The TV NOVA debacle – It’s about us
A recent international arbitration ruling concluded that the Czech Republic, via dealings involving TV NOVA, had cheated its American investors. The fine was 353 million USD – 10,000 Czech crowns for every Czech. This case is not about a single TV station. In size and substance, it represents the true state of affairs in today’s Czech Republic. At the same time, if the affair can be successfully investigated and the culprits brought to light, it will represent a huge positive milestone.
A bit of perspective
Czechoslovakia’s first president, T.G. Masaryk, said it take 50 years for democracy to take root. For that to happen, old totalitarian habits, such as political control of the media, must disappear. But can this completely happen after a mere 13 years? Our politicians still form a relatively homogenous group, with media control as a top priority. Our citizenry remains fragmented organizationally and morally. And our media often ensures survival through cooperation with dominant political structures.
Full democracy has taken time in other countries as well. Early 20th-century America was tainted by severe corruption, with families like Rockefeller and Kennedy making their first million through illegal activities. We too have our famous-name equivalents: Viktor Kožený and Vladimír Železný.
Though fired as director from NOVA several weeks ago, it was Železný who masterminded the “departure” of his American investors. As a result of his involvement, Železný now faces multiple indictments, from tax evasion to fraud. Along with claiming complete innocence, Železny’s defense was to seek immunity by running for election in the Czech Senate (his immunity was later rescinded by a hair). If Železný really is innocent, a legal process in which he could clear his name would provide him with instant status. Instead, Železný’s stating that the international court’s ruling represents “the true price for our sovereignty,” embodies the pinnacle of aloofness and arrogance.
Politicians and the broadcast council
In democratic countries, TV licenses are sold, and not leased, as they are here. This gives our politicians a serious weapon. If one doesn’t broadcast what they like, the license is not extended.
Second, councils such as our Council for Radio and TV Broadcasting should be independent by nature. Our council’s “independence” is a farce, since it’s members are named (and changed) by the active ruling coalition of the day.
Third, Železný served both as Senator as well as director of the country’s largest media engine, in which he himself appeared weekly in a shameless self-serving program. In democracies, such a blatant conflict of interest is unthinkable. However, our politicians tightened their sphincters and respected their party mandates to let him be. In fact, ODS teamed up with the Communist Party to vote against stripping Železný of his immunity.
The political elite
Given that the NOVA affair is our biggest financial scandal to date, it’s inexplicable why Premier Špidla has stood by and allowed the opposition ODS to come up with the idea of an investigative commission, including its structure. The fact that the commission is made up of two politicians from every party is not only non-representational, but also guarantees that its verdict is predetermined according to the party lines of its members.
Attorney General, Marie Benešová, has noted, “it was with horror that I found out that the state prosecutor approved four indictments, none of which have yet even been investigated by the police”. Why has Minister of the Interior, Stanislav Gross removed key authorities in the team investigating Železný, and why is the team continually being “reorganized”? Is Gross under pressure?
After NOVA suddenly cut off reporting about then-ODS chairman Klaus’s alleged Swiss account and villa, relations between Klaus and NOVA drastically improved. ODS’s commitment was reaffirmed in drafting an extension to NOVA’s license till the year 2017. Unfavorable coverage of ODS on NOVA has disappeared.
President Klaus has urged us to create a “thick black line” regarding all misdeeds of the past 13 years. Klaus, like most Czech politicians, views the media and its members purely as to how well they serve him, not democracy. In 2002, the American Committee for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared that Klaus “stifled the independence of the press” in the Czech Republic.
For the NOVA affair to prosper, Železný had to work with the political establishment. However, those who helped him the most are us – the Czech citizenry. Even today, no one forces us to view NOVA’s soft-porn programs, Roman forum “debates” , or NOVA’s news, where reports of freak canaries dominate over serious news fare. In Znojmo, the citizens voted Železný into the Senate, though they knew he was facing multiple indictments. Are we really so uncultured, and can our votes be bought for a beer? Sometimes no, but oftentimes yes. In our country, the differences in appreciating democracy and moral conduct remain large, but the will of the citizenry to improve it remains low. We need those 50 years.
The NOVA affair is proof that post-communist structures and mentalities are alive and well. Any attempt to create “thick black lines” is catastrophic, in that it serves to maintain the moral invalidity imposed by our politicians. That’s why we still pay Železný his Senator’s salary, despite the fact that his property has been confiscated to pay our state debt.
Big men are often toppled by trivial events. When the famous American gangster Al Capone was caught due to the “soft” charge of tax evasion, his empire started to disintegrate. Železný’s is a similar case – he needs to be brought to trial.
Regarding the Broadcast Council, the solution is easy: staff it with respected authorities without any political connections. The rest will take care of itself.
In Parliament, the Investigating Committee should expand to include independent members with a majority say. Three issues need examination: what are the facts in the NOVA-CME split? Who was responsible for overseeing the split, and did they fulfill their responsibilities? Are there differences between Czech and European law regarding media, and did the Czech side cite these differences in its defense at the International Court? Getting these answers should lead to names. If so, the Czech Republic will have realized a huge precedent for democracy: accountability.
Finally, we need to stop lumping citizens into a single group. Znojmo’s citizens voted for Železný; in Prague, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. It’s up to the second half to start to convince the first. As Železný said: “if we look for a culprit, we’re only giving the opposition perfect ammunition.” He’s correct. It’s time we root out the culprits and make them pay. Until then, we are the ones who are paying.
Martin Jan Stránský
Physician and publisher
This article originally appeared in The Prague Post
Vladimír Železný has been found guilty by international arbitration of wrongful business practices with his investors, CME. He has been fined and has had his property confiscated on a worldwide basis. Despite this, he continues to draw his salary as a Senator at Czech taxpayer’s expense. He is also facing the following indictments: underpayment of taxes from the years 1995 to 1998 in the amount of 50 million CZK, import duties and tax evasion regarding the importation of works of art, and an attempt to shortchange creditors via the willful transfer of monies and property to the Astrona foundation in Luxembourg. He is also suspected of forging signatures and dates on the aforementioned transactions
|The New Presence||autumn 2003|
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