a more influential press are improved training, including exposure to foreign models, and greater diligence in pursuing allegations of wrongdoing.
?(Yurkovsky is a freelance writer) [Caption]